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Matt Ampleman and Joel Ferber: Tenants must know their rights during eviction-suspension period

Matt Ampleman and Joel Ferber: Tenants must know their rights during eviction-suspension period

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ordered a halt to evictions on Sept. 4 with one purpose in mind: protecting public health. Newly evicted families are often forced into overcrowded homeless shelters or attempt to squeeze into friends’ or relatives’ homes. Still others live in cars or on the street. When sheriff deputies serve eviction writs, they come into contact with tenants and their families, some in large apartment buildings with dozens of people. Each of these situations increases exposure to and the spread of the coronavirus.

The order halting evictions for certain tenants was slated to last from Sept. 4 to Dec. 31. The “temporary halt in residential evictions” prevents landlords from taking any action to evict tenants who sign and deliver a declaration. Landlords who receive a declaration cannot do any of the following: send a notice to vacate, file an eviction lawsuit, seek a court order or judgment against the tenant, ask the sheriff’s office to enforce an eviction judgment or change the locks (which is always illegal if the landlord does not have a court order).

The order means what it says: “Any action” taken to evict tenants is unlawful. Courts must comply with this language by dismissing actions where a declaration has been delivered to the landlord. The American Civil Liberties Union recently filed a lawsuit challenging a Jackson County administrative order that violates these requirements.

Landlords would be wise to heed the federal order. Penalties can be stiff, with potential fines of up to $100,000 and a year in jail if no death results. Fines could reach $250,000 and up to a year in jail if a death results. Those penalties double if the violating landlord is a company.

The order is the most sweeping eviction ban ever imposed in the United States. This breadth is fitting: President Donald Trump’s coronavirus illness reminds us that the pandemic thrives in every corner of the country. It is not abating any time soon. On Sept. 30, Missouri’s 7-day positive testing rate reached an all-time high, and Missouri’s 7-day average for new cases rose to 1,463, 10 times greater than it was on May 15. Epidemiologists say the potential for higher infection rates grows as winter approaches. As some areas of life necessarily return to in-person gatherings, including at school, the public needs to take extra caution.

Despite its breadth, the CDC order cannot protect those who are unaware of it. Tenants are protected only if they know about the order, understand whether its requirements apply to them, and sign and deliver the declaration to their landlord. That is why Legal Services of Eastern Missouri and many other non-profits and advocacy groups are working to educate the public and courts about the protections in this law. Tenants seeking to benefit from the order can go to our website (lsem.org/cdc-orders) to find more information and obtain a copy of the declaration that they must complete and deliver to their landlords.

Tenants are protected by the order if they declare they have made their best efforts to pay their rent and obtain government rent assistance. They must also have lost income or incurred an extraordinary medical expense of 7.5% of their adjusted gross income or greater. And, they must declare that, if evicted, they would be forced to live in a homeless shelter, someone else’s home, a more expensive home, or become homeless. Tenants must also continue to pay as much rent as they are able.

Tenants with incomes over $99,000 (or $198,000 for those filing joint taxes) are not covered by the order, with few exceptions. Tenants can still be evicted for one of five listed reasons, including breaking other portions of their lease (not related to payment) or threatening public health or safety. All tenants should carefully review the declaration to see if it applies to their situation.

The order does not forgive rent. Landlords may charge late fees and interest on any unpaid rent, and these amounts would be due upon the expiration of the order in January 2021. Renters should continue paying as much rent as they can and keep records of their payments along with a copy of any declaration they provide to their landlord.

The CDC order is clear, fair and focused, not just on protecting tenants’ rights but also on protecting the lives and health of all.

Matt Ampleman is a staff attorney and Joel Ferber is director of advocacy at Legal Services of Eastern Missouri.

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