EXPLAINER: Mississippi’s efforts to help low-income tenants
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A federal freeze on most evictions enacted last year is scheduled to expire Saturday, after President Joe Biden’s 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 Mississippi:
WHAT’S THE STATUS OF EVICTION MORATORIUMS IN THE STATE?
Mississippi Republican Gov. Tate Reeves temporarily suspended evictions for two months at the start of the pandemic in the spring of 2020. The CDC moratorium is the only current protection in place for renters.
WHAT’S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?
Earlier this year, Mississippi received $200 million in federal emergency rental assistance. Approximately $186 million of that funding is flowing through the Mississippi Home Corporation’s Rental Assistance for Mississippians Program.
The money can go toward 15 months of rent and other expenses, such as utilities and home energy costs, including electricity, gas, water and sewer trash removal. The funding can’t be used to pay telephone, cable or internet bills, however.
To qualify, renters must make no more than 80% of their area’s median income.
Mississippi Home Corporation Executive Director Scott Spivey said Thursday that the agency has approved $11.6 million in rent and utility assistance so far. Just over 9,000 applications have been accepted.
Spivey said the Home Corporation is hoping to boost the number of people receiving assistance by helping them navigate the application process. More than 29,000 people have started applications since March and not completed them, he said.
Often, people don’t finish applications because they are confused or intimidated by the documentation requirements, Spivey said. Last weekend, Mississippi Home Corporation hosted an in-person rental assistance fair in Jackson, and more than 500 people completed applications.
“There’s plenty of money for rental assistance for the state of Mississippi, and we’re doing everything that we can to get it out the door,” Spivey said.
Mississippi’s two most populous counties — Hinds County in the Jackson metro area and Harrison County on the Mississippi Gulf Coast — also received $7 million each to distribute to renters in need.
Additionally, the state received $18 million in rental assistance from a pot of funds called the Emergency Solution Grants (ESG) program at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The state usually receives around $2 million in Emergency Solutions Grants a year. The money is targeted for rapid rehousing for people who are in danger of becoming homeless.
HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?
Evictions in the Jackson metro area are being held remotely through the Justice Court System unless the judge requests individuals show up in person.
The CDC moratorium has meant that many eviction lawsuits have been stayed. However, not all courts and landlords refrained from filing evictions.
Jackson-area property owners filed evictions against 3,257 families from Sept. 4, 2020 — when the CDC’s moratorium went into place — to June 15, 2021, according to Hinds County Justice Court Clerk Patricia Woods. The landlords secured warrants of removal against nearly 500 renters.
Attorney Sam Buchanan, executive director of the Mississippi Center for Legal Services, said because the moratorium only prevented evictions due to nonpayment of rent, landlords continued to pursue evictions on other grounds.
“Whether or not they were initiated to circumvent the moratorium, I cannot say definitely, but that is what we will be suspicious of,” he said.
HOW AFFORDABLE IS HOUSING IN THE STATE’S MAJOR RENTAL MARKETS?
Mississippi has some of the least expensive rents overall in the United States — and the poorest residents. The average cost for a two-bedroom apartment was $774 a month in 2020, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. That’s compared to $1,922 a month in California. However, renters living in a two-bedroom apartment in Mississippi were estimated to make $14.89 an hour, on average, compared to $36.96 an hour in California, according to the coalition.
ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?
It’s hard to say how much homelessness will increase in Mississippi. Buchanan, of the Mississippi Center for Legal Services, said he expects to see a surge. Spivey said his team has been trying to reach out to landlords to educate them on the available rental assistance and encourage them not to evict.
“We’re trying to tell them, it’s counterproductive for landlords to give up rent,” he said. “If they evict, they’re not entitled to the past rent that they were due. We’re not going to pay them if there’s nobody in the unit.”
One indication of the scope of the problem is census data from July 5 showing 79,324 state residents concerned that they could be evicted over the next two months.
Leah Willingham is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.