Evicted, Despite a Federal Moratorium: ‘I Do Not Know What I am Going to Do’
Many local governments and courts were not sure how to apply the extension of the protections, and dockets in some places overflowed with evictions.,
Evicted, Despite a Federal Moratorium: ‘I Do Not Know What I am Going to Do’
Many local governments and courts were not sure how to apply the extension of the protections, and dockets in some places overflowed with evictions.
Tawana and Akeem Smith with their children Maliyah, 9, Akeelia, 7, Mya, 5, Amirah, 2, and Malakai, 12, in their Las Vegas home. The Smith family has faced eviction several times since the start of the pandemic.Credit…Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times
LAS VEGAS — Inside Courtroom 8A of Las Vegas Justice Court last week, the benches were packed with renters and landlords battling over evictions that continued at a brisk pace despite a last minute, two-month extension of the federal protections meant to keep people in their homes.
Vanessa Merryman, 41, was among the tenants ordered to leave her apartment. “I have never been homeless in my life,” she said through tears, slouched on a metal bench outside the courtroom as the scorching Las Vegas sun beat through the windows. She was shellshocked that the court session that upended her life lasted all of 15 minutes. “I do not know what I am going to do,” she said. “It is really scary.”
The federal moratorium on evictions — combined with billions of dollars in rent subsidies — was supposed to avert the scenario of millions of Americans being turned out of their homes after they lost their jobs during the pandemic and were unable to afford their rent.
Yet despite these efforts, many local governments and courts were not sure how to apply the extension, and desperate tenants continued to flood local government websites seeking rental assistance that was usually slow in coming.
“The lay of the land has been confusing at every level, not just to tenants, but also to landlords, court personnel and judges,” said Dana Karni, manager of the Eviction Right to Counsel Project in Houston. “While the extension of C.D.C. protections is much needed, the confusion that surrounds its existence waters down its impact.”
In extending the moratorium last week, the Biden administration hinged it to high local coronavirus infection rates — the idea being that protection was warranted in areas where the virus was surging. Clark County, including Las Vegas, was among hundreds of counties that meet the criterion for high infection rates, but the C.D.C. guidelines gave some leeway to judges to instead apply state laws, which at times allowed for evictions.
For many tenants, it was too late anyway. With state moratoriums expiring and the expectation that the federal guidelines would be gone soon, court dockets like those in Las Vegas overflowed with eviction cases. Tenants had to actively file for protection under the C.D.C. measures, but many of them were unaware of that. And as eviction proceedings rolled forward, some landlords won, citing reasons other than nonpayment of rent for seeking to remove tenants.
More than 1.4 million Americans expect to be evicted in the next two months, according to a survey completed by the U.S. Census Bureau in early July. For another 2.2 million people, the prospect is “somewhat likely.”
Judges at the Las Vegas Justice Court are hearing numerous eviction cases.Credit…Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times
The areas bracing for the hardest hits are in high-population, high-rent states such as California, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas, along with other states across the South including Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
Organizations that advise low-income tenants from Atlanta to Houston to Las Vegas all said that they feared the fallout. “The volume is unlike anything we have ever seen before,” said Bailey Bortolin, the statewide policy director for the Nevada Coalition of Legal Service Providers.
The moratorium is intended to help states buy time to distribute the aid. Congress allocated some $47 billion in rental assistance, but just $3 billion had been distributed by June, according to the Treasury Department. Many county governments, the branch usually designated to process applications, are straining to build systems from scratch to distribute the money even while the tempo of evictions increases.
Georgia has paid out just over $16 million from $989 million in federal rental assistance funds. Florida got $871 million, but has only disbursed $23.2 million.
In Clark County, home to most of Nevada’s population, the CARES Housing Assistance Program has distributed more than $162 million in rent, utilities and mortgage payments to more than 29,500 households since July 2020, but that’s still less than half the state’s full allocation.
Around 50,000 people are behind on rent and could face eviction in Clark County, where the state moratorium expired on June 1, said Justin Jones, a county commissioner.
“It would be devastating if we have that number of people evicted from their homes in the near future,” he said. “The reality is that we do not have anywhere for them to go.” Thousands of homeless people already crowd downtown Las Vegas and elsewhere in the county.
After the state moratorium expired, Nevada implemented a new law pausing evictions so long as the tenant had an application for rental assistance pending.
At the Las Vegas Justice Court, the largest of some 40 courts hearing eviction cases in Nevada, Hearing Master David F. Brown did not allow for much wriggle room. If tenants showed proof that they had applied for rental assistance, they could stay in their homes. If not, or if they had more than a year of late payments, the maximum amount covered by the assistance program, they were usually forced out. Nevada judges tended to emphasize state laws rather than the C.D.C. guidelines.
Dejonae King, 33, held back tears after she lost her eviction appeal. Ms. King was laid off from Walgreens and has been without a job for most of the pandemic. She had not paid the $253 weekly rent on her one-bedroom apartment since July 2020. “I thought the rules would protect me,” she said.
Vanessa Merryman outside the Las Vegas Justice Court last week after learning she would be evicted.Credit…Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times
Ms. Merryman had managed to pay $10,000 in rent from government subsidies last year, but she lost her business and her boyfriend’s lengthy struggle with Covid interrupted her efforts to apply for more. It took her four months to reset her lost password for the website to apply for government payments.
Meanwhile, many landlords are caught in a vicious cycle, constantly in court but never quite made whole, said Susy Vasquez, executive director of the Nevada State Apartment Association, the largest organization for landlords.
Ron Scapellato, 54 a landlord in Clark County with 50 units and an air-conditioning business, said he soured on the moratorium after he watched some tenants spend their stimulus checks on new televisions rather than paying back rent. His mortgage and other bills continued to pile up, he said, so he went to court. “I understand that they do not want to throw people out, but I also want my rent,” he said.
The extension still might face legal challenges. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court questioned whether the C.D.C. had the authority to issue such a sweeping national mandate.
Because the federal moratorium technically lapsed for a few days, some landlords went ahead with evictions.
Hours before the reprieve from the White House, sheriff’s deputies arrived outside Hope Brasseaux’s house in Columbus, Ga., to implement an eviction order issued a month earlier. Ms. Brasseaux, an unemployed waitress, received just 12 hour’s notice. She applied for assistance toward her $700 monthly rent in the spring, but the government portal shows her request as still under review. “I wish it would have happened a day sooner,” she said of the two-month extension by the Biden administration.
In Nevada, evictions are designed to move faster than in most states, with renters in debt typically given seven days to pay what they owe or move out. Unique to the state, the onus is on the renter to initiate a court challenge, which can pause the process, but many residents do not know that.
Most evictions don’t make it to court, said Ms. Bortolin of the Nevada Coalition of Legal Service Providers. “When people hear the word moratorium they think they don’t have to act,” she said. “Thousands of people in Nevada alone were evicted because they thought they could not be.”
The strain of the pandemic has been especially hard on hourly workers in Las Vegas. Unemployment in Clark County hit a high of almost 370,000 in April 2020, more than 33 percent. It remains at almost 10 percent, according to state labor statistics.
After the casinos shuttered last year, Stephanie Pirrone, 52, said her husband’s Lyft customers disappeared, while she lost her job at an Amazon returns center.
Stephanie Pirrone waited outside the Las Vegas Justice Court as her her husband attended a proceeding to try to prevent them from being locked out of their Las Vegas apartment.Credit…Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times
She and her husband, angered that their landlord chipped away at their $15,000 government rental assistance with late fees and other fines, decided to fight their eviction, but many of their neighbors did not, she said, “People are scared so they just move out.”
Tawana Smith, who in April 2020 lost her $45,000-a-year job managing a convenience store, has returned to Las Vegas Justice Court three times since last November to fight eight attempts at eviction.
The moratorium had blocked the first few attempted evictions, said Ms. Smith, whose five children range in age from 2 to 12.
But when the most recent notice appeared last week, she decided to relinquish the low, brown stucco house that her family has called home for almost two years, paying $1,400 in monthly rent.
The Smiths sifted through past and current eviction paperwork at their home in Las Vegas.Credit…Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times
The family tried unsuccessfully to raise the $5,000 needed to rent a different house by selling crafts and through a crowdfunding campaign. They now dread the next step, living in one hotel room, she said. Ms. Smith said she wanted to avoid getting the children settled in school and then pulling them out when one eviction notice or another eventually succeeded.
“We don’t want to fight anymore to stay here,” she said. “We want to put this madness behind us.”
Edgar Sandoval and Sophie Kasakove contributed reporting. Alain Delaqueriere contributed research.