A day before she was evicted from her Atlanta home in November, Shanelle King learned she had received about $15,000 in housing assistance. She could breathe again.
But then the 43-year-old hairstylist received a letter from her landlord last month saying the company was canceling her lease in March – seven months earlier – without any explanation.
“I’m really pissed off about this. I thought I would be comfortable at home again,” said King, whose job dried up during the pandemic and now worries about finding another apartment she can afford. “Here I am with my back to the wall with nowhere to go. I don’t know what I’m going to do.
Although the $46.5 billion emergency rent relief program has paid out tens of billions of dollars to help avert an eviction crisis, some tenants, like King, who received help , find themselves again threatened with deportation – sometimes days after getting help from the federal government. Many find it almost impossible to find affordable alternative accommodation.
“It’s a band-aid. It was never envisioned as anything more than a band-aid,” Erin Willoughby, director of Clayton Housing Legal Resource Center Atlanta, said of the program.
“It doesn’t solve the underlying problem, which is the lack of affordable housing. People are being forced to pay rent that they cannot afford to pay,” she said. “Just finding something cheaper is not an option because there is nothing cheaper. People have to be housed somewhere.
The National Housing Law Project, in a survey last fall of nearly 120 legal aid attorneys and civil rights advocates, found that 86% of respondents reported cases in which landlords either refused to take help, accepted the money and still decided to evict the tenants. The survey also found a significant increase in cases of landlords lying in court to evict tenants and lock them out illegally.
“A number of issues could be described as landlord fraud issues…and a set of issues that I would describe as shortcomings in the program…that made it less effective in achieving the objective “said Natalie N. Maxwell, a senior attorney for the group.
National Apartment Association President and CEO Bob Pinnegar said the investigation was not based on fact, adding that its members were doing everything they could to keep renters in their homes, including lobbying for faster rental assistance.
“Biased polls don’t reflect the whole picture. Overall, the rental housing industry has gone to great lengths to support residents, including with rental assistance and compliance with laws and regulations,” Pinnegar said in a statement. .
Legal aid lawyers interviewed across the country confirmed they were seeing a steady increase in cases where tenants had been approved for housing assistance and were still at risk of eviction.
These include the mother of a newborn baby and two other children in Florida who received housing assistance but were evicted after the landlord refused to take the money. Another Florida landlord lied in court saying she didn’t receive the money in an effort to push through an eviction.
There have also been cases in Georgia and Texas where landlords who received assistance decided to end leases early, raised rents to unaffordable levels, or found reasons other than nonpayment. to deport someone, lawyers said.
“As it stands, it doesn’t seem to be working as expected,” said Tori Tavormina, eviction prevention specialist at Texas Housers. “It’s much more like a program that eases the pressure of the eviction crisis but doesn’t address the underlying issues.”
District Court Judge Shera Grant, who handles housing cases in Birmingham, Alabama, said she and her fellow judges have seen an increase in landlords getting help and returning to court a few weeks later. late after a tenant falls behind on rent to seek an eviction. So far they have prevented them – although she expects such cases to spike in the future.
“It’s up to the judges to make sure we pay close attention to our eviction cases and make sure the landlord doesn’t have their cake and eat it too,” she said. “Similarly, we don’t force the owners to take the money. There are unfortunate circumstances where the tenant must be evicted.
In King’s case, she believes her landlord was acting in retaliation for earlier complaints about mold and water leaks in her three-bedroom home. The company King was dealing with, NDI Maxim, which manages the landlords’ property, said it “was not free to share tenants’ status details or payment history”.
Other cases are complicated by the length of the pandemic and the conflicting accounts of landlord and tenant. And they often leave both parties feeling aggrieved.
Despite his landlord receiving over $20,000 in housing assistance, Prince Beatty faces imminent eviction from his three-bedroom home in East Point, Georgia.
After the money was approved, Beatty signed an agreement in court late last year to pay several thousand dollars more than he owed as a condition of staying housed. He returned to the county to get additional help to cover the balance, but says he was turned down. Unable to find work in a warehouse during the pandemic, the 47-year-old Navy veteran still can’t pay his rent and is now $12,000 behind, in part because his rent has gone up from $1,250 per month to $2,000.
Beatty, who was told he would be deported this month, said he wakes up almost every morning in a panic, wondering if this will be the day the marshals “come disrespecting my business and would throw them in the street”.
Its owner, Monique Jones, said she tried to work with Beatty. But she said he breached the lease by subletting rooms to several other people and that the amount of rental assistance did not cover the loss of months of unpaid rent that began before the pandemic.
“It was helpful but it didn’t solve the underlying problem which is his non-payment of rent,” she said of housing assistance. “It still remains and that’s rightly why I continue. If I have a tenant who pays rent and honors the lease, I will not attempt to evict.
The limits of housing assistance often come down to some states and localities not following Treasury Department guidelines calling for policies requiring landlords to delay evictions after getting money. Although the program prevents landlords from evicting during the period covered by housing assistance, the Treasury Department can only encourage states to adopt policies prohibiting evictions for up to three months after.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition found that only 29 states and localities in 2021 had policies prohibiting landlords who participate in the housing assistance program from evicting tenants for a period ranging from 30 days to 12 months. Six states — Arizona, Kentucky, Louisiana, New York, North Carolina and West Virginia — have passed regulations, while several cities or counties in Texas and Maryland have.
Gene Sperling, who is tasked with overseeing the implementation of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus bailout package, said there was no data to suggest landlords evicting tenants after they getting help is a “pervasive problem”, but that it was “completely unacceptable”.
While it’s “not against the letter of the law, it’s against its spirit,” he said.
The Coalition also said the problems with the program illustrate a larger problem.
“We are in the midst of a serious affordable housing crisis with gaping holes in our social safety net,” said CEO Diane Yentel. “We have a systemic power imbalance that favors landlords over low-income tenants. Emergency rental assistance and eviction moratoriums were a temporary fix to these holes.”