Landlords across much of the country can now evict tenants who have fallen behind on their rent. That's because a federal ban on evictions expired over the weekend.
"It's devastating," said Safiya Kitwana, a single mom with two teenagers living in DeKalb County, Ga., who lost her job during the pandemic. Like 7 million other Americans, Kitwana has fallen behind on rent.
Kitwana and many other renters had been protected by a ban on evictions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but the U.S. Supreme Court effectively blocked the CDC from extending the eviction moratorium past the end of July. And Congress didn't have the votes to extend it.
Kitwana fears what could be next.
"A marshal coming to your door," she says. "I've seen it happen where they just throw your stuff out in the parking lot."
Kitwana says it's painful to think about her kids going through that.
Help was supposed to be on the way. Congress set aside nearly $50 billion to help families like hers pay the back rent they owe and avoid eviction. But that money flowed to states and counties, which created hundreds of different programs to distribute it. And many so far have managed to get just a small fraction of the money to the people who need it.
In Kitwana's case, she applied for the help and she was approved.
But DeKalb County officials worried they might run out of that federal money because so many people needed help. So to try to spread the money around, they made a rule — the county would pay landlords only 60% of what renters owed. And to get that, landlords had to agree to forgive the remainder of the debt or split the difference with the renter and drop the eviction case.
But, as NPR previously reported, some landlords like Kitwana's said that wasn't enough money and moved ahead with the eviction process.
The CDC moratorium expiring has created a new sense of urgency in states and counties around the country. In DeKalb County, it has also prompted some big changes. A county judge has now put in place an emergency two-month local eviction ban.
"This is a godsend, really, for tenants," says Michael Thurmond, the county's top elected official. He's also announcing another big change.
"Landlords will be receiving an increased amount of revenue to cover back rent," says Thurmond. The new rules will reimburse landlords for 100% of the back rent they are owed going back as far as 12 months. Thurmond expects the rules to be formally approved on Tuesday — welcome news for thousands of renters nearing eviction in the county.
That means Safiya Kitwana should now be able to avoid eviction by paying her landlord everything she owes. In addition, the new program gives renters like her three months' rent going forward to get back on their feet.
"It is a huge relief," she says. "I just didn't know what I was going to do."
But in many other places, people aren't getting such a reprieve. Some states, including California, New Jersey and New York, have their own moratoriums blocking evictions. But the vast majority of states have no such protections in place.
"I'm urging other counties across Georgia and the country to follow DeKalb's lead in extending the moratorium locally," says Congressman Hank Johnson of Georgia. He says that would keep struggling renters in their homes during a surge in the delta variant and allow rental assistance programs to "catch up on the backlog of cases."
Many of the programs to distribute that federal money have run into problems. Many states and counties had to set them up from scratch. They've been overwhelmed with people applying. Some of the portals crashed repeatedly or got hacked.
Shamus Roller heads up the National Housing Law Project. "The thing I worry about the most is that you have millions of people across the country who may get evicted over the next couple of months, even though there is enough money coming from the federal government to pay all their back rent," he says.
Landlord groups have been calling on states and counties to improve and streamline their programs to avoid evictions. Roller says it's crucial that more money gets out the door so landlords see things are working better and hold off putting people out of their homes.
A MARTINEZ, HOST:
Landlords across much of the country are now free to evict tenants who've fallen behind on the rent. That's because a federal ban on evictions expired over the weekend. As NPR's Chris Arnold reports, some local governments are scrambling to try and prevent a wave of evictions.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: The Supreme Court had effectively blocked the CDC from extending the eviction moratorium past July, and Congress had the power to do that, but not the votes. So with millions of Americans still behind on rent, many people are now likely to lose their homes very quickly.
SAFIYA KITWANA: It's devastating.
ARNOLD: Safiya Kitwana is a single mom with two teenage kids in DeKalb County, Ga. She lost her job during the pandemic, and we've been following her situation as she's been facing eviction. With the CDC order now expired, she's been fearing a knock at the door.
KITWANA: A marshal coming to your door - like, I've seen it happen where they just throw your stuff out in the parking lot. Like, as we speak, it hurts to even talk about that portion of it, like, as far as what my kids are going to see.
ARNOLD: Now, Congress set aside billions of dollars to help people avoid eviction. Kitwana applied for that. She was approved. But DeKalb County, where she lives, because it worried about running out of money, made a rule - it would pay landlords only 60% of what renters owed. So some landlords, like hers, said that wasn't enough money and pushed ahead with eviction.
But now with the CDC moratorium over, the county is suddenly making some big changes. A county judge just put in place an emergency two-month local eviction ban.
MICHAEL THURMOND: This is a godsend, really, for tenants.
ARNOLD: Michael Thurmond is the county's top elected official, and he's announcing another big change.
THURMOND: Landlords will be receiving an increased amount of revenue to cover back rent.
ARNOLD: So that means Safiya Kitwana should now get her debt to her landlord paid in full to avoid eviction and have three months of rent going forward to get back on her feet. We spoke to her yesterday to tell her the news.
KITWANA: In hearing this, it just feel like a lot lifted, a lot lifted. I felt it from my chest up, like, (laughter) everything just lifted. I was like (sighing) - like, it is a huge relief 'cause I just didn't know what I was going to do.
ARNOLD: But in many parts of the country, people are not getting a reprieve. And many of the programs to distribute that federal money have run into big problems. Many states and counties had to set them up from scratch. They've been overwhelmed with people applying. Some of the portals crash, or they even got hacked.
Shamus Roller heads up the National Housing Law Project.
SHAMUS ROLLER: The thing I worry about the most is that you have millions of people across the country who may get evicted over the next couple of months, even though there is enough money coming from the federal government to pay all their back rent.
ARNOLD: Roller says it's crucial that more money gets out the door more quickly so landlords see things are working better and will hold off putting people out of their homes.
Chris Arnold, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.