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COVID-19

Mississippi evictions never stopped despite federal moratorium and COVID-19 relief

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(Photo by Photo Mix from Pixabay)

Many Mississippi families, especially those who were suffering before the pandemic, have not been protected under the government’s narrowly tailored efforts to keep people housed during a global pandemic, advocates argue.

“Housing is fundamental, and in a perfect world, it would have been an original consideration for funding,” said Mississippi Home Corporation Director Scott Spivey, noting that by mid-December, Congress still had yet to appropriate funds that could be used to pay the rents of most struggling tenants, even in previous relief bills.

Under a new stimulus package Congress passed Dec. 20 and President Donald Trump signed Dec. 27, Spivey said he expects Mississippi to receive about $200 million out of $25 billion for rental assistance. “It isn’t coming until now and it’s been talked about since mid-summer,” Spivey said.

Jackson property owners filed evictions — just the first step in forcing a tenant out of their home — against more than 1,100 families between Sept. 4 to Nov. 30 while the federal eviction moratorium was in place, according to records Mississippi Today requested from the Hinds County Justice Court clerk.

That amounts to nearly 13 families each day in that time period, compared to roughly ten per day in 2016, according to the Princeton University-based research group the Eviction Lab.

The landlords also secured warrants of removal, one of the last steps in an eviction, against nearly 200 Jackson renters.

READ MORE: COVID-19 has made in-person court too risky, but eviction hearings continue — virtually.

It’s hard to say how many of these families overall were displaced, the way most people visualize an eviction, because data on actual evictions does not exist.

The Eviction Lab found that in 2016, about eight families were evicted from their homes each day, a rate that caused Jackson to be ranked fifth in the nation for cities with the most eviction that year.

So why — with a federal moratorium on evictions and $1.25 trillion that Mississippi received through various pandemic relief — did evictions continue?

Shortly after tens of thousands of Mississippians first began losing their jobs in March, the federal government increased unemployment benefits by $600 a week to those who qualified. Many continued to struggle because the overwhelmed unemployment agency had trouble taking in and processing the influx of claims. The $600 boost expired in August. A $300 boost started for some recipients in September but lasted only six weeks, an agency spokesperson said, at which point checks fell to the max of $235 per week. Congress extended the $300 boost in the latest relief bill.

But more than 11,000 people in Mississippi’s capital city were also unemployed before March, meaning that while the virus undoubtedly caused them hardship, they would not have been able to say they lost employment due to the pandemic and therefore would not have qualified for most relief.

The first pandemic-related funding Mississippi received to help struggling renters came through an existing U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program called the Emergency Solutions Grant. This rental assistance program began in July and totaled $18 million in Mississippi.

By Dec. 8, that program, called the Rental Assistance for Mississippians Program (RAMP), had received 8,736 calls, approved 1,155 applicants and committed just $2.88 million of the funding. It was processing an additional 925 applications. To be eligible for the pandemic relief-funded program, a renter household must earn under 50% of the median income of the area — $35,450 for a family of four in Hinds County, for example — be at immediate risk of homelessness and have been directly impacted by the virus.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ordered a stop to some evictions and residential removals beginning Sept. 4 to the end of 2020, but for it to have worked, a renter must have provided a declaration to their landlord or property manager, certifying that the order applies to them.

“It’s pretty narrow,” said Desiree Hensley, who runs the Housing Clinic at the University of Mississippi School of Law. “You have to have a loss of income that is directly related to COVID, and that can be really difficult for people to demonstrate, especially, I think, as more time passes.”

Even if a tenant tries to invoke the order, a judge may still rule in favor of the landlord, Mississippi Today found when it attended a virtual eviction hearing in September.

Then, if the moratorium did apply to a renter, they became ineligible for any possible help under the RAMP program, Spivey said, because they were no longer close enough to an eviction and homelessness to qualify for the emergency funding.

“It’s so incredibly counterintuitive so as to be almost ridiculous,” Spivey said.

When the moratorium, instead of rental assistance, is used to avoid eviction, the landlord still doesn’t get paid and the rent debts continue to pile up. The moratorium is set to expire at the end of December but the relief bill extends it to Jan. 31.

“I’m actually sitting here, on top of money that I can use to help low income renters, saying to myself, ‘Man I really hope they don’t extend this moratorium on evictions.’ If they extend the moratorium, I’m in the same boat,” Spivey said. “I’m in crazy town.”

The next addition to rental assistance came in October with a $20 million legislative appropriation of the state’s federal pandemic relief funding under the CARES Act, money that must be spent by the end of the year. This appropriation by the Mississippi Legislature established the Mississippi Rental Assistance Grant Program administered by Mississippi Development Authority.

Landlords applied for this grant — up to $30,000 per property owner — between Oct. 22 and the Nov. 15 deadline. According to its website, the agency required the landlords to apply for funds on behalf of either tenants who were behind on rent, whose debts they would consider paid in full, or on units that were vacant as a result of the pandemic.

It approved 3,846 out of 7,213 applications, authorizing $11.9 million in relief, leaving several million unspent by mid-December.

The state Legislature passed a law so that any unspent CARES Act funding is diverted to the state’s unemployment insurance fund before Dec. 31 instead of being sent back to the federal government.

Gov. Tate Reeves’ office also told Mississippi Today he chose to commit the state’s entire additional $38 million Community Development Block Grant to rental assistance, Mississippi Today reported in early October. But by mid-December, the federal government had not released the necessary guidance for spending the funds, so Mississippi Development Authority, which will administer the money, had not yet inked a grant agreement with the Mississippi Home Corporation, which will operate the program.

The home corporation would also help administer the extra $200 million in the new relief bill.

Spivey said these future programs, when up and running, should allow greater flexibility to help struggling renters before they find themselves on the brink of homelessness. Those who earn up to 80% of the area media income — $56,700 for a family of four in Hinds County — would qualify.

“When they’re ready to go, we’re ready to go, so it can be as fast as possible and reach as many people as possible,” Spivey said in early October.


This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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