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EXPLAINER: Will North Dakota do enough to limit evictions?

June 25, 2021 GMT
FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2020, file photo, housing activists erect a sign in Swampscott, Mass. A federal freeze on most evictions is set to expire soon. The moratorium, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)
FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2020, file photo, housing activists erect a sign in Swampscott, Mass. A federal freeze on most evictions is set to expire soon. The moratorium, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

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

Landlords successfully challenged the order in court, arguing that they also had bills to pay. They pointed out that tenants could access more than $45 billion in federal money set aside to help pay rents and related expenses.

Advocates for tenants say the distribution of the money has been slow and that more time is needed to distribute it and repay landlords. Without an extension, they feared a spike in evictions and lawsuits seeking to boot out tenants who are behind on their rent.

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As of June 7, roughly 3.2 million people in the U.S. said they would face eviction within 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 North Dakota:

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

Gov. Doug Burgum did not enact a moratorium halting evictions, but the state Supreme Court issued an administrative order suspending eviction hearings effective April 1, 2020. It was lifted a few weeks later. According to state Supreme Court data, the number of eviction judgments statewide have increased by 15% every year from 2016 through 2019. But last year, the number of eviction lawsuits dropped by about 15%, to just over 2,500, due in part to the federal moratorium and rent assistance, housing officials say.

WHAT’S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?

North Dakota received $352 million this year to help tenants with outstanding rent, utility payments and other expenses. In 2020, the state dedicated $2.9 million from the federal CARES Act to Emergency Rental Assistance through the Emergency Rent Bridge program. The state ended up providing $2.9 million in rent assistance to more than 1,360 tenants and almost 500 landlords. The $352 million in federal emergency rental assistance the state got this year can go toward up to 15 months of rent and other related expenses, including utilities. To qualify, applicants must have a household income of no more than 85% of their area’s median income. So far in 2021, the state estimates it has distributed about $2.5 million to more than 1,800 tenants.

HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?

Not that well, according to Richard LeMay, executive director for Legal Services of North Dakota, which provides assistance to low-income residents.

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“Courts do not spend a lot of time on eviction hearings,” Lemay said. “The larger counties usually proceed by cattle call and if the defendant/tenant doesn’t show up the complaint is granted without questioning the plaintiff.”

“I would have to estimate that at least 90% of all filings (in the past year) resulted in eviction and also a money judgment,” Lemay said. “Some judges are taking it upon themselves to say ‘no’ to evictions, but they are the minority.”

Lemay said the low-income clients his organization serves typically don’t know how to navigate the court system or understand that there is help available to do so.

“If they come to us, we can look at it and do a motion to reopen, if the eviction warrants it, or vacate the judgment,” he said.

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

The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in North Dakota is $841. According to state data, renters occupy 30% of the state’s housing units. A household would have to earn more than $33,000 per year to afford the average rent and utilities for a two-bedroom without paying more than 30% of its income on housing.

ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?

It’s hard to say how much homelessness will increase in North Dakota once the CDC moratorium ends. Lemay said there are “too little resources being put into a much bigger problem” and already evictions and eviction lawsuits are tracking at least as high this year as last year. One indication of the scope of the problem is recent census data showing that about 8,000 state residents were concerned they could be evicted within two months.