‘Absolutely nothing we can do:’ landlords, tenants struggle as ‘half measure’ moratorium pleases none

The federal eviction moratorium, which has allowed struggling renters swamped by the fallout from COVID-19 to remain in their homes but left landlords mostly on the hook for unpaid rent, is starting to draw more fire from both camps.

As the Delta variant drives a resurgence of cases across the country, landlords and tenants alike are speaking out about the shortcomings of the moratorium, which hasn’t resolved the fundamental issue of tenants unable to pay back rent — or property owners who aren’t getting paid and are drowning in mounting costs.

Some 6.5 million renter households are behind on rent, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, with nearly 72% of them owing smaller “mom and pop” landlords.

That demographic is arguably one of the biggest losers in the current crisis, with the moratorium neither providing them financial relief or facilitating payment of the billions owed in back rent.

The policy “is so completely one-sided, that at some point it's going to tip,” complained Suzanne Antolini, a Long Island homeowner. She’s now over $50,000 in debt, due to an employed tenant refusing to make rent payments.

“Our hands are so tied that there's absolutely nothing we can do,” Antolini told Yahoo Finance in an interview.

Trying to get ‘money out the door,’ with no luck

Most evictions for unpaid rent have been halted since the early days of the pandemic, but 58% of smaller landlords with fewer than four units say they have tenants that are still behind on rent, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Property owners of all income levels are frustrated about the moratoriums — which some have challenged in court.

“One of the big challenges that we hear from our members is non-responsive residents and how to address that problem,” Paula Cinco, vice president of construction, development and land use policy at the National Multifamily Housing Council, told Yahoo Finance.

“The reality is that rental assistance is not self-executing,” she added.

Yet many of the headaches could have been avoided if billions of dollars that Washington allocated to help struggling tenants pay their rent had actually reached them. Treasury Department data shows that only a fraction of nearly $50 billion in federal aid has actually trickled down to tenants and landlords, mired in overwhelming demand, and state and local infrastructure incapable of handling the load.

“They're trying to get money out the door, but again, they have had to build an infrastructure to move in this case, a hundred million dollars from scratch and comply with federal regulations,” Matt Hill, a Public Justice Center attorney, told Yahoo Finance in an interview, speaking about the rental assistance program in Maryland.

“It's not easy. It's going to take some time and dedication. And we're just now seeing these programs start to really come online and start to be able to distribute money at scale.”

For months, tenants and housing advocates have been sounding the alarm on the slow rollout of rent relief.

“We get dozens of emails and calls from tenants who have applied for money, who are desperate to receive that money, who are scared they're gonna lose their homes if they don't get it in time, but who haven't received that money yet,” Diane Yentel, CEO National Low Income Housing Coalition told Yahoo! Finance Live on Friday.

To that end, computer systems in several states have malfunctioned, preventing renters from applying. Some programs have been understaffed and overwhelmed by the volume of applications. And insufficient outreach and strict documentation requirements have also been barriers, advocates say.

“There needs to be much more public education at federal state and local levels about the availability of these funds,” Yentel said, calling the moratorium a “half measure” that was failing to address the most urgent needs of tenants.

While the new CDC moratorium does little to remedy the issues of the old one, it begs the question about what’s being done to help people in the long term. The infrastructure bill moving through Congress may include over $300 billion for housing investment, which can target low income renters.

Still, all over the country, landlords and tenants alike continue to struggle with the complicated application rules, and how to tap available funding.

No one is listening to us. There’s nowhere for us to go to even present our caseSuzanne Antolini, landlord

The Biden administration has pressured states to work more quickly to get the money out. But the slow rollout continues to whipsaw landlords who are not getting paid, and millions of renters who face the prospect of being dislodged from their homes.

Landlords like Antolini are saddled with thousands of dollars in lost rent ​​— money that her family could possibly never get back.

“We're not in the business of putting people out on the street,” she explained. She said a tenant who received paychecks throughout the pandemic didn’t bother to pay rent, or even file for rental assistance.

“We have completely hit a wall and he has no intention of leaving,” Antolini told Yahoo Finance. “We've tried on numerous occasions to speak with him to come up with some sort of solution. And we're just basically met with ‘you're harassing me.’”

While renters have been shielded from eviction under the federal ban, the financial challenge facing many tenants is squeezing working class landlords who rely on rent to pay their own bills.

A recent Urban Institute survey showed that 28% of landlords have deferred maintenance on their properties, and 62% said it was because of financial reasons.

Meanwhile, some landlords have hired outside help like an attorney to start the eviction process — but that's also been at a standstill. According to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, more than 65,000 eviction cases have been filed in New York City Housing court since the start of the pandemic.

While the courts have allowed cases to be filed during the lockdown, most of them are on pause without scheduled hearings until after the moratorium ends. One landlord told Yahoo Finance that NYC courts are handing out dates for April and May of 2022.

It’s still too early to estimate how many cases will be on the docket when the court reopens. But over 600 new housing cases were filed last week in New York City, the Eviction Lab estimates, but cases where landlords collect federal rental assistance will not forward in court.

That leaves a growing number of property owners stuck in limbo.

“So the fact that there's nobody hearing cases, even though we can prove that this guy has been working and is just gaming the system and hiding behind the moratorium,” Antolini said.

“No one is listening to us. There’s nowhere for us to go to even present our case,” she added.

Dani Romero is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @daniromerotv

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