by PrincessSafiya Byers, WisconsinWatch.org
May 6, 2021
A version of this story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service.
A federal judge on Wednesday tossed out the federal eviction moratorium, which could make it easier for landlords to kick out tenants behind in rent.
Here are some things you should know:
Wait. What happened Wednesday?
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention originally enacted the halt on certain evictions to stem the spread of COVID–19, seasonal influenza and the increased risk of homeless shelters becoming overcrowded in fall and winter. It was set to expire June 30, but Congress has approved nearly $50 billion in rental assistance to fill the gap.
Judge Dabney Friedrich of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia said in her ruling that the CDC lacked authority to impose the moratorium.
“It is the role of the political branches, and not the courts, to assess the merits of policy measures designed to combat the spread of disease, even during a global pandemic,” the ruling stated. “The question for the Court is a narrow one: Does the Public Health Service Act grant the CDC the legal authority to impose a nationwide eviction moratorium? It does not.”
So what happens now?
It’s not completely clear.
Late Wednesday night, Friedrich put her ruling on hold until May 12. The move allows landlords who oppose a longer delay the chance to argue their case.
“Several court rulings have attempted to strike down the moratorium, but all had limited application,” Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said in a tweet. “While this ruling is written more starkly than previous ones, it likely has equally limited application, impacting only the plaintiffs who brought the case.”
OK. But is the moratorium still in effect or not?
The U.S. Department of Justice is appealing the ruling and requested an emergency stay on the order until a decision is made by a higher court. This means the moratorium remains in place for now, said Anthony Coley, the department’s director of public affairs.
What did the moratorium do anyway?
Tenants who have missed monthly rent payments were protected from being forced out of their homes if they declared financial hardship. It slowed but did not completely halt eviction filings. Milwaukee, for instance, is still seeing hundreds of eviction filings each month but far fewer than in typical years, according to Eviction Lab.
What does this mean for Wisconsin?
In Wisconsin alone, renters last year faced an estimated rent shortfall of $139 million to $260 million, and up to 260,000 households were at risk of eviction, according to an analysis of census data by Stout Risius Ross LLC, an international consulting and investment banking firm.
George Hinton, the CEO of the Milwaukee-based Social Development Commission, or SDC, which works to help those in poverty, said his agency is closely monitoring the ruling and plans to advocate for tenants and distribute rental assistance.
“If this decision does impact us here in Milwaukee, tenants will lose the protection they have and will be at the mercy of their landlords,” he said. “It’d put a lot of pressure on organizations like us, but either way we will continue to do our best and get applications processed as quickly as possible for those in need.”
Resources to consult if you’re worried about eviction
- Community Advocates rent helpline: 414-270-4646
- Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee: 414-727-5300
- Mediate Milwaukee: 414-939-8800
- Legal Action of Wisconsin: 855-947-2529
- Social Development Commission: 414-906-2700
- Milwaukee Autonomous Tenants Union: 414-410-9714
The SDC last year received $6.7 million to assist residents of Milwaukee, Ozaukee, and Washington counties through the Wisconsin Rent Assistance Program, or WRAP. The funds were provided as part of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act package. The SDC is now administering the federally funded Milwaukee Emergency Rental Assistance program.
The city of Milwaukee is among larger Wisconsin communities that run their own federally funded rental assistance programs. Those include Brown, Dane, Milwaukee and Waukesha counties and the city of Madison.
For other communities, Gov. Tony Evers in February launched the Wisconsin Emergency Rental Assistance (WERA) program, which aims to distribute $322 million in federal stimulus funds to struggling renters statewide. Qualifying Wisconsin residents can receive up to a year of help paying current or overdue rent or utility bills.
“There is more to be sorted out, particularly on how the local courts will handle/interpret the ruling,” added Kristi Luzar the executive director of the Urban Economic Development Association of Wisconsin. “So, we are in communication with them and will wait to hear what’s in store there.”
What are landlords saying?
“We do not believe that this ruling will be the massive game-changer in southeastern Wisconsin that some people fear, although that may occur in other states where funding is not being handled well and there is conflict instead of cooperation,” said officials representing the Apartment Association of Southeastern Wisconsin in a statement to Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service. “We will be sending a message out to our membership urging them to stay the course with pre-filing mediation and to continue to work diligently to help their renters apply and complete the application process for emergency rental assistance.”
What should I do now?
“Until there is a conclusive answer on who this affects, the most prudent thing for people to do is to continue filing the declarations,” said Raphael Ramos, an attorney with Legal Action of Wisconsin and director of the Eviction Defense Project. (Tenants must still pay rent if they can — and they remain responsible for back rent. They must file declaration forms to their landlords to be covered under the CDC order.)
Luzar said the consensus among partners of the Rental Housing Resource Center is that landlords should reach out for guidance before filing to evict; that they work with renters to apply for emergency rental assistance; and that they seek mediation services if needed.
Milwaukee tenants should seek help through rent assistance programs being administered by Community Advocates and the Social Development Commission, and they should reach out to the Rental Housing Resource Center for other housing issues.
Wisconsin Watch Investigations Editor Jim Malewitz contributed to this story. PrincessSafiya Byers is a reporter for Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service. The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted, or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.