Evicted, Despite a Federal Moratorium: ‘I Do Not Know What I am Going to Do’

Evicted, Despite a Federal Moratorium: ‘I Do Not Know What I am Going to Do’

Vanessa Merryman stands for a portrait outside of the Las Vegas Justice Court in Las Vegas on Aug. 4, 2021, after finding out she would be evicted from her home. (Joe Buglewicz/The New York Times)
Vanessa Merryman stands for a portrait outside of the Las Vegas Justice Court in Las Vegas on Aug. 4, 2021, after finding out she would be evicted from her home. (Joe Buglewicz/The New York Times)


LAS VEGAS — Inside Courtroom 8A of Las Vegas Justice Court last week, the benches were packed with renters and landlords battling over evictions that continued at a brisk pace despite a last minute, two-month extension of the federal protections meant to keep people in their homes.

Vanessa Merryman, 41, was among the tenants ordered to leave her apartment.

“I have never been homeless in my life,” she said through tears, slouched on a metal bench outside the courtroom as the scorching Las Vegas sun beat through the windows. She was shell-shocked that the court session that upended her life lasted all of 15 minutes. “I do not know what I am going to do,” she said. “It is really scary.”

The federal moratorium on evictions — combined with billions of dollars in rent subsidies — was supposed to avert the scenario of millions of Americans being turned out of their homes after they lost their jobs during the pandemic and were unable to afford their rent.

Yet despite these efforts, many local governments and courts were not sure how to apply the extension, and desperate tenants continued to flood local government websites seeking rental assistance that was usually slow in coming.

“The lay of the land has been confusing at every level, not just to tenants, but also to landlords, court personnel and judges,” said Dana Karni, manager of the Eviction Right to Counsel Project in Houston. “While the extension of CDC protections is much needed, the confusion that surrounds its existence waters down its impact.”

In extending the moratorium last week, the Biden administration hinged it to high local coronavirus infection rates — the idea being that protection was warranted in areas where the virus was surging. Clark County, including Las Vegas, was among hundreds of counties that meet the criterion for high infection rates, but the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave some leeway to judges to instead apply state laws, which at times allowed for evictions.

For many tenants, it was too late anyway. With state moratoriums expiring and the expectation that the federal guidelines would be gone soon, court dockets like those in Las Vegas overflowed with eviction cases. Tenants had to actively file for protection under the CDC measures, but many of them were unaware of that. And as eviction proceedings rolled forward, some landlords won, citing reasons other than nonpayment of rent for seeking to remove tenants.

More than 1.4 million Americans expect to be evicted in the next two months, according to a survey completed by the U.S. Census Bureau in early July. For another 2.2 million people, the prospect is “somewhat likely.”

The areas bracing for the hardest hits are in high-population, high-rent states such as California, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas, along with other states across the South including Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

Organizations that advise low-income tenants from Atlanta to Houston to Las Vegas all said that they feared the fallout.

“The volume is unlike anything we have ever seen before,” said Bailey Bortolin, the statewide policy director for the Nevada Coalition of Legal Service Providers.

The moratorium is intended to help states buy time to distribute the aid. Congress allocated some $47 billion in rental assistance, but just $3 billion had been distributed by June, according to the Treasury Department. Many county governments, the branch usually designated to process applications, are straining to build systems from scratch to distribute the money even while the tempo of evictions increases.

Georgia has paid out just over $16 million from $989 million in federal rental assistance funds. Florida got $871 million, but has only disbursed $23.2 million.

In Clark County, home to most of Nevada’s population, the CARES Housing Assistance Program has distributed more than $162 million in rent, utilities and mortgage payments to more than 29,500 households since July 2020, but that is still less than half the state’s full allocation.

Around 50,000 people are behind on rent and could face eviction in Clark County, where the state moratorium expired on June 1, said Justin Jones, a county commissioner.

“It would be devastating if we have that number of people evicted from their homes in the near future,” he said. “The reality is that we do not have anywhere for them to go.”

Thousands of homeless people already crowd downtown Las Vegas and elsewhere in the county.

After the state moratorium expired, Nevada implemented a new law pausing evictions so long as the tenant had an application for rental assistance pending.

At the Las Vegas Justice Court, the largest of some 40 courts hearing eviction cases in Nevada, Hearing Master David F. Brown did not allow for much wriggle room. If tenants showed proof that they had applied for rental assistance, they could stay in their homes. If not, or if they had more than a year of late payments, the maximum amount covered by the assistance program, they were usually forced out. Nevada judges tended to emphasize state laws rather than the CDC guidelines.

Dejonae King, 33, held back tears after she lost her eviction appeal. King was laid off from Walgreens and has been without a job for most of the pandemic. She had not paid the $253 weekly rent on her one-bedroom apartment since July 2020.

“I thought the rules would protect me,” she said.

Merryman had managed to pay $10,000 in rent from government subsidies last year, but she lost her business and her boyfriend’s lengthy struggle with COVID interrupted her efforts to apply for more. It took her four months to reset her lost password for the website to apply for government payments.

Meanwhile, many landlords are caught in a vicious cycle, constantly in court but never quite made whole, said Susy Vasquez, executive director of the Nevada State Apartment Association, the largest organization for landlords.

Ron Scapellato, 54, a landlord in Clark County with 50 units and an air-conditioning business, said he soured on the moratorium after he watched some tenants spend their stimulus checks on new televisions rather than paying back rent. His mortgage and other bills continued to pile up, he said, so he went to court.

“I understand that they do not want to throw people out, but I also want my rent,” he said.

The extension still might face legal challenges. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court questioned whether the CDC had the authority to issue such a sweeping national mandate.

Because the federal moratorium technically lapsed for a few days, some landlords went ahead with evictions.

Hours before the reprieve from the White House, sheriff’s deputies arrived outside Hope Brasseaux’s house in Columbus, Georgia, to implement an eviction order issued a month earlier. Brasseaux, an unemployed waitress, received just 12 hour’s notice. She applied for assistance toward her $700 monthly rent in the spring, but the government portal shows her request as still under review.

“I wish it would have happened a day sooner,” she said of the two-month extension by the Biden administration.

In Nevada, evictions are designed to move faster than in most states, with renters in debt typically given seven days to pay what they owe or move out. Unique to the state, the onus is on the renter to initiate a court challenge, which can pause the process, but many residents do not know that.

Most evictions do not make it to court, Bortolin said. “When people hear the word moratorium they think they don’t have to act,” she said. “Thousands of people in Nevada alone were evicted because they thought they could not be.”

The strain of the pandemic has been especially hard on hourly workers in Las Vegas. Unemployment in Clark County hit a high of almost 370,000 in April 2020, more than 33%. It remains at almost 10%, according to state labor statistics.

After the casinos shuttered last year, Stephanie Pirrone, 52, said her husband’s Lyft customers disappeared, while she lost her job at an Amazon returns center.

She and her husband, angered that their landlord chipped away at their $15,000 government rental assistance with late fees and other fines, decided to fight their eviction, but many of their neighbors did not, she said. “People are scared so they just move out.”

Tawana Smith, who in April 2020 lost her $45,000-a-year job managing a convenience store, has returned to Las Vegas Justice Court three times since November to fight eight attempts at eviction.

The moratorium had blocked the first few attempted evictions, said Smith, whose five children range in age from 2 to 12.

But when the most recent notice appeared last week, she decided to relinquish the low, brown stucco house that her family has called home for almost two years, paying $1,400 in monthly rent.

The family tried unsuccessfully to raise the $5,000 needed to rent a different house by selling crafts and through a crowdfunding campaign. They now dread the next step, living in one hotel room, she said. Smith said she wanted to avoid getting the children settled in school and then pulling them out when one eviction notice or another eventually succeeded.

“We don’t want to fight anymore to stay here,” she said. “We want to put this madness behind us.”

Author: John Hanno

Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. Bogan High School. Worked in Alaska after the earthquake. Joined U.S. Army at 17. Sergeant, B Battery, 3rd Battalion, 84th Artillery, 7th Army. Member of 12 different unions, including 4 different locals of the I.B.E.W. Worked for fortune 50, 100 and 200 companies as an industrial electrician, electrical/electronic technician.

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