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Federal Report Says CDC Lax On Anti-Eviction Order Outreach

By Emma Whitford · 2021-03-15 18:58:08 -0400

Federal orders have helped slash the number of pandemic-era eviction cases filed across the country, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could have done more to educate tenants about their rights, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Monday.

In the report, the GAO touted the effectiveness of anti-eviction orders and laws in reducing case filings over the last year, but noted eviction cases in some jurisdictions began to creep up last fall, suggesting some tenants don't understand how the CDC's soon-to-expire eviction moratorium works or how to take advantage of it.

"CDC extended its moratorium through March 31, 2021, but has taken few steps to promote awareness and understanding of the moratorium and its requirements," the GAO wrote. "Clear, accurate and timely information is essential to keep the public informed during the pandemic."

"Without a communication and outreach plan, including federal coordination, CDC will be missing an opportunity to ensure that eligible renters avoid eviction," the office added.

In order to qualify for protection under the policy, implemented in September, tenants must submit a declaration to their landlord saying they meet certain requirements including "substantial" loss of income and imminent risk of displacement.

Significantly, the GAO noted, "property owners and local courts are not required to notify tenants of the moratorium or this requirement." And so far, the CDC has done little more to increase awareness than publish the answers to frequently asked questions on its website.

Yet the rule had the potential to protect more tenants than an earlier ban implemented under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act that applied only to tenants in single and multifamily units with federal assistance. According to the Urban Institute think tank, 28% of rental units met the CARES Act qualifications.

The GAO analyzed data collected by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, finding that eviction filings in 63 jurisdictions across the country dropped off "rapidly" after the CARES Act passed in late March 2020.

"The median rate of eviction filings in the jurisdictions was as much as 94 percent lower in April 2020 than in April 2019," according to the report, which noted that widespread court closures likely also contributed to this drop.

When the CARES Act protections expired in July, the GAO found, the median rate of eviction filings was still 74% lower than the same period in 2019.

Yet there was not a comparable drop in filings after the CDC moratorium passed in September, according to the report. In fact, filings began to increase gradually, with the median rate of filings hovering around 50% of 2019 levels in December.

Filings remain lowest in jurisdictions that have additional state- or city-level anti-eviction rules in place, the report noted. New York, for example, is currently limiting the number of eviction cases calendared at least through April. 

"By the second week of December 2020, jurisdictions with an active local moratorium had about 91 percent fewer eviction filings (at the median) than in the second week of December 2019, whereas those without an active local moratorium had only about 36 percent fewer," the report said.

Meanwhile, the CDC has not "actively publicized" its moratorium or worked with housing advocacy groups to spread the word, according to the report.

CDC officials told the GAO it lacks established relationships with housing groups because it is a health agency, the report notes. It is now looking to partner with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the Treasury Department on outreach, though the order's expiration is imminent. 

The GAO report is based on an audit conducted between May 2020 and March 2021, according to the office. It also tracks anti-eviction rules enacted at the local level since the pandemic began through laws, executive orders and court measures.

While 48 states had eviction protections at some point during the pandemic, only 15 have protections in place beyond March 1 of this year, according to the GAO.

A December U.S. Census report found that an estimated third of all renters had no confidence or slight confidence that they would be able to make their next rent payment. The percentage was higher for Black and Hispanic renters — closer to 50%.

Eric Dunn is director of litigation at the National Housing Law Project, which is currently lobbying for the CDC anti-eviction order to be amended and extended beyond the end of the month. He said Monday the GAO report tracks with his organization's observations.

"The CDC eviction halt order has helped stave off lots of evictions, but it's not working as well as we need it to be," Dunn told Law360. "As the GAO report finds, part of the reason for that is because CDC isn't taking steps to make sure tenants are notified of the protection, to whom it applies and how to use it."

Another factor, Dunn added, is implementation in the courts. Certain judges "disregard the order and make tenants nervous about whether, if they complete the declaration and provide it to their landlords, the order will truly protect them from eviction," he said. 

The National Multifamily Housing Council, a trade group for the apartment industry, reiterated its longstanding opposition to eviction moratoriums in a statement to Law360. 

"While we are reviewing the full report, NMHC maintains that eviction moratoriums do little to solve the underlying problems of financial distress for renters and housing providers alike," the council said, urging the federal government to "efficiently and effectively" distribute rental assistance funds included in the $1.9 trillion federal relief package signed last week. 

The CDC and White House did not immediately reply to requests for comment Monday.

--Additional reporting by Stephen Cooper, Sarah Jarvis and Andrew Kragie. Editing by Philip Shea.

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