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How Montana Will Use Funds To Limit Evictions

Rental sign in the University District, Missoula, MT. Tuesday, June 8, 2021.
Megan Johnson
/
Montana Public Radio
Rental sign in the University District, Missoula, MT. Tuesday, June 8, 2021.

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A federal freeze on most evictions enacted last year is scheduled to expire Saturday, July 31 after the Biden administration extended the original date by a month. The moratorium, put in place by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. Many of them lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic and had fallen months behind on their rent.

Landlords successfully challenged the order in court, arguing they also had bills to pay. They pointed out that tenants could access nearly $47 billion in federal money set aside to help pay rents and related expenses.

Advocates for tenants said the distribution of the money had been slow and that more time was needed to distribute it and repay landlords. Without an extension, they feared a spike in evictions and lawsuits seeking to boot out tenants who were behind on their rents.

Even with the delay, roughly 3.6 million people in the U.S. as of July 5 said they face eviction in the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey. The survey measures the social and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic every two weeks through online responses from a representative sample of U.S. households.

Here's the situation in Montana:

WHAT'S THE STATUS OF EVICTION MORATORIUMS IN THE STATE?

Montana renters are protected by the CDC order halting evictions until it expires. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates just over 400 Montana residents are somewhat likely to be evicted from their homes in the next two months.

WHAT'S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?

Montana has received more than $350 million in federal funding to help tenants with outstanding rent, utility payments and other expenses. Last year, it allocated $50 million from the federal CARES Act for rental assistance and ended up providing $8.4 million to 2,500 tenants. The $600 per week in supplemental unemployment payments last year appeared to be a factor in lower-than-expected application numbers early in the pandemic, the Department of Commerce said.

Late last year and this year, the state received another $352 million in federal emergency rental assistance, the minimum amount allocated to small states. Renters can receive up to $2,200 per month for past-due and future rent payments, up to $300 for utility payments and $50 per month for internet. Households are eligible for that assistance for a maximum of 15 months, dating back to April 1, 2020, if they earn less than 80% of the median income in their area and can show the pandemic affected their income.

So far under the new rental assistance program, the state has distributed $13.6 million to over 2,400 households. The Department of Commerce is currently reviewing 830 additional applications. Landlords can apply for the assistance on behalf of their renters.

However, tenants are also losing housing when rental units are sold to take advantage of the booming real estate market, when landlords stop accepting federal housing vouchers or raise rents out of the reach of some workers — situations that aren't protected under the federal moratorium. Even with the federal assistance, renters are having a difficult time finding places to live.

"There just aren't enough affordable housing options for Montana renters — even if they've been good tenants in the same place for years. If the landlord decides to sell their building or raise their rent, there's nowhere for the renters to go," said Amy Hall, an attorney with the Montana Legal Services Association. Under Montana law, tenants with month-to-month leases can be given a 30-day notice of a rent increase.

HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?

Beginning last October, the state created the Montana Eviction Intervention Project, in partnership with the Montana Legal Services Association, to provide legal help to low-income renters facing eviction. Between then and June 22, attorneys have helped with 264 evictions statewide, helping 608 clients and their family members.

"We have throughout this entire moratorium been receiving calls," said Rachel Turnbow, coordinator for the project. "We are anticipating that evictions will be increasing after the end of the moratorium."

Of the attorneys who report data on their cases, 80% say tenants were behind on their rent directly because of COVID-19. Of the court cases filed, 73% resulted in an agreement to move out without an eviction on the tenant's record, which could otherwise make finding another rental very difficult.

HOW AFFORDABLE IS HOUSING IN THE STATE'S MAJOR RENTAL MARKETS?

The National Low Income Housing Coalition says there are 46 affordable and available rentals in Montana for each 100 extremely low income household, defined as those whose income is at or below the poverty level, or 30% of the area median income, whichever is higher.

ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?

No clients assisted under the Montana Eviction Intervention Project have moved to a shelter or became homeless, the Montana Legal Services Association said.
However, Hall said a lack of available rental housing in the state's major cities has people moving to other towns, sharing housing with family or friends or possibly leaving the state.

"In Montana since COVID, rental prices have increased, and the number of vacancies has decreased," Hall said. "That's a terrible combination, especially for renters with limited incomes or who lost work due to COVID. "