About 7,000 households in St. Louis County will receive an urgent postcard this weekend.
In big, bold letters, it states: “Do you need help paying the rent or utilities?”
These families are at risk of eviction, according to the St. Louis COVID-19 Regional Response Team, which sent the cards. And, 600 of them have eviction judgments against them already.
On Monday, St. Louis County Circuit Court will be lifting its moratorium on evictions, and sheriff deputies will begin carrying out the 600 eviction orders that have been on hold during the pandemic.
Yet on the same day, the application will open for the county’s $30 million in federal rental assistance. That means that St. Louis County will begin evicting people before residents will have access to the federal rental assistance approved by Congress in December.
St. Louis city’s court, however, has extended its eviction moratorium through May 3.
“I’m not sure where we expect to house these people,” said Lee Camp, an attorney with ArchCity Defenders who represents indigent individuals in eviction proceedings. “It will overrun our shelter beds. When we have displacement at the level we are looking at, certainly we are going to see street homelessness.”
It will all come down to timing — how quickly advocates and government officials can get the word out about two important announcements that came down this week.
First, the state opened up the application for more than $300 million in rental assistance to all Missouri residents on April 1, which could help alleviate the strain for both tenants and landlords.
And secondly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) extended the federal moratorium on evictions, which was set to expire on March 31. This is not an automatic protection. Unlike the local moratoriums, the CDC’s order requires that tenants file a “declaration form” to their landlords before an eviction takes place.
“It’s a very scary time for a lot of families,” said Molly Metzger, senior policy advisor in St. Louis County Executive Sam Page’s Office. “We need to get that word out as creatively, as quickly, as effectively as we can.”
CDC declaration form
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky extended the evictions moratorium to June 30 after warning that the rise in COVID-19 cases in the U.S. follows the worrisome trajectory of European countries.
“Keeping people in their homes and out of crowded or congregate settings — like homeless shelters — by preventing evictions is a key step in helping to stop the spread of COVID-19,” Walensky said in a statement.
Yet the moratorium only works if families know about the CDC declaration form. Individuals must complete the form, which states that the person makes less than $99,000 (or $198,000 for a family) and can’t pay their rent because of economic hardship.
They then have to print out the form and give it to their landlords in order to be protected.
“At the point the declaration is received, they should halt and take no further steps,” Camp said of both landlords and sheriff deputies. “Any steps beyond the point that they’ve received notice is unlawful and illegal.”
Getting the word out about the declaration form has been a challenge since the CDC’s order was first put in place last September. Some Missourians who faced evictions didn’t learn about the form until it was too late.
“It may have prevented the widespread tsunami of eviction, but it is certainly not keeping all Missourians in place,” said Sarah Owsley, policy and organizing manager for Empower Missouri.
The local and federal eviction moratoriums did not prevent landlords from filing evictions or judges from handing down judgements. It just prevents the physical removal of people from their homes. That’s why St. Louis County had 600 eviction judgements on hold. The county court sends out information about the declaration form with the eviction notices, but it’s up to the tenants to get the declaration form to their landlords.
Since March 15, there have been nearly 21,000 evictions filed throughout Missouri, according to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.
While most counties have seen a decrease in evictions from previous years, a handful have experienced a dramatic increase. The highest was in Randolph County, in the north central part of the state, where the increase was 389 percent from the average year, according to the Eviction Lab.
The estimated number of Missouri households at risk of eviction are between 150,000 to 230,000, Missouri Housing Development Commission Director Kip Stetzler said earlier this year.
Rental and utility assistance
For Missouri as a whole, the challenge has been getting rental and utility assistance into the hands of those who need it quickly. In mid-February, the state started taking applications for the $324 million in federal assistance.
The federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program includes up to 12 months of assistance for rental arrears, forward rental assistance, utility arrears, and utility forward assistance. Utility assistance includes electricity, gas, water and sewer, trash removal, and certain energy costs.
Although the application is lengthy, Owsley said the money has been getting into people’s hands within 10 days of applying.
Up until April 1, the application was only available to people living in the state’s less populated counties. Missouri’s seven largest municipalities — Clay, Green, Jackson, St. Louis and Jefferson counties and Kansas City and St. Louis city — were able to receive funding directly from the U.S. Department of Treasury. But they only received about 45 percent of their share based on population.
St. Louis city has been using its $9 million in ERAP funds to catch up on the 1,500 people who applied for CARES Act rental assistance last year but didn’t receive the aid because money ran out in December.
St. Louis city’s court also sends the mayor’s office referrals for people on the eviction dockets, said Steve Conway, the mayor’s chief of staff. They are using some ERAP funds to intervene in cases where people are being evicted because they can’t pay rent and may not know about the assistance.
They’ve received almost 250 referrals this year alone.
“The state will continue to process all new applications that are from city residents,” Conway said.
Similar efforts to connect those facing eviction filings with rental assistance are happening in St. Louis County as well, but the need is still great.
Owsley said advocacy groups put pressure on the state to open up the application to cities because that’s where the greatest needs are.
“There was going to be an equity issue for these municipalities,” Owsley said. “Being able to apply no matter where you are should help to address this.”
The application for rental assistance for Missouri renters can be found here: https://www.mohousingresources.com/safhr