A CLOSER LOOK: “Fresh Start” helps with rental assistance; COVID-19 evictions report

A Closer Look

The pandemic is creating an eviction crisis

PHOENIX, ARIZONA – OCTOBER 01: A Maricopa County constable posts an eviction order for non-payment of rent on October 1, 2020 in Phoenix, Arizona. Thousands of court-ordered evictions continue nationwide despite a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) moratorium for renters impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

ARKANSAS (KNWA/KFTA) — Arkansans who are having trouble paying rent because of COVID-19 can get financial help as of Monday, November 9, through a new program called Fresh Start.

In September, the Arkansas legislature approved $10 million in federal grants for rental assistance. The state also included a new website to help tenants with information about applying for rental assistance and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) eviction moratorium (in place until January 2021.

The new website is ARFreshStart.com. Those who apply may be eligible for up to 2.5 months of past-due rent as a result of COVID-19.

The program is expected to help about 8,000 households.

U.S. Census Pulse Survey, week ending 11/4

  • 465,891 Arkansans renter households, 14% are not caught up with rent.
  • Seventeen percent have zero confidence that they can pay next month’s rent.
  • Of those tenant households not current on rent payments, 51% are very likely or somewhat likely to be evicted in the next two months.

Evictions filed in October — filings of civil evictions against residential
tenants for nonpayment of rent, and filings of criminal failure to vacate charges against tenants — dropped 14% from last month, according to a report by retired University of Arkansas at Little Rock law professor Lynn Foster.

Arkansas Community Action Agencies Association (ACAAA) Executive Director Terry Bearden said this money may be gone before the end of the year. “I don’t think the entire pot of money will make it through mid-December. I think we will be out of funds in four to six weeks. That’s just a guess based upon the pent-up need.”

PHOENIX, ARIZONA – SEPTEMBER 30: A single mother of two is overcome with emotion after being served a court eviction order for non-payment of rent on September 30, 2020. Thousands of court-ordered evictions continue nationwide despite a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) moratorium for renters impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

OCTOBER TENANT STORIES FOCUSES ON CDC EVICTION MORATORIUM

Washington County Circuit Court:

In her reply, the tenant stated that she had worked at Pier One for nine years. First, her hours were cut from 40 hours to 8-20 hours per week. Then after September 10, she was cut completely from the schedule. Her unemployment benefits paid $81/week. She noted Pier One declared bankruptcy and closed her store on Sept. 23.

Obviously, her job will not come back. Even if she finds another job quickly, and many tenants do report they have found other work, without significant savings, being unemployed for several months makes it difficult, if not impossible, to pay the rent.

This tenant’s story is representative of many more. Her landlord sued to evict her in October.

UALR Retired Law Professor Lynn Foster

Pulaski County Circuit Court:

A landlord filed an unlawful detainer action against a tenant in June. The tenant responded that she had deducted a plumber’s repair charge from her June rent as per an agreement she had with the landlord. She also related that she had lost her job in March due to COVID. Also because of the pandemic, the tenant’s daughter and grandchildren were living with her. At a court hearing held in late October, the judge found that the landlord had refused the partial rent, and refused a July rent payment as well. The tenant did not pay September and October rent and apparently did not submit
the CDC declaration in either month.

This case is one example of many involving a tenant who did not give their landlord a CDC declaration. The judge did not mention a CDC declaration, so presumably, the tenant did not fill one out. Why not? Given the facts she related, had she tried to apply for rent assistance (and perhaps she did), she would have qualified. The judge ordered the tenant to leave within the next eight days.

UALR Retired Law Professor Lynn Foster

Lonoke County Circuit Court:

A landlord filed an unlawful detainer action against tenants in July. In the tenants’ response, they noted that the toilets broke just at the time they moved in. The toilets were extremely old and the tenants offered to pay half the cost of new replacements, even though the break was not their fault. However, the landlord refused, and one was now unusable and had caused flooding that in turn caused black mold. After the first night on the premises, their sons were covered with flea bites, from animals owned by prior occupants; the tenants did not own pets. Instead of sending an exterminator, the landlord sent a maintenance man with bombs, which did not work. The tenants noted they were actively looking for a new place but one of them had contracted COVID and the other was on unemployment. They complained that their landlord refused to make repairs that the lease promised, and asked for a hearing. The landlord’s attorney denied the tenants’ claims and also asked for a hearing, as well as asking for immediate possession because the tenants had not paid a deposit to the court. The court held a hearing in August, prior to the CDC moratorium. The judge ordered a writ of possession for the landlord, which was issued, stating as his reason the fact that the tenants admitted that they owed rent and had not paid the deposit, never mind the allegations about the terrible living conditions. The tenants filed a pleading the same day the writ was issued, describing their health care issues at some length and asking for ten days in which to move, and raising the CARES Act as an issue. (Almost certainly, the CARES Act, which expired as to most properties in August, did not apply here.) The landlord’s attorney responded the next day, arguing the tenants’ pleading was moot. A week or so later, the tenants filed CDC declarations with the court. Nothing further has been filed with the court, and if the writ was served on the tenants it’s not reflected in the docket. The tenants are either still there or have abandoned the property.

This example is one of many in which landlords are suing tenants to evict them, and tenants are counterclaiming because premises are not in good repair and landlords are not fixing them.

UALR Retired Law Professor Lynn Foster

Faulkner County Circuit Court:

In late August, a landlord sued a tenant for nonpayment of rent. The tenant responded late (15 days after service) with the CDC declaration. A week after the tenant’s response, the judge assigned to the case stated in an order that the defendant had failed to file any response (which is incorrect, because the tenant had filed the CDC declaration) and had failed to deposit any money in the court’s registry (the whole point of the CDC moratorium is that tenants may be unable to pay rent and likewise to pay a deposit to the court). The judge ordered the clerk to issue a writ of possession. This judicial response, not even granting the tenant a hearing, would seem to create a direct violation of the CDC’s order on the part of the landlord. So far, the writ has not been issued. Presumably, the tenant has been informed of the judge’s order to issue the writ.

This is one of several examples of judges who are ordering writs of possession even though tenants have submitted CDC declarations. In my opinion, the order to issue the writ violates the CDC moratorium. If the tenant is notified of the order this puts pressure on the tenant to leave. Some tenants may even think the order itself is evicting them.

UALR Retired Law Professor Lynn Foster

Greene County Circuit Court:

After a landlord sued to evict husband and wife tenants, they alleged that they originally had a verbal month to month lease, and all was well until the husband became ill, requiring hospitalization, and missed work for more than two months. The landlord knew they were applying for rent assistance. The landlord at first wouldn’t return calls from the rent assistance agency. After several requests, she did call and agreed to the pledge, but in the end refused the check, which would have paid September rent. Meanwhile, the tenants had borrowed money to pay October rent. The tenants also turned in CDC declarations to the landlord before she filed. The landlord gave as reasons for eviction her plans to develop the property, which she had not previously told the tenants, and a pool they had set up, which was not forbidden by the lease and which the landlord had not previously complained about.

This is an example of a few instances where the landlord has refused to accept rent assistance.

At the time of this writing, there are no further developments. But courts have evicted tenants whose landlords have refused to accept rent assistance. Some reasons given for landlord refusal are landlords who accept only cash rent and landlords who may be confusing rent assistance with Section 8 vouchers.

UALR Retired Law Professor Lynn Foster
PHOENIX, ARIZONA – SEPTEMBER 30: Maricopa County constable Darlene Martinez escorts a family out of their apartment after serving an eviction order for non-payment on September 30, 2020, in Phoenix, Arizona. Thousands of court-ordered evictions continue nationwide despite a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) moratorium for renters impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

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