The federal government issued an order on Tuesday that prohibits evictions for most renters. For millions facing financial hardship, it could ensure a safe shelter until Dec. 31, when the eviction ban expires.

Meanwhile, for those struggling to pay rent, Idaho’s Housing Preservation Program has $11 million left to spend on rental assistance by Dec. 31.

The new moratorium was ordered by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. The goal is to keep renters from ending up in homeless shelters or other crowded living conditions.

It replaces a similar eviction ban—part of the CARES Act—that expired in July. That ban covered up to 12.3 million renters in apartment complexes or single-family homes that were financed with federally backed mortgages. The new moratorium is expected to cover nearly all of the nation’s 43 million rental households, regardless of where they reside, PBS reported on Wednesday.

“We just heard about this last night,” Idaho Legal Aid Executive Director Jim Cook said of the new federal measure on Wednesday. He said members of his legal staff of 22 Idaho attorneys were still analyzing the details of the order, but he thinks it will ease minds during a period of record unemployment.

“We don’t know yet if this will bring us back to the original moratorium or if it’s a watered-down version of it. But the previous eviction ban was very helpful to many low-income renters,” Cook said.

The moratorium applies to tenants who can show a “substantial loss” of income, the inability to pay full rent and an effort to pay partial rent. The renters must also show that the eviction would likely cause them to be homeless or live in close quarters with others.

The eviction ban does not, however, relieve renters of paying back rent and penalties eventually, nor does it delay or forgive mortgage payments. It is available to individuals who “expect to” earn no more than $99,000 this year or $198,000 for couples filing a joint tax return, or those who meet additional income restrictions.

The moratorium order puts the responsibility on the renter to ensure they meet the criteria with a signed written statement to their landlord. Each adult on the lease must provide a statement on an official form as sworn testimony. This means a person can go to jail or pay a fine if found lying or leaving out important information.

Before the moratorium was announced, Cook said his office was bracing for a wave of evictions. Idaho Legal Aid offers free legal assistance to a pool of up to 200,000 qualified “low-income” people in Idaho. But in recent months, the demand has far outstretched his legal team’s capacity.

“Our attorneys are maxed out,” he said. “There is a greater need than we are able to handle.”

The New York Times reported Wednesday that the National Multifamily Housing Council, which represents landlords, opposed the moratorium, arguing that it did not address the underlying financial issues facing of renters or landlords and would be “particularly harmful to small landlords.”

“Not only does an eviction moratorium not address renters’ real financial needs, a protracted eviction moratorium does nothing to address the financial pressures and obligations of rental property owners,” said Douglas M. Bibby, the association’s president, in the Times.

The Blaine County Charitable Fund has been providing emergency assistance to cover bills for local families impacted by the pandemic. Executive Director Mary Fauth said some of the people coming to her for help already have back rent due.

“I am afraid that if people lose jobs in coming months, the moratorium will only delay the inevitable,” Fauth said. “The rent will come due at some point.”

Cook said COVID-19 has further impacted low income households. His office has seen a 34 percent increase in legal cases involving housing since last August, cases that had been closed following calls to housing hotlines or by litigation. He said an increase in eviction cases was expected following the expiration of an unemployment benefit increase about a month ago.

The Idaho Housing and Finance Association’s Housing Preservation Program has seen a spike in requests for financial assistance in the last three weeks, according to Benjamin Cushman, the organization’s communications director.

“We have seen more money paid out for rent and utilities during this period as well,” Cushman said.

Overall, nearly $3.3 million has been paid out through the Housing Preservation Program since June 9, Cushman said, leaving roughly $11 million available to IHFA to distribute by the end of the year.

“People who are approved for the Housing Preservation Program may qualify for past due rent or utilities,’ Cushman said. “Households may also be assisted initially for up to three months. Additional assistance may be approved when continued need is demonstrated.”

Cushman said the program has distributed $189,417 so far to South Central Idaho, which includes Blaine County and the Twin Falls area.

Despite the eviction moratorium, further disruption in the housing market is likely, Cook said.

“It hasn’t been long enough for foreclosures to begin,” he said. “But we anticipate this absolutely, based on what we learned during the Great Recession.”


A spike in other concerns

Cook said his office has also seen a 21 percent increase in demand for legal assistance due to domestic abuse and sexual assault since last August.

“It seems to me that when there is more financial dislocation, there is an increase in domestic violence,” he said.

Cook said Idaho Legal Aid has also seen a 235 percent increase in calls for assistance for advanced directives, or issuances of powers of attorney for elders concerned about end of life circumstances, and a 176 percent increase in calls for writing wills.

“To me this indicates that seniors are very concerned about COVID,” Cook said.

Email the writer: tevans@mtexpress.com

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