While serving the most vulnerable people in our communities, some HUD Public Housing Agencies (PHAs) around the country have used the eviction process to push renters into paying back bills.
Renters in federally assisted housing have been protected from eviction through most of the pandemic. The CDC eviction moratorium is in effect for low-and moderate income renters until June 30th. It would seem that few PHA residents would face eviction during the pandemic because they could not pay rent.
But even before the pandemic, there were a few PHAs around the country that filed often for evictions. The Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland recently looked into five PHAs that were “frequent filers” in their communities.
These PHAs filed for large numbers of evictions, and most of these were for nonpayment of rent. Their service areas ranged from large and medium-sized cities to small rural communities.
The PHAs examined by the Howard Center served the following communities:
- Crisfield, Maryland
- Minneapolis, Minnesota
- Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
- Charleston, South Carolina
- Richmond, Virginia
Avoidable Filings Hurt Already Struggling Renters
While people typically think of eviction as a mostly urban problem, low-income renters in rural areas also face regular threats of eviction. Crisfield, Maryland, has a population of about 2,600 people. The PHA there operates 330 Public Housing units, but made 718 eviction filings in 2019 alone. Most of these filings were for nonpayment of rent. In 30% of the cases, the amount owed was less than $100.
Often, evictions are filed repeatedly against the same tenants. In 2017, the Oklahoma City PHA filed more than 10 evictions against 48 tenants. One tenant was served with 16 evictions that year.
PHA residents who have many eviction filings in a short time will have a hard time finding other places to rent. They can also accumulate late fees, court costs, and interest that make it impossible to catch up on rent.
These residents served with evictions often either pay up or move out before the cases go to court. Especially with the amounts owed so low, this shows that some PHAs have used eviction courts to put pressure on PHA tenants rather than as a last resort.
The programs that fund operations and improvements for HUD housing have been underfunded for years. Rents are capped at 30% of a tenant’s income, with many having incomes so low they qualify for a $50 minimum rent. This leaves little margin for keeping properties healthy and safe for residents.
In other cases, tenants have faced eviction because PHAs have not provided tenants with clear information about their rights and resources. The Los Angeles Daily News found that several PHAs in California were not providing tenants information proactively, and sometimes left out important information.
Some notices did not include information about state and federal eviction moratoria. Others included misinformation. In Los Angeles, Public Housing residents received a form letter that said they would not be eligible for Emergency Rental Assistance because their rent is already subsidized by the government. Sometimes the information is just not clear, such as not mentioning that asking for a change in income can lower the amount the tenant owes for rent.
Efforts to Help Renters
HUD has issued guidance that pushes PHAs to work with tenants that have fallen behind. It reminds PHAs of the tenant protections in the CDC eviction moratorium. PHAs must also comply with any state or local eviction moratoriums. The guidance encourages PHAs to use repayment agreements and other measures to help residents catch up.
In addition, new guidance from the Treasury Department makes it clear that public housing residents qualify for federal emergency rental assistance. Tenants who live in federally assisted housing may still have trouble paying their portion of the rent. They may also have late fees, interest, or unpaid utility bills. The tenant portion of rent and utilities is eligible for emergency rental assistance, as long as it does not duplicate other federal housing assistance.
With clear guidance now coming from HUD and the Treasury Department, PHAs should be moving to evict fewer tenants. Public Housing residents are among the most vulnerable. They are overwhelmingly seniors, persons with disabilities, and working families with young children. At a time when COVID-19 still presents a public danger, federal guidance should help more public housing residents stay in their homes.