coronavirus

Catholic Leaders Say After Demise of Eviction Moratorium, Rental Assistance is Key

A sleeping bag is seen on the chair of U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., who spent the night on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington July 31, 2021, to highlight the midnight expiration of the pandemic-related federal moratorium on residential evictions. President Joe Biden issued a new moratorium on evictions by executive order Aug. 3. (Photo: CNS/Elizabeth Frantz, Reuters)

NEW YORK — After the Supreme Court overturned a national moratorium on evictions from rental properties imposed by the Centers for Disease Control amid the COVID pandemic, the president of Catholic Charities USA says it’s now crucial to educate local Catholic charities, landlords, and renters on how to access the billions of dollars of rental assistance available from the federal government.

“The big message is how they get through this [support], and that’s critical because the money is sitting there and not being able to access it, it’s just so unfortunate,” Sister Donna Markham told The Tablet.

To that end, Sister Donna said Catholic Charities USA and the U.S. Consumer Protection Bureau will host a joint webinar on Sept. 15 — which will remain available online for those who can’t attend — to show people how to access the money and the resources that are available so that “people can make a dent in this ongoing mess.”

Sister Donna noted, however, that in addition to people not knowing how to access the rental assistance, people who apply also don’t always receive it in a timely manner. She’s not entirely sure what the holdup is, but referenced what looks like “a huge amount of red tape” as the possible culprit, and called on all parties involved to help expedite access to the funds.

“That’s going to be an area where we really pull out the stops and try to help people get access,” Sister Donna said, citing an Aug. 29 Goldman Sachs estimate that roughly 750,000 households could face eviction by the end of the year without faster aid or new legislation.

The Wall Street bank’s report also estimated there are between 2.5 million and 3.5 million households that are significantly behind on rent, owing a combined $12-$17 billion to landlords.

The U.S Department of the Treasury said in an Aug. 25 news release that as of July 31, only $5.1 billion of the $46 billion in funding allocated by the federal government for rental assistance had been distributed, meaning just 11 percent, with about $1 million in payments made by state and localities.

On Aug. 27, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, and Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Marcia Fudge sent a letter to governors, mayors, and state courts urging the use of the emergency rental assistance funds.

“Our bottom line is this: No one should be evicted before they have the chance to apply for rental assistance, and no eviction should move forward until that application has been processed,” the government officials wrote.

They called on states and localities to enact local eviction moratoriums through the remainder of the pandemic, staying eviction proceedings while a federal rental assistance application is pending, and helping tenants navigate the application process.

The U.S. Supreme Court ended the national eviction moratorium, enacted by the Center for Disease Control and set to expire in early October, on Aug. 26 in a 6-3 ruling. The CDC first put the moratorium into place in September 2020 and it was extended three times.

The High Court held that the CDC overstepped its authority, writing in an unsigned opinion that “it is indisputable that the public has a strong interest in combating the spread of COVID-19 Delta Variant. But our system does not permit agencies to act unlawfully, even in the pursuit of desirable ends.”

It then noted that any future federal eviction moratoriums must be authorized by Congress.

The National Association of Realtors applauded the ruling. It claimed the moratorium “put the applicants, along with millions of landlords across the country, at risk of irreparable harm by depriving them of rent payments with no guarantee of eventual recovery.” It also argued that the best solution is “swift distribution” of the $46 billion in rental aid.

Local Catholic Charities nationwide have different levels of concern about what will happen without the eviction moratorium in place.

Beth Chambers, the director of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Boston, told The Tablet she expects there to be a huge demand for rental assistance in the coming weeks and months. She explained that the organization is in decent shape to help with funding from the Emergency Food and Shelter National Board Program that is available until Oct. 31.

However, she cautioned that “no Catholic charities, no agency, no nonprofit, is a bottomless pit of money,” so with the demand they expect they’re beginning to explore other funding resources from local, state, and federal entities.

“The answer is that we need a miracle,” Chambers said. “The miracle is to have that funding, and I don’t know where that miracle is.”

Considering that federal unemployment benefits end on Sept. 5, and COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Massachusetts, she doesn’t think the Supreme Court could have made this decision “at a worse time.”

In Washington state, Flo Beaumon, the director of Catholic Housing Services of Western Washington is less concerned about the immediate impact of the eviction moratorium decision with a moratorium “bridge” in the state that doesn’t extend the moratorium but helps both the tenant and landlord find a viable solution in the immediate term to avoid eviction.

Beaumon said while the program helps and the city of Seattle has worked hard to help get rental assistance to tenants in need, it’s only delaying the inevitable.

“Ending the national moratorium didn’t change what’s going on here in Seattle, which is that we are still headed towards a big crisis,” Beaumon told The Tablet. “At some point, the moratoria are going to end, and not everybody will have applied for rental assistance, and it might not cover everybody’s costs.”

Travis Phillips, director of community development and housing for Catholic Charities of Oregon on the other hand, told The Tablet in an email that it’s in good shape for now as many of the residents they serve are in jurisdictions with additional protections in place. Oregon is one of a few states where protections remain in place as long as someone applies for rental assistance.

Sister Donna said in addition to educating people about what’s available Catholic Charities USA will continue to advocate for Congress to take action with something like a moratorium with a more gradual ending, or freeing up more aid. The organization will also use the Francis Fund for Eviction Prevention that it created with the Felician Sisters of North America to provide relief.

Although, she said it’s become more difficult to raise funds with other pressing needs worldwide, which is why educating people on how to access what’s available is paramount.

“It becomes more difficult to raise funds for that when we’re also trying to help people that have been affected by hurricanes, the fires, and we’re also trying to help the Afghan refugees,” Sister Donna said. “There are multiple needs.”