Health Care

What does the new CDC eviction moratorium mean for Rhode Island?

“I don’t want to give a falsely positive view that it’s just all roses out there, but if you’re a family that’s waiting for the help and struggling with the website, that’s trying to fill in your application or that’s having issues with your landlord’s participation, what we see is that everything is trending in the right direction,” Jennifer Woods, Executive Director of the Center for Justice. “More and more cases are getting paid. More and more they are paying tenants directly if landlords refuse to participate. If tenants bring that money to the court and pay the background, judges are taking that seriously. Even when landlords are not participating, all of those things are very positive.”

August 4, 2021, 8:29 pm

By Steve Ahlquist

People facing eviction or falling behind on their rent should fill out an application at Rent Relief RI.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a new eviction moratorium on Wednesday after Congress failed to act over the weekend. The new order seeks to halt “evictions in counties with heightened levels of community transmission in order to respond to recent, unexpected developments in the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the rise of the Delta variant.” The new order only applies to counties within the United States with high or substantial rates of Covid transmission and will be in effect until October 3.

This new eviction moratorium is due to the strong advocacy of the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) and Congressmember Cori Bush (Democrat, MS). Going county by county means that around 90% of renters across the country will be protected.

Katie West, manager at HomesRI, stressed three important points:

  • As with prior CDC orders this applies only to evictions for nonpayment
  • Tenants who already submitted a CDC declaration form with prior orders are covered under this one without submitting a new form. If the tenant hasn’t submitted a declaration to be covered, forms in multiple languages can be accessed here (the CDC has not yet updated their official form… it goes to a link saying it expired on July 31).
  • Any nonpayment evictions that were initiated prior to the order but not completed, are halted under this order. So a covered person cannot just be moved out of their unit before October 3.

“As of right now, all of the counties in Rhode Island with the exception of Newport County are all at substantial [for Covid transmission,” said Laura Jaworski, executive director of House of Hope CDC, by phone. “Newport is at moderate…

“It’s important to put the pressure on folks about accessing Rent Relief. And on the flip side, making sure that we’re getting those dollars out on the street as people need them,” stressed Jaworski. People facing eviction or falling behind on their rent should fill out an application at Rent Relief RI.

In seeking to understand how this order affects residents in Rhode Island under threat of eviction, Uprise RI reached out to Jennifer Woods, Executive Director of the Center for Justice.

UpriseRI: In thinking about this order, I’m worried that there will be families in Newport facing evictions because Newport County as a whole includes places like, let’s say Tiverton or Little Compton where Covid transmission is low, and not factor in a busy tourist spot like Newport.

I also worry that as transmission rates fluctuate from high to moderate and back again, people will be rushing into court to file evictions on days of low transmission. Is that a possibility?

Jennifer Woods: No, thank God. It’s not. I think I’ve got it sorted out to where we can offer some reassuring information to the public. Basically the way the mechanism works is, first things first, you need to be an otherwise eligible person who was eligible under any of the previous CDC moratoriums in the sense of the level of income, less than $98,000, the fact that you’ve made efforts to pay the rent – you know, the standard requirements for the CDC moratoriums that have been in place since September 2020.

If you are an eligible person, then there’s a couple of hoops to jump through, but at least you do not have to fill out a new declaration. If you were previously protected and you still fulfill those requirements, you don’t have to sign a new declaration. That was my first fear – because it’s actually a new order rather than an extension of an old order – I was worried that they would make everyone sign again, but that is not the case.

So the second thing is, if you’re otherwise eligible, do you have state or local protection that is equal to, or greater than the CDC moratorium? Rhode Islanders can answer that question, No. There is no state or local moratorium, which would meet or exceed the protections of this new CDC order. So everyone in the state of Rhode Island would be theoretically covered under that standard.

The third thing is do you live in a county with substantial or high transmission? I feel that this applies in a strange way in Rhode Island because we do not have counties as a local governance structure. Therefore you have to really kind of crosswalk it to the governance structure in our state, which is fairly unique. We’re so small that we don’t have counties as a governance structure. And the county structure only exists as kind of a legal structure to organize courthouses. There is no county government, there’s no other governance structure known as a county in Rhode Island.

It just so happens that the courthouses are referred to using the word county, and the courts organize the communities into these buckets. Under that standard, because it is not currently at the substantial or high transmission level, people who live in Newport County would not be protected. However, I believe it would be a simple matter for our state officials, either at the governor’s level or through the courts, to extend that protection – to say we’re not going to track it county by county because we don’t really have counties and that’s a legal fiction. So we will apply those protections to all evictions filed in Rhode Island. That would be a very positive and important step for our state leaders to take. I think the court can do that by administrative order. The governor can do that by administrative order. I will also say that I believe that if we wait 20 minutes, we may wake up tomorrow morning and see that Newport County is also at the substantial level of transmission.

UpriseRI: Our incentives seem out of whack if housing protections can only come at the expense of high Covid transmission rates.

Jennifer Woods: It’s bizarre. I’ve been apologizing all day because the terrible thing is that the good news is that most of Rhode Island, in spite of our really excellent vaccination rate, has a frighteningly high transmission level at this time.

UpriseRI: What about the daily fluctuations in Covid rates?

Jennifer Woods: In this case, the judicial structure in Rhode Island called Newport County needs only to be at substantial or high transmission for one day in order to be brought into the protection of the order and to remain in that protection until October 3rd, except if the county has 14 consecutive days of transmission level below substantial. So fluctuations will not remove the protection if it dips below substantial on Tuesday and back up on Wednesday, for instance. The only way for county residents to lose that protection is if there are 14 consecutive days of non substantial [or high] transmission level. So I feel very confident that from a public health perspective, the fluctuations dipping over and under that line will not mean that Rhode Island families will be riding a rollercoaster of coverage protection. The protection will be relatively stable unless there really is a significant trend in improvement of disease transmission.

UpriseRI: I really feeling like we’re kind of betting against ourselves here. I don’t know how to describe this, it’s so weird.

Jennifer Woods: From the very beginning, the fact that it was the CDC that issued this protection in September 2020, I have felt tremendously conflicted about it because the protections that tenants need during what is really an economic pandemic, as well as a public health pandemic is not being addressed at the national or state level in terms of that kind of economic protection other than through the availability of what is a substantial amount of Rent Relief. So it’s very clear that the President and Democrats in Congress intended this action to open up a window of time within which the Rent Relief funds get out onto the street and be helping families.

In the first month, Rent Relief RI was very slow. In the second month it was very slow. In Rhode Island, you can really see that Rent Relief RI is moving more and more funds to families that need them. The numbers are all going in the right direction.

UpriseRI: That’s good to know!

Jennifer Woods: I don’t want to give a falsely positive view that it’s just all roses out there, but if you’re a family that’s waiting for the help and struggling with the website, that’s trying to fill in your application or that’s having issues with your landlord’s participation, what we see is that everything is trending in the right direction. More and more cases are getting paid. More and more they are paying tenants directly if landlords refuse to participate. If tenants bring that money to the court and pay the background, judges are taking that seriously. Even when landlords are not participating, all of those things are very positive.

Yes, it’s still a terrifying and difficult process for people to be engaged in, but the theory that we just need time to have Rent Relief make it into the hands of those who need the help is true. So this action by the CDC and by the Biden Administration is very meaningful in terms of opening up that time window. If they were to have let this expire and not had a new solution, thousands of Rhode Island families would have been displaced while they were waiting for Rent Relief to catch up with them. That would have been an appalling result. And so this forestalls that result and really helps these families that have been protected by the CDC over these last months and gives them that gift of time to participate in the Rent Relief program.

UpriseRI: The previous CDC eviction moratorium ended with July. This new one started on Wednesday. There’s a three day hole. What should someone do if they were issued an eviction in court during this time?

Jennifer Woods: The important thing to understand about the CDC moratorium is that it doesn’t prevent traditional evictions from going forward and it never has. What it prevents is the eviction, once having been ordered by a judge, from being effectuated by a Constable. So what happens is that people over the last three days, for example, if their cases went to court, they might have had a judgment entered against them. Although we would certainly hope and expect that if they had applied for Rent Relief, they would explain that to the court and the court would hold their case to see whether or not they’re going to be able to get the rent paid. For a lot of folks over the last three days, that would be the situation. But even if there were some situation where someone went to court during this gap and an eviction was ruled against them, as long as they have a CDC declaration in place the judgment of the court cannot be acted upon until after the expiration in October of the new order.

During that window, that family hopefully would go to Rent Relief RI, apply, get the rent paid up, possibly get some forward rent paid if they’re still in the circumstance where they’re experiencing an ongoing economic hardship. And then, before the moratorium expires in October, they could have had that judicial eviction removed and dismissed

UpriseRI: That is really good news.

Jennifer Woods: This is not like some donut hole that you fall in. I’m a lawyer. I know that happens – sometimes there’s just like some tragic line in a bill or a statute and you fall through that hole. But luckily, in this circumstance, that’s not the case, because what the CDC moratorium protects against, isn’t the judgment being entered, it’s that judgement being effectuated by moving you out of your house. So people can remain in place, even if they were traditionally evicted in the days between the expiration and this new order coming into effect on August 3rd. And during the period between August and October, I’m really hoping that Rhode Islanders actively reach out to get help from Rent Relief RI.

Resources for Tenants, courtesy of Katie West, manager at HomesRI:

  • Rental Assistance: Please refer tenants in need of assistance with rent to Rent Relief RI. If tenants need help applying, they can be referred to one of the application assistance partners. Here are some reminders about what Rent Relief RI covers:
    • Rent or utility arrears dating back to April 1, 2020 (*right now under ERA 1 regulations, applicants are eligible for up to a total of 15 months of assistance)
    • Up to three months of forward-facing rent (this is included in the 15 month limit)
    • Security deposit assistance if needed
    • Internet stipend of $150 – this is issued automatically. Tenants who were approved before the stipend was made available can contact the Call Center to request it. 1-855-608-8756
    • Utility arrears to April 1, 2020 – renters do not have to owe any back rent or request rental assistance to be eligible for utility help. They can apply for help for utilities only.
  • Tenants do not need to have an eviction notice to be eligible! Landlords do not have to file an eviction to be paid!
  • Tenants who are undocumented / do not have legal status can be eligible for assistance! A social security number is not required. Applicants can also use an ITIN.
  • Tenants should be encouraged to apply even if they think their landlord may not participate.
  • Tenants should be encouraged to apply even if they think they don’t have all the documents requested. For eligibility criteria such as income, hardship, and rent history, tenants CAN self-attest if they do not have documentation available to them.

Legal Services: As always, you can refer tenants facing eviction in Rhode Island to legal service partners. Both are working with the Rent Relief RI program to be able to help people navigate the eviction and assistance process.

  • Rhode Island Legal Services, 401-274-2652 | [email protected]
    • RILS will accept referrals and provide legal support of eviction and defense services for residents of both private and public housing who RILS deems to be eligible for such services. RILS also works with tenants receiving Section 8 vouchers.
  • Rhode Island Center for Justice, 401-491-1101 | [email protected]
    • CFJ will accept referrals and provide eviction prevention and defense services for private housing applicants, including undocumented residents.

As a reminder, “Self-help” evictions where landlords attempt to remove tenants without going through the court process are illegal. The guidance from AG Neronha’s office on self-help evictions is still in effect. Tenants who believe they are being illegally evicted should also contact RILS or CFJ. To ensure their complaint is able to be properly responded to, tenants should also file a police report and file a civil rights complaint on the AG website.

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