Issuing new eviction protections amid the COVID-19 pandemic sounds like it should be a simple solution — but it isn’t.
On Tuesday, three days after previous pandemic-related eviction protections expired, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a new order, effective for 60 days.
“CDC is issuing a new order temporarily halting evictions in counties with heightened levels of community transmission in order to respond to recent, unexpected developments in the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the rise of the Delta variant. It is intended to target specific areas of the country where cases are rapidly increasing, which likely would be exacerbated by mass evictions,” the announcement read (read the full, 19-page order here).
The CDC’s previous order was extended a few times before lawmakers allowed it to expire at midnight on Saturday, July 31.
While that order was more like an incomplete web of tenant protections rather than a blanket moratorium on evictions, said Victoria Horrock, a fair housing law expert and attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center, it did help a lot of tenants who were unable to pay their rent stay in their homes throughout the pandemic so far.
“In general, we’re really excited about the new CDC order,” said Horrock on Wednesday, less than 24 hours after the CDC announced the new protections. “It’s a really integral protection for tenants. But it’s complicated.”
This new order is not automatic, and doesn’t apply to as many people as the previous CDC order, she said. Tenants will have to sign a declaration saying they’re eligible, just as they did for the previous order, “but the added layer is that you have to be in a county that is experiencing substantial or high spread [i.e. community transmission] of COVID-19,” Horrock clarified.
The CDC’s website has a map feature that tracks levels of community transmission, updated daily, and the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle County are not separated here, but instead grouped together as Albemarle County. As of Wednesday, community transmission level was “substantial,” which would likely qualify residents for these protections.
But here’s the complicated part Horrock was talking about: Community transmission levels could fluctuate between low, moderate, substantial, and high from day to day throughout the 60-day period of the order, so it’s difficult to say who will qualify. If an area stays at low or moderate spread for 14 days, then that county would not be covered under the production, said Horrock. “It could fluctuate over the course of the order, what counties are covered or not.”
“This is a lot for tenants, especially tenants in crisis, facing eviction, to have to keep track of,” said Horrock, which is why she and others encourage anyone who wants to know if they qualify, or who needs the assistance, to call the Legal Aid Justice Center (434-977-0553) and speak with an attorney.
There could be more protections on the way, in addition to the new CDC order. The Virginia General Assembly is expected to discuss further eviction protections during its current special session, which started this week. The commonwealth previously had protections in place that required landlords to give tenants notice about rent relief programs and required landlords to apply for rent relief on their tenants’ behalf. However, those protections expired over a month ago, on June 30, when the state of emergency ended, and legislators allowed them to lapse.
“Protections under the state budget would be really integral,” said Horrock. “The CDC order is great, but it only targets, basically, stopping the spread of COVID through evictions, which is an immediate health need. But the state budget protections would actually help people get access to rent assistance so that they can have long-term stability.”
The federal government has already allotted a significant amount of money to individual states for rent relief, and a number of local organizations, such as Legal Aid Justice Center and Sin Barreras (in English y espanol), and the Jefferson Area Board for Aging, are offering application assistance to help balance out some of the inequities of the application process (there are many, and we address them another story). The federally-funded rent relief program offers assistance with up to 15 months of rent, either back-owed rent and any associated court fees as well as up to three months of future rent, for those who qualify. It works like a grant rather than a loan—people who get the assistance won’t have to pay it back.
Even with these various programs and protections in place, “it must be so hard for tenants,” said Horrock. “Each of these types of things, like the CDC [order] or the rent relief program, has very similar, but not exactly the same, kind of criteria. Unfortunately, a lot of tenants fall through the cracks of both, and some are going to fall through the cracks of one and not the other. Again, that’s why we’re telling people to just call us, because a lot of this is going to be case by case.”
Letting tenants and landlords know about these programs, and that there’s help available, is a crucial component of how effective they’ll be.
“People don’t realize that a lot of these protections are only as good as the information that people have about them,” said Horrock, who paraphrased her colleague, LAJC policy director Amy Woolard.
“And that goes for COVID protections for evictions, but also, any landlord/tenant rights. A tenant has to know to assert them, and the more we get that out there, the better.”
We will update this story with information about any state-level protections when that information becomes available.