New stimulus includes mortgage, rent help but no eviction moratorium extension

Questions remain about what a federal court ruling from Ohio could mean for the moratorium.
A foreclosure sign stands on top of a sale sign in this file photo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
A foreclosure sign stands on top of a sale sign in this file photo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski) [ DAVID ZALUBOWSKI | AP ]
Published March 12, 2021|Updated March 12, 2021

The stimulus checks might be the most high-profile piece of the American Rescue Plan Act President Joe Biden signed into law on Thursday, but the $1.9 trillion package also has aid aimed at keeping people in their homes.

It includes $27.4 billion in emergency rental assistance, $21.55 billion of which will be distributed to through the U.S. Department of the Treasury in a manner similar to the previous round of rental assistance passed by Congress in December.

That earlier pot of aid, totaling about $25 billion, has started trickling down to state, county and city governments — including the state of Florida, and local governments in the Tampa Bay area. However, neither the state nor many of those local governments have started distributing it.

Related: Here’s how much Tampa Bay cities, counties got for pandemic rent relief

The newer rental assistance will likely add on to the previous round, and will require the same eligibility criteria. To qualify for the aid, at least one person in the renters’ household must:

  • Qualify for unemployment or have “experienced a reduction in household income, incurred significant costs, or experienced other financial hardship during or due, directly or indirectly, to the coronavirus pandemic.”
  • Be at risk of being homeless or otherwise experiencing “housing instability.”
  • Make less than 80 percent of the area median income. In the Tampa Bay area, that’s $56,250 for a family of four, according to federal data. Households making less than 50 percent of the area median income ($35,150 for a family of four) or people who have been unemployed for 90 days will take priority.

Funds can be used for rent or utility payments for up to 18 months.

This new law also includes financial help for homeowners behind on their mortgage payments.

About $10 billion is set to help homeowners avoid foreclosure through a Homeowner Assistance Fund, which will also be administered by the Treasury.

Kody Glazer, legal director for the Florida Housing Coalition, compared that to the Hardest Hit fund established by the Obama Administration to help financially strapped homeowners during the Great Recession.

“Foreclosure assistance is needed, especially for lower-to-moderate-income households that lost jobs and are still in forbearance plans and haven’t been able to catch up,” he said.

The new law does not include an extension of the federal eviction moratorium, which is currently set to expire on March 31. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has the power to make that extension without Congress, just as it previously did in January when Biden took office.

However, unlike in January, two federal courts in Texas and Ohio have recently ruled, in separate cases, that the moratorium exceeds the Centers for Disease Control’s authority.

The Texas decision, which was issued Feb. 25, strictly applied to the specific landlords who sued, and did not strike down the moratorium nationwide. The Department of Justice has also announced it will appeal.

The Ohio ruling, which was issued Wednesday, is less clear.

Eric Dunn, director of litigation for the National Housing Law Project, said his email inbox is full of “differing opinions of multiple law professors on what it means.” The National Housing Law Project filed briefs in support of the moratorium in the Ohio case and others like it.

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Dunn said that the confusion, in part, stems from the unprecedented nature of the moratorium, because the legal avenue used to challenge it is one typically used for regulations that haven’t taken effect yet. But not only is the moratorium in effect, millions of renters are relying on it to stay in their homes long enough for the rental assistance money to help make them and their landlords whole.

A recent report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau stated that 11 million renter households were “significantly overdue” on their housing payments as of December.

But Friday afternoon, the Department of Justice said in a statement that this ruling also only applies to the specific plaintiffs in the case.

“It does not prohibit the application of the CDC’s eviction moratorium to other parties. For other landlords ... the CDC’s eviction moratorium remains in effect,” the department wrote.

Dunn said the Biden Administration still has the authority to extend the moratorium while any remaining legal questions are navigated, but worries the news of the Ohio decision will further confuse tenants seeking to invoke the order’s protections in court.

“This is why tenants should be appointed lawyers if they’re facing eviction right now,” he said. “If law professors and experienced federal litigators can’t agree on what these things mean, how are individual tenants supposed to defend themselves?”

Related: Hundreds of Florida renters evicted during pandemic despite CDC order

Stephen Thompson, spokesman for the 6th judicial circuit, said the ruling has not changed the way Pinellas courts handle eviction cases because the Ohio judge didn’t issue an injunction. Mike Moore, a spokesman for the 13th circuit in Hillsborough County, said the courts’ legal department had not yet reviewed the decision, but it was “unlikely” the federal ruling would affect the process for eviction cases.

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