A federal freeze on most evictions that was enacted last year is scheduled to expire Saturday, after the Biden administration extended the original date by a month. The moratorium put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September has been the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. Many of them lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic and have fallen months behind on their rent.
Landlords successfully challenged the order in court, arguing that they also had bills to pay. They pointed out that tenants could access nearly $47 billion in federal money set aside to help pay rents and related expenses.
Advocates for tenants said the distribution of the money had been slow and that more time was needed to distribute it and repay landlords. Without an extension, they feared a spike in evictions and lawsuits seeking to oust tenants who were behind on their rents.
Even with the delay, roughly 3.6 million people in the U.S. as of July 5 said they would face eviction within the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. The survey measures the social and economic effects of the pandemic every two weeks through online responses from a representative sample of U.S. households.
Here’s the situation in Iowa:
WHAT’S THE STATUS OF EVICTION MORATORIUMS IN THE STATE?
Iowa's ban on evictions expired in May 2020 as Gov. Kim Reynolds moved aggressively to lift coronavirus restrictions. That left the federal moratorium on evictions as the only protection for renters.
WHAT’S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?
Iowa set up a rent and utility assistance program with $195 million in federal money. The aid covers up to 12 months of late rent and utility bills for renters who make up to 80% of their area's median income. Iowans also have to show that they either lost their job or experienced another significant financial blow caused by the pandemic. Iowa Finance Authority spokeswoman Ashley Jared said the state hasn't decided yet whether to apply for a second round of federal rental assistance money that is available.
So far, the state estimates that $7.6 million in rent and utility assistance has been distributed to 2,753 families statewide, but that doesn't include a separate aid program for the Des Moines area that has distributed more than $15.2 million to roughly 3,400 households.
Last year, Iowa distributed $31.3 million to roughly 14,000 renters through a different rental assistance program.
Despite the aid programs, evictions are expected to jump in the state after the moratorium ends.
“We would expect to see a fairly significant increase in the next couple weeks,” said Anne Bacon, of the IMPACT Community Action Partnership group, which is overseeing the Des Moines area programs. “Right now we are just trying to keep people from becoming homeless.”
HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?
The CDC moratorium prevented many but not all evictions in Iowa. Alex Kornya, general counsel at Iowa Legal Aid, said some landlords have been able to evict people whose leases had expired by arguing that they were being evicted because of the expired lease, not because of late payments. Still, the number of eviction lawsuits statewide fell from roughly 18,000 in 2019 to 12,364 last year because of the moratoriums, Kornya said. So far in 2021, 7,318 eviction cases have been filed in Iowa courts.
WHAT IS THE AFFORDABILITY IN THE STATE’S MAJOR RENTAL MARKETS?
Iowa has a tight rental market and a shortage of affordable housing. The state reported a 4.9% vacancy rate last year, which was below the national average of 7%. Statewide, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment last year was $774.70, which was 5% higher than in 2017, when the average rent was $738.70. Data on rental housing during the pandemic is not yet available.
ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?
It's hard to say how much homelessness might increase in Iowa, but evictions are expected to increase once the moratorium ends.
“We hope it’s not as bad as we think it might be,” Kornya said. “But right now, there are a lot of extremely concerning signs.”
Recent census data showed that there were 30,115 adults in the state who feared they could be evicted within two months.
In addition to the moratorium ending, a change in unemployment benefits in the state last month could contribute to more evictions. Iowa quit participating in enhanced unemployment benefits last month, so people receiving unemployment checks are no longer receiving an extra $300 a week in federal aid.
The number of inquiries that Iowa Legal Aid received about evictions nearly doubled last year after the expiration of an initial federal $600 per week boost to unemployment benefits.