Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Governor fills eviction gap, reinforces protection for non-paying tenants

Evictions are well underway in North Carolina as the last remaining government protections run out and federal funding to cover rent assistance flows in. (Port City Daily photo/File)

After months of stepping back from overseeing the private landlord-tenant relationship, the state has jumped back in through Executive Order 171, announced Wednesday.

Effective Friday through the end of the year, Cooper’s new order seeks to fill voids left open by the Centers for Disease Control’s block on evictions.

Related: With evictions looming, will rent assistance arrive in time, and will it be enough?

Before Wednesday’s announcement, Cooper let the state’s last eviction protection, Executive Order 142, expire June 20. This order and its preceding order instituted an outright ban on residential evictions for reasons of nonpayment. In all, the state protections lasted 81 days.

As soon as the state’s latest order expired, housing advocates feared a wave of evictions would hit the courtrooms. Indeed, hundreds of outstanding evictions paused by the orders, in addition to new eviction filings, were processed after Cooper’s order expired, and a rule put in place by the CARES Act, which blocked federally backed property owners from evicting tenants, lapsed in late August.

Many landlords were relieved the protections were gone, which some argued were an example of government overreach in private agreements.

On Sept. 4, the CDC issued a temporary eviction halt through the end of the year.

The order applies to renters who already tried to obtain government assistance to cover housing; make less than $99,000 individually or $198,000 jointly; couldn’t pay rent due to job or income loss, reduction in work hours, or medical bills that exceed 7.5% of annual income; and make “best efforts” to offer partial rent payments.

To receive protection under the order, eligible renters must fill out a declaration form and turn it into their landlord.

In effect, renters who would have otherwise been protected by the order, but did not know to fill out the form, were evicted in some cases. Courts and law enforcement agencies carried out proceedings without always checking whether the CDC paperwork was turned in (as they weren’t required to do so because the onus was on the tenant).

The CDC order has been enforced “inaccurately and inconsistently” in N.C., according to the governor’s new order.

What Cooper’s new order actually does

Under the CDC order, landlords weren’t required to make tenants aware of their rights or inform them to fill out the form, in order to be protected from eviction.

Cooper’s new order introduces a recent requirement that all landlords must provide tenants with a copy of the CDC declaration form before initial eviction proceedings are moved further along in the court system. In filing eviction paperwork, landlords must supply the court with an affidavit, certifying they supplied the tenant with the CDC form.

The new requirements cover renters who may already lack the resources and means to obtain legal representation in the event of eviction, by ensuring the court system won’t carry out proceedings without making them aware of their rights.

Landlords may still charge penalties for late rent. Both the new state and CDC order do not waive the obligation to pay rent; it simply blocks evictions for reasons of nonpayment. For reasons other than nonpayment, landlords are free to carry out evictions pursuant to their lease agreement.

Tenants do not need to prove nonpayment is specifically due to the pandemic.

If a tenant fills out the CDC form, and the landlord still wishes to proceed with an eviction, they must submit a written response to the court, contesting why the protections in the declaration shouldn’t apply.

The governor’s announcement cited a Sept. report by the National Council of State Housing Agencies that estimates the state will see potentially 240,000 evictions by January. Up to 410,000 residents are at risk of eviction, falling behind by approximately $632 million and $824 million by January, according to the report.

On Aug. 25, the same day the CARES Act protections ended, Cooper announced a new $175 million rent and utility assistance program. Now known as N.C. Housing Opportunities and Prevention of Evictions (HOPE), the program targets renters who are behind on their bills, with a household median income equal to or below 80% of their region’s median income.

As of this week, more than 22,800 residents statewide have applied for funding through the program. An unknown number of applicants have met eligibility requirements but have not yet received protection from eviction.

The HOPE program protects tenants from eviction if their landlord signs an agreement not to evict, in exchange for receiving funds directly through the program. For up to six months, the program pays landlords directly on behalf of eligible renters who have fallen behind on bills.

Renters eligible through the HOPE program would be protected by the signed agreement between their landlord and the agency administering the funds — not the state’s new order.

For rent assistance in the City of Wilmington, check out the Eviction Prevention Project, managed by the Good Shepherd Center. Visit New Hanover County Social Services website for information on housing or childcare assistance in the county.

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