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With millions of Americans facing financial uncertainty as the coronavirus pandemic continues, many people are finding eviction notices and lockouts sent to their homes. According to the Princeton University Eviction Lab, approximately 1 million renters are already evicted every year in the United States, which raises concerns about the further spread of COVID-19 if that number is higher during the pandemic year.
The eviction moratorium from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that followed the president’s executive order postponed evictions until Dec. 31, 2020, but the memo leaves a lot to unpack.
The Active Times spoke to Carol Oshana, real estate attorney in Chicago, who outlined a few steps tenants can take when faced with eviction. Oshana stressed that the issue is two-sided — if tenants can’t make rent, landlords can’t make mortgage payments, leading to a domino effect that will impact everything from homelessness and the housing market to communities that use taxes paid for by landlords.
Here are some things to know about eviction and what steps to take if faced with the dilemma.
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An eviction notice is not the eviction itself. When a tenant is given a termination notice, it’s important to know they still have several options to resolve the issue. In some cases, renters may have time to resolve the issue before the actual eviction case is filed with the court. The eviction notice is usually presented as a legal document, but it has to meet strict state requirements before being considered by the court.
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In many state and local jurisdictions, a typical eviction notice can require a response within 10, 14 or 30 days of receiving it. However, specific circumstances and personal reasons can impact how long a tenant has to respond. It also depends on the reason for eviction.
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Aside from not paying rent, there are a few other reasons a landlord may attempt to evict a tenant, including lease violations like having long-term house guests that are not approved to live on the property, or worse — if the tenant rents out a spare room without approval. Unauthorized pets that either aren’t allowed at all or require an additional fee that was not paid can also be something a landlord takes to court as a reason to remove a tenant. Property damage is another just cause for eviction, as is taking part in any drug-related or other illegal activity on the property.
If the door is locked with a notice and you haven’t received anything prior, Oshana said the first thing she recommends doing is calling the police and hoping that they step in and help. “Lawyers can’t do anything right away, we'd have to file an emergency motion and it takes too long,” she said. The hope is that the police will tell the landlord that they have to let the tenant in, and in most cases, they will under rights that the tenant has.
The second step to take, according to Oshana, is calling a legal service to assess the situation. If you can’t afford it, you can consult free legal help. There are plenty of resources available and you can use the American Bar Association’s “find free legal help” portal to get started.
Oshana said if the eviction or lockout notice is from your landlord, you can still go in because it is not trespassing. “Lockout notice. Go in,” Oshana said. But if the eviction notice is from the sheriff, she said not to go in as that could be considered a violation of law. The latter will only happen if the landlord wins the court case and law enforcement will likely give the tenant a few days to pack up.
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Most people don’t know that they have certain rights and can fight an eviction order in court. Look up your state’s specific eviction process to know what you’re dealing with — in most states, it's a multi-step process to file a formal eviction case. It varies case by case and state by state, but generally, a summons and complaint that follows a notice from the landlord will give renters specific information about a court date, time and location. It will also outline the landlord’s reasons for filing legal proceedings against the renter. The Illinois Cook County Sheriff’s office suggests it is in the renter’s best interest to understand their rights as a defendant, especially if this is their first time being involved in litigation. A legal aid representative will be able to help you navigate the legal process.
If free legal help or a paid attorney is out of reach for whatever reason, you shouldn’t accept defeat just yet without showing up in court. You can show the court any documents you have that support your argument for why you should not be evicted. Documents can be records of past timely payments, a good credit report, any information you have pertaining to the property, such as the lease agreement itself and any relevant emails with the landlord. Make sure to spend some time formulating an argument before the court date.
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According to the executive order, the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) can use their authority under the Public Health Service Act to temporarily halt residential evictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The moratorium protects renters from being evicted from their homes, which could potentially lead to a rippling effect of homelessness and a spike in coronavirus cases.
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The moratorium protects renters making $99,000 or less per year, or $198,000 for couples filing jointly. You cannot be evicted if you can’t make payments. And while this is a federal ordinance, many states have their own eviction moratoriums in place as well.
In order to be protected from eviction, renters must prove their financial status, which shows they fall at or below the maximum income requirement. Renters have to fill and sign a declaration, which can be printed from the CDC. The moratorium lists reasons for why someone might qualify for temporary eviction relief. They are as follows: Renters used best efforts to get all available government assistance for rent or housing. Renters are unable to pay full rent or make a full housing payment because of lost income, job layoffs, or out-of-pocket medical expenses. Renters made partial payments when possible. And lastly, if someone was to be evicted, they’d likely become homeless, need to move into a homeless shelter or resort to a small shared living space with others.
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According to the notice published in the Federal Register, the order “does not relieve any individual of any obligation to pay rent, make a housing payment, or comply with any other obligation that the individual may have under a tenancy, lease, or similar contract.” To say it simply, any rent you owe is still due after the moratorium lifts. Tenants are only protected from being evicted if payments can not be made momentarily. You should keep this in mind to have a backup plan in place.
The moratorium includes a line that has gotten criticism and questions from housing experts. “These persons may also still be evicted for reasons other than not paying rent or making a housing payment,” the executive order reads. One of those possible reasons could be that landlords can continue to evict tenants when their lease expires, because the moratorium only protects against eviction due to the inability to pay rent.
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It is illegal for the landlord to kick you out for nonpayment of rent without going through the state’s formal eviction proceedings first. From Oshana’s experience, it’s generally landlords that have no money that resort to evicting tenants — some without going through the state — because they have nothing more to lose. “They are looking at homelessness themselves,” she said. Oshana also argues that to some degree, the narrative is not reality. “In many instances, tenants are not able to make rent because of financial instability, but why is it the landlord's responsibility to financially support the tenant?” she said. “It should be the government’s. It is their job, their responsibility. If that's what we want as a society, we want people to stay put and that’s what we’re demanding, then we need to pay for that.”
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In the event that your landlord fails to follow the proper steps required to start the eviction process or file a case in court, there is a chance your case could be dismissed before it hits trial. According to Mass Legal Help, if your landlord doesn’t send you a proper notice to evict or you weren’t properly served with a summons and complaint, you can file a “motion to dismiss” and deliver one copy to the landlord and another to court.
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The sad reality is, if the case ends with an eviction, it can have a consequential impact on everything from your job, family life to your credit score and future status as a tenant. But it’s important to understand that it’s not the end of the road for you. Social services can be a great help in such instances and can support you as you get back on your feet.
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