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Advocates Say Biden Administration Needs To Strengthen Eviction Protections

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

An order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is supposed to be stopping renters from getting evicted during the pandemic. The goal is to prevent people from being forced into homeless shelters or crowded living situations where COVID spreads more easily because that can save lives. But some landlords are evicting people anyway, and that's led to calls for the protections to be beefed up. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Sheila Ambert has been living through the pandemic, wondering if she and her two kids are about to get tossed out on the street. She says she lies awake a lot of nights.

SHEILA AMBERT: As a mother, you feel like you've failed your kids. You feel like a failure. You don't want them having to go through that or even knowing about it, which they do.

ARNOLD: Ambert thought she was going to be protected by that CDC eviction order, but that has not been going very well. Ambert lives in Lake Mary, Fla., and due to the outbreak, she lost her job as an administrative assistant and says her husband's making a lot less money, too. She found some sporadic part-time work, but when her savings ran out, she couldn't afford to pay her $1,600 a month rent.

AMBERT: I need to keep the electricity. I need to buy food.

ARNOLD: In November, her landlord, Sun Lake Apartments, filed an eviction case against her. Ambert says she's got nowhere else to go.

AMBERT: Because all our family's in Puerto Rico.

ARNOLD: It's families like the Amberts that the CDC order is supposed to help. And Ambert says she followed the rules. In a court filing, she said she gave the required paperwork from the CDC to her landlord.

AMBERT: And I thought, OK, so I'm OK. I'm good.

ARNOLD: You're also supposed to try to make partial rent payments. She did that, too, she told the court. You're supposed to try to get rental assistance money to pay the landlord. And she did that - $4,515 and laid that out in a court filing, too. But none of that seemed to matter. The landlord pressed ahead with the case, and she ended up getting an email from the court saying that it was giving the landlord the green light to go ahead and evict her family.

AMBERT: I saw that email coming in and I was, like, here shaking, trying to process and trying to hold my emotions because I try to do my best and not show emotions.

ARNOLD: In a statement, the landlord tells NPR that evictions are a last resort and that, quote, "we turn to the courts for cases where eviction is legal and warranted by the facts." After NPR contacted a local legal aid group to ask if the landlord was following the CDC rules, a lawyer with the group ended up taking her case.

BREEZI HICKS: If I could have an angel client for this matter, she is it because she's done everything.

ARNOLD: That's Breezi Hicks with Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida. She filed an emergency motion to stop the eviction and says in a hearing she helped Ambert to show the judge that she had checked all the necessary boxes to be protected from eviction.

HICKS: She also was able to testify to the judge that before the pandemic, she was never late on her rent.

ARNOLD: The judge put the eviction on hold for now, but most people facing eviction don't have a Breezi Hicks or any lawyer, so...

SHAMUS ROLLER: Landlords in some cases are just pretending that they didn't receive the declaration and moving forward with the eviction process.

ARNOLD: Shamus Roller is the executive director of the nonprofit National Housing Law Project. He says the CDC order should be strengthened to be a blanket eviction ban. The way it is now, he says, there's just too many requirements and loopholes. And if at any step in the process the renter fails to show up at a hearing or join a hearing Zoom call, the landlord is often able to evict them.

ROLLER: Eviction courts are conveyor belts. And so the loopholes in the CDC order mean that many people are being evicted who should be protected under the order.

ARNOLD: In the case of Sheila Ambert, the landlord is now arguing in a court filing that the CDC orders should not apply. It says the Amberts have, quote, "made no effort at all to follow the requirements under the CDC declaration." Ambert says that's just not true. For example, she told the court she got that rental assistance, thousands of dollars paid to her landlord. The lawyer in the case for Sun Lake Apartments declined to comment on ongoing litigation. Shamus Roller says he can't be certain what's happening with this case, but...

ROLLER: If you are misrepresenting the facts in a case in court documents, it seems very clear to me that that is a violation of the CDC order.

ARNOLD: Roller says, on paper, there are stiff penalties for landlords who violate the order, fines of hundreds of thousands of dollars, even jail time. But...

ROLLER: The problem is is that there has been zero enforcement. There's no consequences for that in practice.

ARNOLD: In a statement, Sun Lake Apartments says, quote, "Sun Lake has followed the law and exhausted every measure possible short of evicting the family." Meanwhile, Sheila Ambert has found another job scheduling people for COVID vaccinations. So she actually has money to start paying rent again. But the landlord is still trying to evict her, and that's making it very hard for her to find another apartment. She says she just talked to another landlord.

AMBERT: I was praying to find a place. I went to look at it. You know, she was nice and she said, I don't look at credit. I don't look at this. I don't look at that. I look at evictions. And then it hit me - the public records - it's there. I feel like there's no options.

ARNOLD: So Ambert's applying to a new rental assistance fund and working to make money. And she desperately hopes her landlord will work out a repayment plan that she can afford so she can keep an eviction off her record.

Chris Arnold, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WATER'S "DESELBY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.