CDC eviction order brings temporary relief for tenants

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has taken the unprecedented step of issuing a nationwide eviction moratorium that began Sept. 4 and runs through the end of the year.

CDC officials say they took the emergency action as a wave of evictions could increase the number of Covid-19 cases if the evicted are forced to share housing with others or to move into homeless shelters. It comes as the nation is reeling from an economic crisis that has left millions unemployed.

The moratorium only applies to those facing eviction due to owing rent, meaning evictions for other causes will continue. Renters must make a formal declaration (declaration form here) to their landlord stating that they have pursued all possible forms of rent assistance, that they expect to earn less than $99,000 this year, that they have experienced substantial loss of income, that they would be homeless or forced to live in close contact with others if evicted, and that they are paying as much as they can for rent and will continue to do so.

While the new protection is a welcome step in the right direction, many housing advocates are worried about the long term consequences of the order. The order does not address rent relief, and all rent will still be due in January when this order ends. That means the end of the moratorium could trigger a wave of evictions at the start of January, right in the middle of the coldest part of the year.

La Crosse saw a surge in evictions after the state-ordered moratorium expired at the end of May. Since then, eviction numbers have trended back down toward average rates for the area, court records show. Rent relief due to Covid-19 income loss has been provided at the state level for some tenants through the Wisconsin Rental Assistance Program (WRAP), administered locally through Couleecap. This program requires landlords to sign an agreement not to evict a tenant for at least 3 months if they want the assistance money paid to them.

The new CDC order leaves a number of questions unanswered. It’s difficult to quantify much of the contents of the declaration and, according to one legal expert, “There are aspects of the declaration that might undercut tenants’ legal defenses to nonpayment.”

The order will likely face challenges in court, and it remains unclear how enforcement of the new moratorium will play out. Landlords seeking to evict tenants could doctor up other reasons for eviction besides nonpayment of rent to get around the moratorium.

Another key issue with the moratorium is that it puts the onus on tenants to take action. Tenants facing rent bills that they can’t pay are already likely overwhelmed and desperately seeking work. If they are not informed of this new protection, and how to use it, they could still be evicted for nonpayment of rent. Furthermore, the difficulty in understanding the legal ramifications may turn many off from making a declaration due to perceived risks.

By Peter Gorski. Email questions to lacrosseindependent@gmail.com. Top image credit: Aerial photo of downtown La Crosse by Wikideas1/CC BY-SA 4.0

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