Tenants' rights advocates demonstrate in front of the Edward W. Brooke Courthouse, Wednesday, January 13, 2021, in Boston. The protest was part of a national day of action calling on the incoming Biden administration to extend the eviction moratorium initiated in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Lack of broadband access, poor information dissemination about available protections and bad landlord practices create housing risks for many rural Americans. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Moratoriums on evictions put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in September may not be enough to save millions of Americans, including those in rural areas, from evictions in the coming months. 

Limited access to broadband internet, information chaos and ill-will on the part of some landlords could mean those in rural areas would face evictions despite legal protections that could save them. 

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, many court systems have switched to virtual meetings via Zoom to cut down on transmission of the virus. In some rural areas, that can present a problem, said Kendall Lewellen, managing attorney at the Center for Arkansas Legal Services. 

For tenants who don’t have internet access, having hearings in person could be a double-edged sword, Lewellen said. On the one hand, they are able to plead their case to a judge. But on the other hand, it is more difficult for them to get a lawyer. 

“Courts in metropolitan areas generally use Zoom for eviction hearings although very few of those cases are getting to the stage where there is a hearing,”  Lewellen said. “Courts in rural areas generally have eviction hearings in person.” 

Zoom hearings can make it easier for legal aid and pro bono attorneys from metropolitan areas to serve rural clients, without having to drive long distances for hearings, Lewellen said. 

On December 27, former President Donald Trump signed the Omnibus Spending Bill, which included a second set of stimulus relief. The bill also extended the CDC’s eviction moratorium, which was set to expire at the end of December, through January 31, 2021.

But many people don’t know that, Lewellen said. 

“Many Arkansas landlords continue to bring tenants to court for evictions over nonpayment of rent despite the CDC order,” Lewellen said. “It is my understanding … that evictions are still being filed in Arkansas in similar numbers to this time last year, even though there is a federal eviction moratorium and we are in the middle of a pandemic.”

Lewellen said that in Arkansas eviction proceedings are inconsistent across the state. 

“Arkansas actually has three different eviction methods [two civil proceedings, one criminal fines and fees if the tenant fails to vacate after 10 days’ notice],” she said.  

Lynn Foster, with Arkansans for Stronger Communities, writes a monthly eviction report for the state. In it, she details what she says are the illegal actions landlords are taking when they decide to evict tenants. 

In one case highlighted in the report, a landlord refused to accept $700 in July because the rent for the apartment for the single mother of two was $750. The next month, August, the manager of the apartment complex refused to accept the full $750 because the landlord had directed the manager to refuse all rent payments from the tenant. 

Despite filing a CDC declaration with the court to avoid eviction, and despite getting rental assistance from two different agencies, the landlord and building manager refused to accept her rent or speak to her about her willingness to repay it. 

“The CDC’s order prohibits landlords or others with equivalent property rights from evicting ‘covered persons’ from residential properties,” Foster wrote. 

“’A covered person’ is one who has met certain conditions. A tenant certifies by signing the declaration that she gives to her landlord that she is telling the truth. A landlord who evicts a tenant after that tenant has given him a declaration is committing a federal crime punishable by fines and/or prison. This order clearly applies to landlords seeking civil evictions, failure to vacate charges, and illegal self-help evictions.”

Lewellen said she had never heard of any landlord being charged criminally in Arkansas for the illegal evictions.

However, Foster said, some tenants don’t seem to know that the CDC moratorium and its protections exist. 

“A significant number of tenants seem to be unaware of the CDC moratorium or the requirement that tenants file a declaration with their landlord,” she wrote in her report. 

“In September, 42 tenants delivered a CDC form to their landlords. Another 22 tenants alleged facts in their responses that would seem to squarely place them under the protection of the CDC moratorium, but apparently did not deliver the form. In October, the number of tenants in these two categories was 43 and 36 respectively. In November, these two numbers were 46 and 16.”

According to research by Stout, Risius and Ross, a global advisory firm specializing in investment banking; disputes, compliance, and investigations; and management consulting, among other things, between 21,000 and 43,000 Arkansas households are facing evictions when the moratorium ends on January 31. Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the firm compiled a nationwide map showing what the eviction picture looks like across the country. 

Nationally, between 2.4 and nearly 5 million households face uncertainty around whether they can pay the next month’s rent or face eviction actions. The Census Bureau’s Household Plus Survey shows that three of the top five states with the highest level of housing insecurity are in the South. 

In Louisiana, nearly 16% percent of the adult population is either not current on their rent or mortgage payments, or have slight to no confidence that their household can pay the next month’s rent or mortgage on time. Others in the top five are Delaware at 15.2%, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania at 13.2%, and Mississippi at 12.8%. 

“Court-ordered evictions are way down this year, maybe 30-40% of what they were last year in 2019,” Black Hawk County, Iowa, Sheriff’s Office’s Captain Reinhard Boeschen said in an email interview. But nonetheless, evictions continue.

“The courts are still issuing the orders for us to execute, because some tenants, for whatever reasons, are not declaring under the CDC moratorium. It is up to the tenant to take the initiative and ‘declare.’ It is not automatic.”

In an average year, he said his office can expect 500-600 evictions per year. Boeschen said tenants in his state have to prove that they have been affected by Covid-19 in order to receive the protection the moratorium offers. 

“The way I understand the CDC moratorium, it is only for those types of evictions involving non-payment of rent.  Not for other reasons,” Boeschen said. “I have heard of some landlords letting tenants go further than normal in how far behind they are in rent…and some landlords are losing at the court hearings and the evictions are postponed due to Covid and the CDC moratorium.” 

The best thing tenants facing eviction can do, Lewellen said, is to call for legal help through legal aid societies across the country. At Stanford University, researchers have created a national website that breaks down eviction information by jurisdiction. 

Lewellen also suggested that tenants can contact their local community action agency to apply for rental assistance, or to contact their local housing authority and the U.S. Department of Agriculture for information about income-based housing in the area. 

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