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Federal CARES Act means no evictions for nonpayment

On March 18, the federal government announced a moratorium on some foreclosure-related evictions. Many national headlines implied there was a general moratorium on evictions nationwide. There was not. On March 24, the New Mexico Supreme Court ordered judges to stay eviction writs temporarily in rental nonpayment cases, if tenants could prove an inability to pay. This too was widely reported as a “moratorium on evictions.” There was no moratorium. Landlords can still file eviction petitions, tenants are still required to appear at trial, telephonically or in person, and judges can still order them out. Enforcement of eviction orders is now postponed, but only until the crisis passes. Mixed messages crowding the internet confused landlords, tenants and advocates alike, raising and dashing hopes of those seeking relief for the low-income families likely to be hardest hit.

Then, on March 27, Congress passed the CARES Act. It forbids landlords of virtually all federally subsidized properties from filing for eviction for nonpayment of rent or other charges for four months, and prohibits these landlords from charging late fees during this time. This moratorium benefits all tenants of public housing, Section 8, tax credit, USDA and other federally subsidized housing. It also benefits tenants of landlords with government-backed mortgages. When the moratorium ends, landlords wishing to evict for nonpayment must first give 30 days’ notice before filing in court. Simply put, there’s now a true moratorium for many nonpayment-based evictions. The response from national and state press? Crickets. It’s perhaps understandable that the press is being wary, given how fast things have moved and the dangers, evident recently, of overstating the relief available. But this is good news, folks!

Is it enough? No. Many recognize the need for more. The Navajo Housing Authority, which, as a tribal housing authority, is not covered by the law, voluntarily announced it wouldn’t charge rent for two months. This is commendable and appropriate, since merely waiting to file evictions doesn’t address the certainty that many subsidized housing tenants will be hard-pressed to come up with money for previous months once the crisis has passed.

The CARES Act also doesn’t prevent landlords from filing evictions for issues besides nonpayment. It’s our position that it does prevent landlords from filing if the eviction is partly motivated by nonpayment. It’s also our position that although the Supreme Court has not required it across the board, judges seeing any type of new eviction petitions should postpone all but clear emergencies. This isn’t based on CARES, but on the difficulty providing low-income tenants with fair hearings through telephone appearances only.

Although CARES doesn’t apply to all housing or all types of eviction, the public needs to know about it. Are you a tenant who regularly recertifies your income level to calculate your rent? You’re probably covered by the moratorium.

Good news is in short supply right now, and this piece should be spread around. If you can get to a roof without breaking social distancing rules, shout it from the rooftop!

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