Evicting Tenants in a Pandemic: Talking Through Ethical and Legal Issues

With 2020 in our rear-view mirror and vaccines being rolled out in many countries, it may seem as though we’ve passed an inflection point. But are things really looking up when many people still face uncertainty over their basic living arrangements?

Before the pandemic, the cost of housing had already been on the rise, especially in urban centers. More people couldn’t afford to buy their own homes and had to rent instead. That growth in demand led to higher rental prices and shifted power to the landlords. In this sort of market, tenants can’t seem to win.

Yet on the flip side, many landlords are dealing with their own struggles. It’s easier than ever to obtain the necessary legal documents online and contest an eviction order. But people on both sides could do much to smooth out these issues through a proper dialogue and better understanding of their shared problems.

A state of uneasy protection

The upheaval caused by the pandemic staggered the economy and forced many people out of jobs. This has led to more tenants being unable to pay rent. In a move to forestall a rash of evictions that could potentially trigger a surge in coronavirus cases, a federal moratorium was issued on evictions.

The CARES act expired on July 24 and had limited coverage anyway, applying only 28% of rental properties. The CDC order that succeeded it was more comprehensive and the new Biden administration has extended it through at least March while providing relief for landlords owed back payment.

But housing advocates have noted that the moratorium itself was insufficient in the past. It protected tenants in spirit, but no federal agency really enforced penalties for unlawful evictions. In turn, studies have linked these evictions to potentially thousands of more coronavirus-related deaths.

Loopholes and lack of awareness

On a basic level, the problem with the CDC-issued moratorium is that it still places part of the burden on the tenant. They need to be aware of its existence and understand what’s required of them.

A tenant must provide their landlord with a signed CDC declaration for every adult in the household to avoid being evicted for nonpayment of rent. And while they don’t need proof of financial hardship, they would do well to collect relevant documentation, such as rental receipts, applications to relief programs, medical bills, or employment termination letters.

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Landlords can still attempt to force evictions. Some might be seeking to exploit a lack of awareness on the tenant’s part. Many people aren’t accustomed to dealing with this level of bureaucratic procedures.

Others can find loopholes in the moratorium, which doesn’t protect people from eviction on grounds not related to non-payment. For instance, causing property damage or violating health and safety regulations could be deemed sufficient grounds for eviction.

Moreover, in some areas, there are not sufficient protections on holding over court procedures. For instance, Baltimore saw an increase of up to 82% in such cases filed last year. These would allow a landlord to circumvent state and federal moratoriums on evictions.

Calling for dialogue and understanding

The fact is that many landlords themselves are struggling. Complying with the moratorium means losing a source of income while having to settle their own financial obligations.

Buying property to have a source of passive income was already a popular strategy before the pandemic struck. Landlords may have retired or lost their day jobs as well. Losing rental income leaves them burdened with debt payments and significant red tape involved in applying for relief.

When you’re caught up in a conflict such as this, it’s easy to try and paint the other side with the same broad brushstroke. Stories abound of landlords resorting to underhanded tactics to evict tenants. Equally, though, tenants might be seeking to enjoy free lodging and bolt for a new location at the soonest opportunity.

More landlords and tenants occupy a gray area, though. Both sides are experiencing hardship as part of the same crisis. During such times, the relationship can’t function under a ‘business as usual’ paradigm.

Tenants can’t be worrying about how to keep a roof over their heads amid a pandemic. Landlords have no guarantee that a vacancy might be filled in the current market, let alone with a reliable tenant.

It’s in both sides’ best interest to hold constructive conversations. Talk about what steps tenants are taking to generate income and what financial assistance might be available for both.

Ethically, we all hold a responsibility to society to keep people off the streets and potentially infecting others. A dialogue won’t necessarily be the solution, but it will provide the foundation for building upon and arriving at one.

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