More than a dozen evictions in Nez Perce County have been completed so far this year despite federal protections for renters enacted during the coronavirus pandemic.

While there may be a common perception that they have been taken completely off the table to protect those who have lost their jobs or suffered other economic hardships, several loopholes exist in the two measures regarding evictions. And renters may have to formally assert their rights to take advantage of any protections.

“It’s not really a halt,” explained Nance Ceccarelli, the county’s chief civil deputy prosecutor. “They just said we now have certain exemptions that would prevent an eviction from moving forward. So the idea that no evictions were taking place is not 100 percent accurate.”

According to information provided by the Nez Perce County Sheriff’s Office, there have been 13 evictions in 2020. That’s more than the previous two years, with 12 evictions in 2019 and 10 in 2018.

The first federal action regarding evictions was part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act passed by Congress in March. It banned evictions in properties with federally backed mortgages, or where tenants receive government-assisted housing. Martin Henderson, the statewide advocacy attorney for Idaho Legal Aid Services, said those qualifications meant the order only covered 30-40 percent of rentals in Idaho. And landlords could still evict tenants for other reasons, like illegal activity or destruction of the rental property.

The CARES Act protections expired at the end of July, however, and a deadlocked Congress failed to agree on an extension. That left the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue a nationwide eviction ban from Sept. 4 through the end of the year as a way to help slow the spread of the virus. According to the CDC order, halts on evictions help sick people self-isolate and allow state and local authorities to more easily implement stay-at-home and social distancing directives.

The order also states that housing stability helps protect public health because homelessness increases the likelihood that people are forced into places like shelters where measures such as social distancing are more difficult. Unsheltered homeless people are also at greater risk of severe illness because of COVID-19, according to the agency.

Evictions can still take place under the CDC order if renters are engaging in illegal activities or destructive behavior at the property, Henderson said. And they may also get the boot if they don’t take steps to protect themselves.

“Tenants who are having these kinds of difficulties need to know what to do,” Henderson said. “If you get an eviction notice or a lawsuit, or you’re at risk, please don’t hesitate to contact us.”

There are five criteria to qualify for protections, according to Idaho Legal Aid. First, the renter has to meet certain low-income requirements. The renter must also be unable to pay full rent because of income loss or “extraordinary” medical bills, although the order doesn’t require proof of income loss.

Next, they have to have made their best attempt to obtain government rental assistance. The tenant must also be likely to be homeless or forced to live in “close quarters” if evicted. Finally, they have to promise to make timely partial payments that are as close to the full payment as their circumstances permit. The nonprofit legal assistance organization has a hotline at (866) 947-5186 and step-by-step instructions with links to further resources on its website at idaholegalaid.org.

Renters who take the steps to qualify under the eviction ban have to answer all of the government’s questions truthfully, or they can face perjury charges. Henderson hasn’t yet seen any renters charged with perjury, but believes it is still a deterrent to fraud. Likewise, landlords who pursue illegal evictions during the CDC order can face criminal charges. But Henderson said those have to be brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and he hasn’t seen any of those either.

He said many property owners and managers have been flexible with their tenants who may be struggling because of the pandemic, but Legal Aid is still expecting a wave of evictions if the CDC order isn’t extended into 2021.

“I think the vast majority of landlords have shown flexibility and understanding,” he said. “But some have aggressively pushed forward with evictions.”

Based on the Legal Aid caseload, he said eviction filings this year are up 40 to 50 percent over 2019.

Tenants facing eviction can also buy themselves some time by asserting their right to a jury trial, Henderson said. The pandemic forced the shutdown of the Idaho courts over the summer, leading to a case backlog that won’t clear for some time. Idaho Legal Aid successfully sued in Ada County this year to require jury trials for evictions. Previously, the cases could be decided by a judge.

A Landlady’s Perspective

Asotin County Prosecutor Ben Nichols doesn’t deal directly with evictions, but recently pointed out that there is another common misconception about the rental housing market. Nichols said many people assume landlords are all high rollers who mercilessly put profits over people as they rule their rental empires.

But in a rural area like the Inland Northwest, he said the reality is that many landlords are local small business owners who struggle to make ends meet just like anyone else. As evidence, he pointed to Lewiston resident Talia Schneider, who owns 15 rental properties in Clarkston and two in Lewiston.

Schneider spoke angrily about the eviction bans and moratoriums as “cruel and unconstitutional” government overreach that are putting her livelihood in jeopardy. Now in her 60s, Schneider said she started managing properties for her father when she was just 14, and bought her first rental house when she was 19.

“I have worked my unmitigated brains out to achieve what I have achieved,” Schneider said. “How does the government expect me to support 17 households? One by one, they’re jumping on board because they’re learning that there are no consequences.”

Some of her tenants have fallen behind in their rent over the last several months and laughed in her face when she tried to collect, citing Washington’s even broader ban on evictions that Gov. Jay Inslee recently extended to the end of the year. Schneider said she has been able to follow through with one eviction, and is working on two others.

The eviction bans don’t forgive back rent or prevent property owners from collecting interest and penalties on late payments. But Schneider said her eviction efforts are costing her additional money in attorney fees, and she lamented that her tenants are typically poor enough to qualify for free legal services to fight her. She also slammed the federal government for not including support for landlords in the CARES Act.

Now Schneider said her financial situation has gotten so tenuous that she is selling one of her properties. And it isn’t just any property, she added, but the house her father willed to her when he died.

“I’m just waiting for my tiny little empire to shrivel down to nothing,” she said.

Henderson agreed that the lack of support from the government effectively makes the eviction ban an unfunded mandate.

“It’s unfortunate that Congress hasn’t come through with some financial support, because it does create a hardship on the landlords,” he said.

Mills may be contacted at jmills@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2266.

More information

The Idaho Housing and Finance Association has a Housing Preservation Program that provides rental and utility assistance for those who cannot make their payments because of COVID-19-related circumstances. Those who are interested may find more information at www.idahohousing.com/hpp-faq/. The association also has programs for homeowners who are struggling during the pandemic, and more information is available at backontrackidaho.org/.