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As Evictions Loom, Lawyers Are Gearing Up to Help

Just a few weeks ago, Jessie Reed was worried about being evicted from her Omaha apartment with her three young children. Her landlord had already tried to force her out in May when she stopped paying rent after quitting her job at an Omaha Steaks warehouse. One of her children has severe asthma, and Ms. Reed was worried she would unwittingly catch the coronavirus at work and transmit it.

But in June, a legal aid lawyer convinced a local judge that Ms. Reed was protected by a federal moratorium on evictions under the CARES Act, which Congress passed in March to cushion the economic fallout of the pandemic. The ruling has bought Ms. Reed, 32, time to settle her financial affairs.

“I wanted a lawyer as a backup because the landlord was trying to intimidate me,” she said.

For tenants, especially those with limited means, having a lawyer can be the difference between being evicted or being able to stay on in a rented home. Yet legal representation for tenants is relatively rare in housing courts. Surveys from several big cities over the years have shown that in housing court, landlords are represented by lawyers at least 80 percent time, while tenants tend to have lawyers in fewer than 10 percent of cases.

This unlevel playing field is about to come into sharper focus in the months ahead, now that the four-month pause on evictions provided by the CARES Act, followed by a 30-day notice period that ends on Monday, is coming to an end. The moratorium had provided protection to about 12 million tenants living in qualifying properties. Additionally, local moratoriums in some states had protected renters in homes not covered by the federal law.

“Tenants are not equipped to represent themselves, and eviction court places them on an uneven playing field that allows landlords to run roughshod over their rights,” said Ellie Pepper of the National Housing Resource Center, which focuses on housing policy and funding issues.

In New York, which in 2017 became the first American city to guarantee the right to a lawyer in housing court, the impact is clear. Since the law went into effect, 84 percent of tenants who had a lawyer managed to remain in their homes after a housing dispute, according to the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, an advocacy group.

Demand for legal assistance with housing issues is on the rise in states where local moratoriums for rentals not covered by the CARES Act have already ended. In the Atlanta area, legal aid lawyers say calls seeking help in dealing with private landlords are running 25 percent higher than they were two months ago. In particular, lawyers said, calls are coming in from Clayton County, one of the poorest areas that Atlanta Legal Aid serves.

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Credit…Walker Pickering for The New York Times

“Our caseloads haven’t yet exploded, because the courts just started hearing cases that were pending before the pandemic struck,” said Lindsey Siegel, a lawyer with Atlanta Legal Aid. “But it’s coming.” The nonprofit is bringing on additional lawyers and setting up housing clinics in local courts to advise renters, Ms. Siegel added.

Landlords have struggled, too, taking in 29 percent less in rent checks in the first 10 days of August than in the same period in March, according to a report from Rentec Direct, a property management information and tenant screening firm.

David Schwartz, chief executive officer of Waterton, a Chicago real estate firm that owns or manages 22,000 rental apartments in nearly two dozen states, said he and other large landlords didn’t favor another blanket moratorium to prevent evictions. But he does favor an extension of so-called enhanced unemployment payments for those out of work and rental assistance to help keep people in their apartments if they are willing to arrange payment plans with landlords.

“The problem with the moratorium is that there are households who just aren’t paying rent because they feel there are no repercussions,” said Mr. Schwartz, who is also chairman of the National Multifamily Housing Council, a landlord association.

Even tenants who have managed to patch together rent stand on shaky ground. For instance, Ms. Reed, who recently started offering child care for neighbors out of her home, could still be evicted if she can’t make a go of her business.

Her landlord, William Stanek, said he was waiting to see if Ms. Reed’s application to a local charity for rental assistance was approved. He said he might have to move again to evict her next month.

But for now, Mr. Stanek “has been very nice to me and my kids,” Ms. Reed said.

In Nebraska, where the local moratorium on evictions expired in May, at least 92,000 people are at risk of being forced out of their homes in the coming months, according to a report by consortium of housing advocates and public policy organizations. The report said that nationally, at least 30 million people — including those in homes not covered by the CARES Act moratorium — were in danger of being evicted without any new federal aid or a renewed pause.

In Omaha, Caitlin Cedfeldt, the lawyer who represented Ms. Reed, said she and her colleagues at Legal Aid of Nebraska were busier than ever.

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Credit…Walker Pickering for The New York Times

“Right now I have to be in court four days a week. That’s a pretty high number for me,” said Ms. Cedfeldt, who has been working for Legal Aid for two and a half years. “Most of the time I used to be in court twice a week.”

Part of the reason she has been so busy is that many landlords who owned properties covered by the CARES Act jumped the gun in pushing for evictions before the moratorium ended. Ms. Cedfeldt said many renters who came to her were often unaware of their rights under the legislation.

One of those clients is Danni Rhiley, who lives in Maplewood Estates, a mobile home community in Omaha, with her two children, ages 14 and 12. Ms. Rhiley, 42, said she had fallen short on the rent money because she had to stop working as a full-time aide to a paraplegic man with a compromised immune system because of concerns about the coronavirus.

After her landlord, Kingsley Management, rejected a payment plan she had proposed just a few days before her first court date on July 22, Ms. Rhiley said, she reached out to Ms. Cedfeldt and Legal Aid.

Ms. Cedfeldt said she was able to get a nonpayment eviction lawsuit against Ms. Rhiley dismissed after she argued that it was filed in violation of the CARES Act. But with the CARES Act expiring, Kingsley, a Utah company that owns dozens of trailer parks across the country, has moved again to evict Ms. Rhiley.

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Credit…Walker Pickering for The New York Times
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Credit…Walker Pickering for The New York Times

Ms. Rhiley said she was worried about losing the trailer she had been renting since November. “The kids’ dad died in December, so it is just us,” she said. “I would probably be at a homeless shelter if I got evicted or living in my car.”

James McVay, the lawyer in Omaha for Kingsley Management, said that his client was willing to discuss a payment plan with Ms. Rhiley or her counsel, but that he had yet to hear from them.

Ms. Cedfeldt said that since taking on Ms. Rhiley’s case, she had found at least a dozen other eviction proceedings filed by Kingsley at Maplewood Estates that appeared to violate the CARES Act. She said that none of those renters had lawyers, and that it was frustrating to see at least one of tenant show up in court and clearly upset by the proceedings.

“All I could do was watch tenants show up to court and see them get evicted when they shouldn’t have been,” Ms. Cedfeldt said. “I especially remember seeing one woman who burst into tears any time the court asked if she had any response. It was awful.”

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10 Steps to Take to Try to Prevent Your Own Eviction

If you have a mortgage and can’t afford to pay it because of fallout from the coronavirus, you may be able to push off your payments for several months, or even into next year. But if you’re struggling to pay your rent, your options are probably much more limited.

Local, state and federal governments have laid out a patchwork of programs to pause certain eviction proceedings, but some of those have already expired — and one eviction protection component set out in the CARES Act is scheduled to expire by July 25.

Without continued regional action or new help from Congress, a spike in evictions may soon be upon us. The Covid-19 Eviction Defense Project in Denver estimates that between 19 million and 23 million — one in five of the 110 million Americans who live in rental housing — are at risk of eviction by the end of September.

But as harrowing as eviction is, it’s a process that plays out over weeks, at a minimum. And at nearly every point along the way, it may be possible to stop it.

Most people who have never experienced eviction aren’t aware of their local rules, which can be complex and differ widely from place to place. And then there’s the tangle of stopgap federal efforts that may be extended or resurrected over the course of the crisis.

If you’re having trouble paying your rent, your situation might feel hopeless. It may not be — and experts have these suggestions for what to know and what to do.

If you’ve lost your job or part of your income, your instinct may be to avoid your landlord. But it’s probably better to make contact and explain what’s going on.

“In a couple of groups I’ve been part of where landlords have been present, they’ve complained that they’ve reached out to tenants and aren’t getting responses,” said Abigail Staudt, managing attorney of the housing practice at the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland. “Many of them — not all — are compassionate and are ready and willing to work with tenants.”

If you’re going to pay late, not pay in full or pay nothing, landlords will find that out soon enough anyway, she added. Being upfront might pay off later.

Often, tenants receive that first notice from a landlord, assume that there is no fixing the problem, and decide that they should pack up and move. “People often confuse the first step in the process with the last step,” said Zach Neumann, founder of the Covid-19 Eviction Defense Project.

In fact, in most areas, you don’t have to move until there has been some sort of legal finding against you and an officer of the law arrives to carry out any order of eviction. That means there may be time for you to figure out a solution that doesn’t require you to move at all.

You probably do not have the right to a lawyer if a landlord brings an eviction action against you (although there are a few notable exceptions, like in San Francisco and for some families in Cleveland). But you can retain one anyway, and possibly for little cost.

Contacting your local Legal Aid office is a good start. An organization called Just Shelter also has a nationwide map on its website with links to other local organizations that may be able to help.

Merely retaining a lawyer may make landlords more likely to negotiate. That’s because it could signal that their own legal fees are about to go up. A number of reports have pointed to improved (or at least non-worst-case-scenario) outcomes for tenants who have counsel.

Even if you’re not able to fend off eviction, Ms. Staudt said, a lawyer may be able to negotiate more time for you to find a new place.

The company or person tacking notices to your door does not inspire much sympathy. Still, landlords have to pay utilities, taxes, maintenance and insurance, too.

And this is one of the few areas of consumer life where you alone may be the source of a significant percentage of someone else’s income.

It might help in any communication to acknowledge this. Small-scale landlords own more than half the housing stock that rents for less than $750 per month, noted Whitney Airgood-Obrycki, research associate at the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. If they go into foreclosure or have to sell, even less sympathetic owners might replace them.

“If we lose them, we risk losing a big source of affordable housing,” she said. Perhaps if you acknowledge your own landlord’s contribution in this way (and your desire to keep landlords solvent, if your own seems to be in jeopardy), you could get a more sympathetic ear.

You do not get what you do not ask for. So talk to your landlord. There are different ways to reduce your costs: waiving rent, reducing rent or using a security deposit in lieu of your payment.

A survey by Apartment List, the real estate listing site, found a bit of decent news. As of June, 39 percent of people not paying rent in full reported that their landlord had made some kind of concession. That figure had fallen from 45 percent in April, but it’s still worth asking for new terms.

Depending where you live and the details of the mortgage for the property you occupy, you might be protected from eviction, at least for now. Some landlords who have themselves put their mortgages into forbearance cannot evict tenants while they’re also skipping payments.

A database of addresses that the National Low Income Housing Coalition created may help some renters figure out if their landlord must comply with the various federal rules. This is another area where a lawyer can help, since the rules can be complicated and some landlords don’t know them — or ignore them.

Some state and local officials have put their own eviction restrictions into place. These efforts are listed on the websites for Eviction Lab and Regional Housing Legal Services.

Emily Benfer, a law professor at Wake Forest School of Law, has also assembled a large amount of helpful information on local actions, with the help of many law and public health students. It’s collected in a publicly available Google spreadsheet.

Rental assistance programs exist, although high demand has depleted some of them.

Still, it’s worth seeking the help out if you need it. The National Low Income Housing Coalition maintains a list of programs on its website.

Also, keep checking back. Any new federal relief bill could provide additional money.

Things may not go your way. The Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond, a founder of both Just Shelter and Eviction Lab, saw it happen while researching his book “Evicted.”

He suggested a couple of tactics. First, make a plan for where you might go if you lose your housing. Ask family and friends for help well ahead of time.

Then stay in your current home as long as you legally can. “You might as well wait for the sheriff to come and force you out,” he said.

Nobody knows what will happen in Washington. Many lawmakers agree that another relief package is necessary, but what it will look like and when it will arrive are anyone’s guess.

In the meantime, tenants should pay as much as they can for as long as they can — and cross their fingers that more help arrives, said Norrinda Brown Hayat, associate clinical professor of law at the Newark campus of Rutgers School of Law.

“Everything is ‘If, then, but,’” she said. “People want to have certainty, but there is none. We just don’t have it yet.”

Jaffe S. Pickett, executive director of Florida Rural Legal Services, said collecting yourself and responding quickly to the threat of eviction isn’t easy, given everything that renters may be up against right now.

“People are coming home from one job, trying to get the kids to Grandma’s,” she said. “With schools and summer programs closed, it all becomes more of a burden.”

This pandemic compounds poverty or causes it outright. If you know someone is in trouble, try to help that person head it off as quickly as possible.

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