In mid-March, the Texas Supreme Court refused to extend an order that gave judges the authority to enforce the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moratorium, a decision that, according to Dana Karni, managing attorney for Lone Star Legal Aid’s Eviction Right to Counsel Project, has effectively voided the CDC mandate in most of the state. Tenants, she said, “are left grasping at straws.”
Judges in Franklin County, the most populous in Ohio, and in parts of eastern Tennessee for weeks have refused to honor the CDC’s latest eviction moratorium, citing a July ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit that said the agency lacked authority to ban residential evictions, according to court officials and legal aid lawyers. They have done so despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that left the CDC’s original moratorium in place.
The moratorium, first put in place in September 2020, was extended in full four times. The latest extension, announced this month, was partial, applying only to areas with substantial coronavirus transmission levels. On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with a group of landlords who sought to block the pandemic-related protections for renters in a 6-to-3 decision.
In several cities, including Las Vegas, Richmond and Gainesville, Fla., eviction filings were already back to or above pre-pandemic levels before Thursday’s ruling, according to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.
“We’re seeing more and more judges really show that they do not believe tenants, or county judges saying things like, ‘I don’t believe this moratorium is constitutional, so we’re not going to do this in my court,’” Anne Kat Alexander, a researcher and program coordinator with the Eviction Lab, said earlier this week. “It’s similar to covid fatigue in general, where people are just tired of being in this situation.”
Eviction Lab researchers estimate the moratorium prevented 1.5 million evictions that otherwise would have occurred in a non-pandemic year. At the same time, because judges have leeway to interpret the CDC order, enforcement has varied nationwide and evictions continued even as the federal government sought to stop them.
There is no national data available for how many evictions have been executed during the pandemic. Most states do not keep statewide data. In the six states and 31 cities that the Eviction Lab tracks, researchers have found more than 480,000 cases filed since March 2020, and in nearly every jurisdiction the numbers have trended upward even after the moratorium began, that September.
Alexander says the problem of inconsistent enforcement was pervasive but especially concentrated in Southern states such as Mississippi. A 2019 law there allows judges to order same-day lockouts, meaning a renter can go from being housed to homeless in less than 24 hours.
In the Magnolia State, eviction cases are filling court dockets as more residents than ever have contracted covid-19, according to state data; just under 37 percent of the state has been fully vaccinated as of Aug. 23. As schools reopen and in-person classes begin, a Mississippi Today analysis found that in the first two weeks of school, the number of cases among children in the state jumped 830 percent compared with this time last year.
The latest CDC order covered only areas with substantial levels of coronavirus transmission, but it applied to every county in Mississippi.
In Biloxi, there is no landlord-tenant court. Instead, judges block off Wednesdays for housing disputes. The day after the new CDC order was announced, Judge Albert Fountain presided over 44 eviction cases — nearly four times the average in pre-pandemic days, he said. Roughly 80 percent were approved for court-ordered lockouts.
One by one, renters trudged to the front of the room at the sound of their names — a mother with three small children in tow, an older man in a work shirt, a woman and her adult son, a young couple who own their own business, a former television camera man who fell on hard times.
“Are you here for a nonpayment-of-rent issue or because you don’t want to renew the lease?” Fountain asked one landlord.
“The lease,” the landlord replied.
“Then that’s all I care about. I’m going to rule in favor of the plaintiff,” said Fountain, who has been a justice court judge in Harrison County for more than 25 years. “The law says once you do a lockout, if they stay on the property and they’re unwanted and uninvited, it’s a crime.”
Many renters didn’t show up for their hearing at all. Every single no-show was evicted.
LaQuinea Gibson, 26, burst into the courtroom more than 30 minutes after her case was called. The judge shook his head.
“Your case has been called a long time ago,” Fountain said.
“I didn't have a ride,” she rushed to explain, clutching a folder overflowing with paper documents to her chest.
“I'm sorry,” the judge said.
Gibson, who has three young children, burst into tears in the parking lot outside.
“I was a month late because I didn’t have anyone to watch my kids, so I had to pay for someone to come stay with them while I went to work,” she said. “Now what are we going to do?”
For renters and their advocates, the hope stoked by the reissued moratorium has collided with the reality that the protections it promised no longer mean what they once did.
The Harrison County Justice Court declined to provide data on the number of eviction filings it handles. Anecdotally, tenant lawyers said when the moratorium first went into effect, hardly any landlord-tenant cases were being heard. But after a few months, that started to change. Since the spring, most eviction cases were proceeding as normal unless tenants proactively asserted their rights under the moratorium, several Mississippi county clerks said.
Many renters are still waiting for a share of the $46 billion in rent relief approved by Congress this year, federal data show. As of Aug. 18, just 9.8 percent of the state’s $186 million in rental assistance funds had been distributed to tenants and their landlords. Just over 4,000 households have received help from the program known as RAMP, though nearly 44,000 applications have been started online.
“You hear a lot of people talk about this cliff that we’re headed for as far as evictions, but really, I think, it’s more of a rolling tide — and we’re already in the middle of it,” said John Jopling, director of housing law at the nonprofit Mississippi Center for Justice. “These tenants, they’re going to wind up in cars, they’re going to wind up on top of relatives, which is not what they need to be doing especially now in intergenerational households with all the variants of covid that are spreading out there. They’re going to wind up on top of elderly relatives because of that immediate removal.”
‘She needs to be out of there by Monday’
The morning of Aug. 4, Jennifer Cage, 33, stepped through the metal detector at the Harrison County Justice Court. As she walked, tugging the straps of a pink mask over her face, Cage replayed the conversation she had earlier that morning with her lawyer, Will Bedwell, one of the housing attorneys at the Mississippi Center for Justice.
Bedwell had told her that the new moratorium “almost completely” applies to her and that he felt good about their chances of getting her case pushed back. If the plan worked, he said, Cage and her three children wouldn’t be evicted before the moratorium was slated to end in early October.
Cage settled into a high-backed chair at the front of the courtroom, her feet dangling above the ground, as the wooden seats in the gallery filled.
Cage was behind on her rent for June, July and August. She was waiting on rent relief from the local homeless coalition tasked with doling out federal dollars to struggling renters. But her lease expired May 31, the lawyer for her landlord told Fountain, and the landlord just wanted her gone.
“Respectfully, your honor, we're not here on a [lease] nonrenewal. We're here on a nonpayment of rent, and I believe this argument today is merely an attempt to get around the CDC moratorium,” Bedwell said.
Cage raised her hand to speak. The judge ignored her.
Bedwell walked Cage’s signed declaration of hardship up to the bench. Under the CDC order, tenants must fill one out and present it to their landlord to get relief.
What the declaration didn’t show was that Cage had never missed a rent payment before she got covid-19 last year. It didn’t explain that when she was sick, she had to stay home for two weeks and lost her cleaning job. It didn’t say that Cage has asthma and sickle cell anemia and is immune-compromised, that she’s terrified of catching another coronavirus strain and that she has tried for weeks to make partial rent payments that, she said, her landlord refused.
Cage glanced around as Fountain conferred with the lawyers. Then, the judge made his ruling.
“She needs to be out of there by Monday,” he said.
‘They feel like the government owes them’
Fountain moved to the next case, then another. A couple who owed $835 in back rent stepped forward. They explained to the judge that they only just started working again after months of unemployment.
“You're stuck between a rock and a hard place,” the judge told the landlord. “You can't evict for nonpayment of rent right now.”
The landlord, who sought to lock out the couple when their lease expired, sighed. He would have to give a 30-day notice to evict them for not renewing their lease.
“You're telling me that I have to let them stay for 30 more days?” he asked.
The judge shrugged, then turned to the tenants.
“He's trying to be good to you, you understand?” Fountain said from the dais. “You ought to pay him some money.”
The couple nodded, eyes downcast.
Fountain has presided over housing disputes in Harrison County since 1995. He thought he had seen it all, he said, and then the pandemic began.
As weeks of hardship stretched into months and then into the second year, Fountain said, he hoped the end of the CDC’s original eviction moratorium would bring landlords some relief. Then the CDC announced its new partial order.
“It has me angry to the fact that they really turned this system around. We used to have a really good system here … today, compared to two years ago, it’s different like daylight and dark,” Fountain said. “[Tenants] would come in two years ago with a lot of respect for the landlord. Today, they feel like the government owes them.”
Fountain is a self-described conservative, a God-fearing man who says he listens to recordings of the first book of John every night as he drifts off to sleep. When he gets underage-drinking cases, he gives a writing assignment to each youthful offender: 1,000 words either on the effects of alcohol alone or 500 words on that and another 500 on the Book of Revelation.
Fountain was a police officer before he was elected to the bench in the mid-1990s. He never went to law school. But he said after working in law enforcement for nearly 40 years, he can tell when someone is lying.
Mostly, he said, he suspects it’s the tenants who are lying.
“I know some of them are valid complaints and have a valid situation, but a lot of them are not,” he said in an interview after court had adjourned for the day. “I had one come in here that owed $11,000 on residential rent. That’s at least a year’s rent, at least a year. Sat right here at this table and said that she felt the government owed her that. I said, let me say this to you, this landlord here has to pay bills also. A lot of [tenants] are taking advantage of this system.”
Harrison received $6.1 million from the federal government to aid its residents. As of early August, Treasury Department data shows, the Open Doors Homeless Coalition, which has been managing the county’s share, had distributed about $4.5 million — better than the state overall.
In court, Fountain chided tenants who had been sick or unemployed or otherwise exempt from eviction under the CDC moratorium for not doing more to make up the rent they owed.
One young woman with $3,300 in unpaid rent told the judge she could move out of the apartment she had been renting by the following week if that would satisfy her landlord.
“Could you be out by Monday?” the judge asked. “I’m going to give you a lockout for Monday. I’m not going to put it in writing because I can’t by law, you understand?”
The woman nodded, then gathered her things and pushed her way out the double doors.
In the lobby, stacks of eviction cheat sheets for landlords sat in trays outside the county clerk’s office — 30-day notices, affidavits, how-to guides.
No information about the moratorium or how to apply for rent relief was anywhere to be seen.
Another eviction notice
Some renters can’t wait for a judge’s ruling. Going to court can mean risking a job, missing out on a day’s worth of pay or needing to arrange child care. Rather than fight their landlord, they move out.
This was the calculation for Shea Mills, 38: After her landlord sent her another 30-day notice at the end of July, she decided to give up the small one-bedroom that had been her lifeline for more than year.
In the early days of the pandemic, she lost her restaurant job, and the bills kept coming. She applied for unemployment, worked odd jobs, drove a cab. But she couldn’t catch up on the months of rent she owed.
In July, her application for rental assistance was approved; Harrison County would pay the full amount. But the management company that oversees her apartment complex told her she owed additional late fees that added up to an extra month’s worth of rent, Mills said. That put her behind for August, and soon another eviction notice arrived.
“Just having to deal with all of that and then being served another eviction notice,” she said, sitting surrounded by boxes in her living room. “I just don’t even want to go through the anxiety of it all — again.”
Housing and public health experts warn that evictions are dangerous not just because families run the risk of winding up homeless but because moving in with relatives or friends can put vulnerable people — including children and the unvaccinated — at high risk of catching the coronavirus.
Mills, who was vaccinated in the spring, said two weeks after she moved out of Biloxi and in with her unvaccinated parents, she started to feel achy and fatigued. Worried, she took an at-home coronavirus test.
It came back positive.
Outside the courthouse, Cage paced as she began to process what the judge had ruled: She was going to be forced out of her home. She had four days to find somewhere else to go.
“I ain’t going to be homeless,” she said to Bedwell, her lawyer. “I ain’t going to do that.”
As Cage drove off, she fought back tears.
Back inside Fountain’s courtroom, the bailiff called the next case. More evictions were already underway.