Despite A New Federal Ban, Many Renters Are Still Getting Evicted | KGOU
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Despite A New Federal Ban, Many Renters Are Still Getting Evicted

Sep 14, 2020
Originally published on September 14, 2020 12:22 pm

Before a new federal eviction ban went into effect recently, Alice and Jeremy Bumpus were on the verge of getting evicted. They live in a house outside Houston with their three kids, and they both lost their jobs after the pandemic hit. Alice worked at an airport fast food restaurant; Jeremy worked at a warehouse.

"We explained to the judge that due to everything that was going on, we just fell behind on just our one month's rent," Alice says.

But in Texas, missing one month's rent gives the landlord the right to evict you. The judge ruled against them. Evictions have been back underway in Houston, even though the state remains a hot spot for COVID-19 — with about 4,000 new cases every day.

It appears they should have qualified for unemployment, but the state office told them they didn't.

Jeremy's mother also lives with them. "My mom is 68," he says.

"And that's what we worry about the most," Alice Bumpus adds. "You know how much more we're going to be at risk when we have to move up out of our home. My mother-in-law is very sickly."

Their landlord didn't respond to NPR's repeated requests for an interview. At this point they had to get out of the house in a matter of days and they didn't have enough money to rent another place.

"The kids are a little worried," Alice Bumpus says. "They know at the end of the day that we're going to do whatever that it takes to protect them. But you know it was hard talking to them."

But then the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a new eviction moratorium. The ban is nationwide — but it's not automatic. And many renters facing eviction still don't know about the ban or understand the rules or their rights.

"In order for tenants to be covered, they have to send a written declaration to the landlord," says Velimir Rasic, an attorney with Lone Star Legal Aid who is representing the Bumpus family.

Tenants have to swear that, among other things, they have no options besides being homeless or moving in with other people in close quarters.

Rasic "called us and had us sign a paper," Jeremy Bumpus says. Rasic advises renters to email it to the landlord, or to send it certified mail with a return receipt requested so they can prove they sent it.

And now it looks like the CDC eviction ban is going to protect the family until the end of the year. The court told law enforcement not to evict them.

But the Bumpus family was lucky that they managed to get a legal aid lawyer to help them. By one count, just in the Houston area, more than 9,000 eviction cases have been filed during the pandemic. Houston is one of the ground zero cities when it comes to evictions. And less than 4% of those renters facing eviction have a lawyer.

Houston Public Media sent a reporter to four different courthouses last week to observe about 100 eviction cases and found that only one renter was able to use the CDC order to block eviction. So in 99% of those cases the order was having no effect at all.

Legal aid attorneys in Houston also say it's still too often business as usual at eviction hearings. The judges aren't asking landlords if tenants sent them CDC declarations. Many tenants don't show up. And among those that do, most don't appear to even know about their rights under the CDC order. The judges don't ask them about that. And in the vast majority of cases, the landlord is given the right to evict them. That's despite the CDC order, in the middle of a pandemic.

"This is a emergency order from the Center for Disease Control to prevent people from dying," says John Henneberger, co-director of Texas Housers, a prominent housing policy nonprofit. He's watching this play out in courts across the state and the country. And he sees lots of confusion.

Protesters march Aug. 21 outside a courthouse in Houston, where evictions are continuing despite a moratorium ordered recently by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Jen Rice / Houston Public Media

"We're still working in that murky period between [when] the order hits and the courts and the government bureaucracy figures out how to actually implement it," he says. Henneberger says the state judicial systems need to quickly offer more guidance to lower court judges on how to do that.

"There's a lot of people already falling through the cracks," he says. "And every day that goes on people's lives are being put at risk by being evicted.

And he fears things are likely to get worse. Henneberger points to an ongoing U.S. Census Pulse Survey, aimed at assessing the effects of the pandemic, which finds that both in Texas and nationally about a quarter of renters have low confidence in meeting their next rent payment.

Meanwhile, landlords say the CDC eviction ban isn't fair to them because there's no money in it for the unpaid rent. Paula Cino is with the National Multifamily Housing Council, which represents landlords. She says with tens of millions of Americans out of work, Congress needs to pass another stimulus bill with help for renters.

"Americans still aren't working, they have depleted their savings," Cino says. "When a renter doesn't pay, then we can't make our mortgage payments, pay our payroll. And that really creates the opportunity for a systemic failure in the housing market."

For their part, Jeremy and Alice Bumpus are glad they're not getting evicted for now. "It gives us time to actually figure out what we can do," Jeremy Bumpus says. Alice Bumpus has been told she's been approved for unemployment benefits, though the money hasn't started coming yet.

"This situation could happen to anyone," she says. "Sometimes life throws you curveballs, and it just depends on how you handle that curveball. So right now, we're hitting the best we could and just keep moving forward."

Jeremy Bumpus has signed up with three different food delivery services and he and his wife are trying to start a business doing delivery, car detailing and all kinds of odd jobs. They're hoping they can piece together enough income to afford a place to live.

Houston Public Media's Jen Rice contributed reporting to this story.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has ordered a nationwide eviction ban for people who can't pay rent during the pandemic and have no place else to go. While the ban is helping some people, it's not automatic. Many renters don't know how to take advantage of this, so they are getting evicted anyway. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: We first talked to Alice and Jeremy Bumpus outside a county housing court for Houston, Texas. A powerful tropical storm was blowing in from the Gulf. We spoke over a Zoom video call.

Jeremy and Alice, good to meet you.

JEREMY BUMPUS: Good to meet you.

ALICE BUMPUS: Nice to meet you, too.

ARNOLD: Evictions have been back underway in Houston even though the state remains a hot spot for COVID with around 4,000 new cases every day. Alice Bumpus explains that she and her husband both lost their jobs after the pandemic hit. She worked at an airport fast-food restaurant, and he lost a warehouse job.

A BUMPUS: We explained to the judge that due to everything that was going on, we just fell behind on just our one month's rent.

ARNOLD: But in Texas, missing one month's rent gives the landlord the right to evict you, so the judge ruled against them. It appears that they should've qualified for unemployment, but the state office told them they didn't qualify. They were still trying to sort that out.

Back at the house they've been renting, the couple explains that they have three kids and Jeremy's mom living with them.

J BUMPUS: And we got 13-, 12- and a 10-year-old in the house. My mom is 68.

A BUMPUS: And that's what we worry about the most, you know? How much more are we going to be at risk when we have to move up out of our home? My mother-in-law is very sickly.

ARNOLD: Their landlord didn't respond to repeated requests for an interview. At this point, they had to get out in a matter of days, and they didn't have enough money to rent another place.

A BUMPUS: The kids is a little worried, you know? But they know at the end of the day that we're going to do whatever that it takes to protect them. But, you know, it was hard, you know, talking to them.

ARNOLD: But then the CDC announced this new ban on evictions. The ban is nationwide, but - this is important - it is not automatic. Renters need to give their landlord a signed declaration. You can get the form on the CDC website. And you have to swear, basically, that, among other things, that you have no options besides being homeless or moving in with other people in close quarters. The Bumpuses have been getting help from a legal aid lawyer who quickly got that form to them.

J BUMPUS: So he called us and had us sign the paper. And he trying to take it to the court and see what could happen.

ARNOLD: And now it looks like the CDC eviction ban is going to protect the family until the end of the year. The court told law enforcement not to evict them. But the Bumpuses were lucky. They had a lawyer. By one count just in the Houston area, more than 9,000 eviction cases have been filed during the pandemic. It's one of the ground zero cities when it comes to evictions. And less than 4% of those people have an attorney.

JEN RICE, BYLINE: I am standing outside of a Harris County courthouse just outside of Houston.

ARNOLD: Reporter Jen Rice is with Houston Public Media. Since the CDC eviction ban was announced, she's been going to eviction hearings over the past week to try to find out basically whether this is working for renters who need the help.

What are you seeing?

RICE: I've been to four courts and, at this point, I've watched about a hundred cases. And I actually just saw someone apply the CDC moratorium and prevent their eviction for the first time. So that was one case out of about a hundred.

ARNOLD: Really? So, I mean, like, literally, you're saying 99% of the cases, this CDC eviction moratorium is not helping those people?

RICE: Yeah, that's right. Typically, what I see is that the renter doesn't show up, the landlord representative does show up, and then the case is decided for the landlord.

ARNOLD: Basically, she says at least so far, this is business as usual at eviction hearings. The judges aren't asking landlords if tenants sent them the CDC declarations. Tenants who do show up - most don't appear to even know about their rights under the CDC order. The judges don't ask them about that. And in the vast majority of cases, the landlord is given the right to evict them - that's despite the CDC order - in the middle of a pandemic.

JOHN HENNEBERGER: This is a emergency order from the Center for Disease Control to prevent people from dying.

ARNOLD: John Henneberger is a co-director of Texas Housers. It's a prominent housing policy nonprofit. He's watching this play out in courts across the state and the country, and he sees lots of confusion.

HENNEBERGER: We're still working in that murky period between the order hits and the courts and the government bureaucracy figures out how to actually implement it. And there's a lot of people already falling through the cracks.

ARNOLD: Meanwhile, landlords say the CDC eviction ban isn't fair to them because there's no money in it for the unpaid rent. Paula Cino is with the National Multifamily Housing Council, which represents landlords. She says with tens of millions of Americans out of work, Congress needs to come back to the table and pass another stimulus bill that has help for renters.

PAULA CINO: Americans still aren't working. They have depleted their savings. When a renter doesn't pay, then we can't make our mortgage payments, pay our payroll. And that really creates the opportunity for a systemic failure in the housing market.

ARNOLD: For their part, Jeremy and Alice Bumpus is in the Houston area are at least glad that they're not getting evicted for now. Alice has been told that she's been approved for unemployment benefits, though the money hasn't started coming yet.

A BUMPUS: This situation could happen to anyone, you know? Sometime life throws you curveballs, and it just depends on how you handle that curveball. So right now, we're handling it as best we could and just keep moving forward.

ARNOLD: Jeremy signed up with three different food delivery services, and they're trying to start a business doing car detailing and all kinds of other odd jobs, hoping that they can piece together enough income to afford a place to live.

Chris Arnold, NPR News.

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