As the calendar turns from July to August today, Andrew Thomas is holding his breath – at least figuratively.
The change in the month marks the end of a temporary federal ban on evictions. It prevented millions of Americans from losing their homes or apartments for being behind in rent from pandemic-related financial hardship.
Set in place by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, the ban was set to expire at the end of June. The deadline was extended to July 31 to allow more time for people to obtain emergency rent assistance.
But now any further extension is unlikely, Thomas, director of the Tenants Assistance Legal Clinic of Indiana Legal Services, said last week.
“The interesting thing is that I don't think anyone knows what will happen. We're kind of holding our breath,” he said. “What we're trying to avoid is ... a surge of evictions.”
Area housing officials said additional help for paying rent and utilities is being made available, and they urge those facing eviction to investigate.
“They need to do it very quickly,” Allen Superior Court Judge Jennifer DeGroote said in a YouTube video offering advice.
Court dates tend to come up within a week or two after eviction documents are filed, she said.
Being evicted can have dire consequences for renters, who will likely find it difficult to find other rental housing because of the mark on their record, said Rachel Blakeman, director of the Community Research Institute at Purdue University Fort Wayne.
In addition, she said, rents are trending upward, and rental housing supply is limited. Renters also tend to have lower incomes and spend a substantial amount of that income on rent, limiting their choices, she said. Many in the area already are considered “housing burdened,” spending 30% or more of their income on rent, Blakeman said.
The end of the eviction ban could affect a substantial number of Fort Wayne area people, Blakeman said, because the U.S. Census Bureau has found nearly one-third of all area housing units are rentals.
Thomas said a pent-up demand for evictions exists among area landlords, some of whom have not had rental income for months. The end of the ban, known as a moratorium, may lead to a large number of new and follow-up filings this week, he said.
“Some (landlords) are waiting until Monday to start the eviction process, while others may have started the process already,” Thomas said.
Legally speaking, he explained, eviction is a two-step process – the first is a filing of a notice of intent to evict, and the second is an actual eviction order approved by the court forcing a tenant to be out.
The expiring ban, he said, did not stop eviction filings – it just put eviction orders on pause. More than 53,000 notices of intent to evict were filed in Indiana in 2020, he said.
“Some people think the ban has stopped all eviction filings,” Thomas said, “but it's only (actual) evictions,” based on the federal moratorium's authority.
The situation recently got even more complicated.
A federal appeals court ruled the CDC overstepped its bounds in issuing the ban, which it justified on public health grounds. The agency said people losing stable housing would be likely to worsen the pandemic.
The U.S. Supreme Court also weighed in, with a ruling signaling this would be the final deadline.
Last week, some congressional Democrats pressured the Biden administration to extend the ban again, given the rising number of COVID-19 cases involving the fast-spreading delta variant.
President Joe Biden called on Congress to extend the deadline, but that had not happened as of Saturday afternoon.
Meanwhile, the National Apartment Association, a landlords' lobbying group, last week sued the federal government to recoup losses landlords sustained under the moratorium, arguing it was unlawful.
The Apartment Association of Fort Wayne-Northeast Indiana did not return calls seeking information and comment on how the ban affected members.
The Indiana Apartment Association issued a statement saying landlords are continuing to help tenants apply for rental assistance.
“Eviction is always a last resort for property owners, but after more than a year of being unable to collect rent, we are seeing a direct impact on properties' ability to pay their mortgage, taxes, insurance and payroll,” the statement says.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a private policy advisory group, estimates 20% of Hoosiers are behind on rent as of July 5 – more than the national average of 16%.
Meanwhile, Joshua Gale, executive director of Just Neighbors in Fort Wayne, a homeless shelter for families, said organizations like his wonder how they could be affected.
His organization can house only about 10 families, and although the shelter was not full early last week, Gale expects more families will soon need help. Some landlords, he said, are waiting for the moratorium to expire before pursuing evictions.
Gale said Just Neighbors has been trying to keep people from needing the shelter by stationing a caseworker at the court to help those facing eviction provide a defense and connect them with rental assistance.
“Most people who go through eviction have no legal representation,” Gale said. Some don't show up for court because they believe they will lose, but that's not always the case, he said.
Help is out there
Fort Wayne's Community Development office Wednesday announced it was allowing renters to apply for additional rental and utility assistance, even if they previously received aid.
Kelly Lundberg, director of the city's Office of Housing and Neighborhood Services administering the assistance, said more than 1,475 households have received $4.9 million in aid. The office still has money left, and an additional $500,000 is expected in upcoming weeks, she said.
Assistance is available for those at or below 80% of the area's median income, $57,500 for a family of four, she said. People who make below 50% of the median – the midpoint of all incomes – are prioritized for help, she said.
To qualify, renters must have experienced COVID-19-related hardship, including unemployment, reduced pay, lost child care or the need for one parent to give up a job to care for children.
A handful of people have qualified because they could not go back to work because of health issues relating to a compromised immune system, Lundberg said.
Those who qualify must be city residents. Those eligible receive past-due rental payments and up to three months of future payments, Lundberg said.
Assistance is also available to pay past-due electricity, gas, water and sewer, trash removal and other energy costs such as fuel oil, for up to 12 months. The current month's cost for those services is also eligible for assistance.
The money goes to the landlord and the utilities, generally not the tenants.
Lundberg said bottlenecks in getting assistance money paid exist in some areas, where only 10% of funds are getting to their intended destinations. But the city has been ahead on that score, with more than 60% committed and distributed.
Brightpoint, Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services are providing help to those who need assistance applying.
Assistance also exists for those who live in Allen County through the Indiana Community Development & Housing Authority.
Christopher Nancarrow, Allen County clerk of courts, said the county faces 417 pending eviction cases from 2020 and 658 pending cases remaining from 1,564 filed this year through July 28.
As to what might happen in upcoming days and weeks, “I've heard mixed responses,” Nancarrow said. “I've heard a tidal wave (of new filings) and that things have been worked out between landlords and tenants as time has gone on.”
Gale said evictions are traumatic for families. Last year, Fort Wayne Community Schools had more than 1,900 students who listed their housing status as homeless, he said.
“I think we need to understand is that, ... the largest proportion of (people affected by evictions) will be the kids,” he said. “These things impact the most vulnerable.”
• Indiana Legal Services, 260-424-1195 or www.indianalegalservices.org
• Video by Allen Superior Court Judge Jennifer DeGroote: https://youtu.be/1O7Mxa4JsiA
• www.fwcares.org or 317-552-1463
• Brightpoint (260-423-3546), Catholic Charities (260-422-5625) and Lutheran Social Services (through 211) are available to help tenants fill out forms