MSS: With ban lifted, thousands of West Virginians face potential surge of evictions

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by Mountain State Spotlight. Get stories like this delivered to your email inbox once a week; sign up for the free newsletter at https://mountainstatespotlight.org/newsletter

By Emily Allen, Mountain State Spotlight

Weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a federal moratorium on payment-related evictions, West Virginia housing advocates like Kayla Morris know a crisis is coming. As counties resume nonpayment-related eviction hearings, potentially thousands of state residents are going to need help.

“We believe we’re going to get hit hard, we just don’t know when at what point,” said Morris, who works for Community Resources, Inc. in Wood County.

A survey from the U.S. Census done in the last two weeks of August estimated that of the 212,000 West Virginians living in rental housing, about 25,900 were at least one month behind on rental payments.

For months, state officials have had a potential solution: more than $260 million in federal rental and utility aid, being held and disbursed by the West Virginia Housing and Development Fund. Called the Mountaineer Rental Assistance Program, this fund was launched in late March with federal dollars to help renters pay their landlords.

But though housing officials are increasing the pace at which they’re getting assistance to West Virginia renters, they’ve still only handed out a fraction of the available money.

‘How are you going to come up with all of this money’

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention instituted the most recent eviction moratorium in early August, the coronavirus pandemic was taking a turn for the worse. In West Virginia, health officials noted at the beginning of September that there were more people on ventilators for COVID-19 than ever before.

“A surge in evictions could lead to the immediate and significant movement of large numbers of persons from lower density to higher density housing at a time in the United States when the highly transmissible Delta variant is driving COVID-19 cases at an unprecedented rate,” the CDC wrote on Aug. 3. The agency noted that the previous eviction moratorium had stalled more than 1.5 million eviction filings nationwide in 2020.

But now with no federal moratorium on payment-related evictions in place, the rent is due, and in some cases it’s months of back payments for tenants and their families. 

At the Raleigh County Community Action Association in Beckley — which serves an 11-county region — housing director Brittany Caron said she fears for the number of people who, without a moratorium, have to figure out what to do with months of unpaid rent. 

“It kept people housed, but in the long run, I mean I feel like there could’ve been more to the moratorium because those people were still responsible for that rent,” Caron said. “So how are you going to come up with all of this money when you were unemployed and unable to pay that?”

That’s where rental assistance could come into play: As of Wednesday, West Virginia officials had handed out $20.4 million to 4,300 applicants whose requests for rental and utility assistance were approved.

But that still leaves about $240 million unspent with another $90 million on the way later this year from the U.S. Treasury Department.

West Virginia isn’t alone: nearly every state has struggled to disperse the money quickly enough according to the federal government’s standards. And there are more than 3,200 applications that West Virginia’s rental assistance program has yet to process. But even while the West Virginia Housing Development Fund has taken some of the federal government’s recommended steps to make sure people are aware of the assistance, they haven’t implemented all of the recommendations. And of the nearly 26,000 people the U.S. Census estimates are behind on rent in West Virginia, more than 17,000 had not applied for assistance as of the end of August. 

In Wood County, where Community Resources Inc. serves an 11-county area in the mid-Ohio Valley stretching toward the Northern Panhandle, Morris said she thinks the program’s availability is making a difference. 

“Surprisingly we are not really as busy as one would think we should be during the crisis we’re dealing with,” Morris said. 

The waiting game

While most community action agencies, like Community Resources, Inc. in Wood, are helping their clients complete their applications for rental and utility assistance, some are running their own more local rental assistance programs.

The Raleigh County Community Action Association has a grant-funded program to help with old and new rental payments for Raleigh County residents. 

So far, the organization says that its rental program has helped 102 people with rental assistance and three with mortgage aid. They’ve spent $72,300. 

For those waiting on assistance through the rental assistance fund to come through, time is an important element. Legal Aid attorney Kathryn Marcum, who works with renters in Randolph County, said she hopes once her nonpayment-related cases start going to court that judges will hold off making a decision to evict someone who could qualify for assistance.

“I have seen a number of landlords who have been patient and willing to wait. And, frankly, the alternative is to proceed with an eviction against someone who is not able to pay,” Marcum said. “Waiting will give you, eventually, money in your pocket that you wouldn’t see otherwise.”

But for now, the West Virginia Supreme Court isn’t issuing any guidance to lower courts on how to handle MRAP eligibility. Instead, they flagged the Supreme Court decision lifting the federal eviction moratorium, and are leaving the rest up to local magistrates.

Reach reporter Emily Allen at emilyallen@mountainstatespotlight.org

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