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EXPLAINER: Is Missouri rent relief enough to halt evictions?

FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2020, file photo, housing activists erect a sign in Swampscott, Mass. A...
FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2020, file photo, housing activists erect a sign in Swampscott, Mass. A federal freeze on most evictions is set to expire soon. The moratorium, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)(Michael Dwyer | AP)
Published: Jul. 30, 2021 at 11:50 AM CDT
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ST. LOUIS (AP) - 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 Missouri:

WHAT’S THE STATUS OF EVICTION MORATORIUMS IN THE STATE?

Missouri is not among the states that enacted an eviction moratorium last year, but St. Louis, St. Louis County, and Jackson County, which includes Kansas City, issued their own. After the Biden administration extended the CDC’s moratorium by a month, St. Louis did the same, while St. Louis County and Jackson County officials said they adhered to the CDC guidelines.

Despite the CDC moratorium, tenant advocates say many evictions happened in Missouri during the pandemic.

Although the pandemic hit renters hard, it has also hurt landlords. Nick Kasoff owns 15 rental homes in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. He said he’s doing OK but that he’s worried the lengthy moratorium will result in many small-scale landlords losing their properties to foreclosure.

WHAT’S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?

The Missouri Housing Development Commission is promoting the State Assistance for Housing Relief program to help people catch up on past-due rent and utilities. The commission will disburse $593 million statewide. The money comes from federal coronavirus aid programs and is scheduled to last through 2025, although the commission said funding might run out within three years based on the pace of applications.

The commission also said it is working with nonprofit partners to assist those at risk of eviction. Advocacy groups such as Action St. Louis and Reconciliation Services in Kansas City are reaching out directly to needy tenants and in some cases are going door-to-door. They are advising them of their legal rights and the steps they can take to try to stay in their homes.

HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?

The federal moratorium put pandemic-related evictions on hold, but it didn’t stop courts from hearing eviction cases. Robert Swearingen, an attorney for Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, said many evictions already approved by judges will begin immediately after the moratorium ends and many other cases will go to court in August.

More than 13,000 eviction filings have been issued against tenants in Missouri’s two metropolitan areas since March 15, 2020, according to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, which tracks evictions nationwide. That includes nearly 8,300 filings in St. Louis city and county combined, and more than 5,100 in Jackson County.

HOW AFFORDABLE IS HOUSING IN MISSOURI’S MAJOR RENTAL MARKETS?

Like most of the Midwest, rent is less expensive in Missouri than on the coasts. However, average income also is far less. Swearingen said his tenant clients are often people living on Social Security with income of $600 to $1,000 per month: “They have a hard time finding an apartment that is livable,” he said.

According to research from Realtor.com, the median monthly rental cost in St. Louis in June was $1,156, which was 7.8% higher than a year ago. The average rent in Kansas City was $1,150, which was 8.9% higher than the previous year. Both costs were well below the national median monthly rent for the 50 largest metropolitan areas of $1,575, which rose 8.1% over the past year.

ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?

It’s possible. Lee Camp, an attorney with the legal advocacy group ArchCity Defenders, said he expects a big rise in evictions once the CDC moratorium ends. He noted that Missouri law allows for a swift removal process — tenants are often evicted within about six weeks of the eviction lawsuit being filed.

One indication of the scope of the concern is recent census data showing that nearly 60,000 Missouri residents were worried they could be evicted within two months.

Kennard Williams, a housing activist with the group Action St. Louis, said that with housing insecurity already alarmingly high, “the eviction wave is going to overwhelm the resources and infrastructure that we have.”

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