Thousands of people in the St. Louis region are facing evictions because of unemployment or a considerable loss of income from the ongoing effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
To mitigate the spread of coronavirus through mass evictions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a three-month national ban on evictions for renters in early September.
For renters to be covered by the federal order, they must complete a declaration form that states the renter does not make more than $99,000 a year or received a stimulus check. The applicant must be unable to make a housing payment due to income loss or a substantial amount of medical expenses. Renters must also declare that they will become unhoused or forced to live with other family members or housing shelters if they lose their home.
“I don't think it's something that any of us expected. That said, it was certainly a welcome surprise,” said Matthew Ampleman, an attorney with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri. “The CDC is taking this very sweeping action to prevent a further public health crisis because they have seen that eviction moratoriums are protective of human health.”
On Aug. 31, a St. Louis judge halted eviction proceedings until Oct. 2, to allow families more time to receive rental assistance through the federal Cares Act. St. Louis County’s eviction proceedings are on hold indefinitely.
Ampleman spoke to St. Louis Public Radio’s Andrea Henderson about what residents facing evictions need to know about the national moratorium.
This interview was edited for clarity.
Andrea Henderson: What does this national moratorium mean for St. Louis regional renters and mortgage holders?
Matthew Ampleman: So the moratorium is very specific, and it prevents landlords from taking any action to evict renters who provide a written declaration stating certain things, including that they have tried to pay rent, that they're not able to because it's substantial loss of income, extraordinary medical expenses, loss of hours or layoffs. They must use their best efforts to obtain available government assistance for rent or housing in a state that the election would require them to move into a homeless shelter or live with another family or become homeless. And this is really crucial, they must continue to pay what portion of rent they are able to pay. That's crucial for two reasons: They're not protected under the order unless they do that, and they must promise to do that and number two, landlords are still able to charge late fees, and any rent that these renters don't pay will accumulate as a debt. So, a lot of debt can be accrued between today and Dec. 31 when the order is set to expire.
Henderson: If you don't do any one of those things, can you be evicted?
Ampleman: If you have submitted the declaration and if the renter is continuing to pay everything that they can toward their rent, understanding that they have other necessary expenses, then they're protected even if they can't pay anything. And we would encourage and we would expect that in most or all situations the individual is able to pay something, and we would encourage them to pay as much as they can. But if they pay all they can, even if it's very little or nothing, then they're still protected if they provided this declaration and the declaration is true.
Henderson: The CDC order points out that landlords can face a hefty fine if they are filing evictions or putting people out of their homes during this time. Are there any other restrictions that are listed for landlords in the order?
Ampleman: The moratorium prevents landlords from taking any action to evict tenants that have submitted the declaration. Landlords cannot ask tenants to leave, whether through the court process or not and they can't file an eviction action. If they've already filed an eviction action, then it can't be served to the individual. If they've already served the individual, then they can't ask the court to execute that writ of eviction. They can't do any of those things, again, either inside the court system or outside the court system. They can't provide a letter to the tenant saying you haven't paid rent, you need to leave. They can't do any of those things. That's the only limitation provided within this order.
Henderson: When we are looking at the scope of the evictions in the region, what areas of town may see a vast amount of evictions?
Ampleman: Well, we've mapped out evictions in St. Louis and St. Louis County, and unfortunately we know that evictions that have been filed during the pandemic fit the pattern of evictions that were filed before the pandemic. And that we see more evictions filed in low-income, heavily minority communities that have seen discrimination and disinvestment through more than 100 years of city, local, state and federal policy. The individuals living in those locations bear the brunt of those historical inequities, but also the current eviction crisis as well, which is a huge problem.
Henderson: And are some of those areas north St. Louis and north county and south St. Louis?
Ampleman: The areas that we see with greater eviction filings tend to be north of Delmar Boulevard, that's where we've seen greater eviction filings in the past, but also parts of north St. Louis County. There are also parts of south city. We shouldn't forget about the Metro East; we tend to see greater evictions in those locations too.
Henderson: What is the major difference between the national moratorium and the regional ban on evictions?
Ampleman: To be clear, the national moratorium applies to some jurisdictions that don't have the same level of protection or greater level of protection. In St. Louis city and St. Louis County, we don't have the same level of protection because the national moratorium, again, prevents all actions and prohibits landlords from taking any action to evict a defendant that provides the declaration. Whereas our local moratoria are really just suspensions of the final part of the judicial process, which is the execution of a writ of eviction. So under the local orders, a landlord can do everything up to the final step. They can file the action, they can ask the tenant to leave or they can write a strongly worded letter saying that the tenant must leave. But with the CDC order, if somebody has provided that declaration, the landlord can't do any of those things.
Henderson: Many people are saying this moratorium will give renters more time to try to seek out rental assistance. Do you think this moratorium will give renters and mortgage holders enough time to receive assistance to help pay down any arrears?
Ampleman: I would certainly hope so. Understanding the limited scope of the financial assistance that's available right now. That said, across the state of Missouri, the amount of rent that we believe people are struggling to pay is about $178 million. So, that's two orders of magnitude greater than the assistance that's available in the city, understanding that the city is a decent portion at the need of the state. There's really a great amount of need out there right now, and we're hopeful that the CDC order provides time to prevent some of the most dire consequences in terms of outcomes for renters and also public health.
Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist