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Millions Face Housing Crisis After Federal Moratorium On Evictions Expires

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Millions of Americans are worried about having a place to live now that the federal moratorium on evictions has expired. The measure was put in place early on for people who'd lost income because of the pandemic, and it's unclear what aid for renters will be included in the next relief bill. Congress is expected to begin negotiations on that bill this week.

Lawyers like Mark Melton in Dallas are trying to help renters out. He's part of a group of about 100 attorneys in the city working on the housing crisis pro bono. And he joins us now. Hi, Mark. Welcome to the program.

MARK MELTON: Thanks for having me.

MCCAMMON: What kind of calls are you getting? What are people saying?

MELTON: You know, they really run the gamut. We're getting calls from people that have gotten notices to vacate, and they want to know what that means. We've gotten calls from people that have actually gotten eviction notices and have had to go to court. So we've represented some of those folks in eviction hearings. We've also gotten calls from landlords that just want clarity on what the rules are so that they can comply. So I think we're getting calls from a lot of different people for just about any reason you can imagine related to eviction.

MCCAMMON: And what options do people have who are, you know, running out of resources here?

MELTON: You know, unfortunately, there's not a lot. I mean, the true answer to the problem is rent assistance, and the programs that have been implemented have been limited and are generally out of money almost as quickly as they go up. We do have one special additional rule that the city of Dallas has passed that does provide for an additional 60-day period before the eviction can go forward in hopes that the landlord and the tenant can work out some kind of a deal or that Congress will come through with enough funding to actually get people caught up.

MCCAMMON: So let me ask you a really basic question. With these extensions and protections running out, obviously, best to have a lawyer like yourself helping. But what can a lawyer do in a situation like this for your clients?

MELTON: The most important thing that we can do is make sure that, you know, when an eviction is moving forward that all the rules have been followed. So far, in the past three weeks since eviction hearings have been heard again in Dallas, every single eviction that we've defended has been dismissed for failing to follow the general procedural rules about notice before doing an eviction.

Even outside of Dallas, there are still procedural rules on posting the notice to vacate and how you have to do it. And, you know, those rules are there for a good reason. They should be followed. And so having a lawyer is helpful because they know those rules and know how to articulate those rules to the judge so that the right answer is handed down.

MCCAMMON: And maybe at least buy you some time, if nothing else.

MELTON: Yeah. I mean, time is really the commodity I think everyone is looking for at this point. I think everyone is hoping that Congress does the right thing and passes a massive rent assistance program because if they don't, I think we're probably going to see tens of millions of displaced people in the coming months.

MCCAMMON: Most people facing eviction don't have a lawyer, although their landlords may well have one. What options do people have if they're looking for help?

MELTON: Nationally, you know - we actually have been getting calls from all across the country, and what we tell people is, call your local city's or county's bar association. Most of them have pro bono programs where they can at least try and help find you a lawyer or a clinic where you can learn information about how to defend yourself based on whatever laws are in your state and your city.

MCCAMMON: Understandably, we're talking here about renters, about tenants who may be losing their homes. But landlords, especially small-scale landlords, must be in a tough spot, as well. I mean, some of them need that rent money to pay their own expenses. What help is there for them?

MELTON: You know, this really is one of those two-edged sword, you know, kind of issues. And while there is a lot of focus on tenants right now because I think they're generally more vulnerable of a population, you know, the landlords need some help here, too. And there really isn't much help.

In the last CARES Act, there were some mortgage deferral options that were put into place. They weren't very good. And so unless you had a renter that was able to come up with all of the back rent at one time, it's been really difficult for landlords - especially the smaller ones, like you note - to come up with those payments.

MCCAMMON: Before I let you go, based on what you are hearing from your clients and what your colleagues are hearing from their clients, if Congress doesn't act to extend these protections for renters, what do you - where does this go?

MELTON: I think it goes in a bad direction. I don't know if you've taken a look at Princeton University's Eviction Lab, but they issued a report recently that said this could be up to 28 million people being evicted, which is about 8% of the United States population. So in a normal year, just to give some context, across the United States, we have about 1.5 million people evicted. So this is a huge multiple of the norm.

And that's going to cause, you know, ripple effects throughout the economy. So this isn't just the people that are going to be evicted that are going to suffer. This is going to cause a big economic issue for everyone. So we should all be concerned about this.

MCCAMMON: Attorney Mark Melton of Dallas.

Thank you for speaking with us.

MELTON: Sure thing. Anytime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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