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EXPLAINER: Wisconsin renters wary as eviction ban nears end

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)

MADISON, Wis. (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 Wisconsin:

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

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers issued an order in March 2020 barring landlords from evicting tenants as the pandemic took hold in Wisconsin. The order expired that May, though, and the state Supreme Court ruled in March 2021 that Evers can’t issue multiple emergency orders for a single crisis, preventing him from imposing another state moratorium, the governor’s office said.

WHAT’S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?

Evers’ administration has relied heavily on federal pandemic relief money to help tenants make ends meet. The Department of Administration dedicated about $35 million from the CARES Act last year to help roughly 13,000 tenants pay overdue rent and utility bills. That assistance ended at the end of the year.

The Trump administration, however, allocated about $385 million for rental assistance in Wisconsin in December. About $65 million of that has gone directly to the state’s six most populous jurisdictions: Brown, Dane, Milwaukee and Waukesha counties and the cities of Madison and Milwaukee. The remaining money was earmarked for the rest of the state.

So far this year, about $33 million has gone to roughly 9,700 tenants in smaller communities. DOA Secretary Joel Brennan said he didn’t have exact figures on spending in the six metropolitan jurisdictions, but he estimated that taken together, a total of about 20,000 tenants have received assistance since this April.

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Renters who earn up to 80% of their county’s median income can apply for aid through local social organizations that are acting as conduits between the state and tenants. The money can be used to cover up to 15 months of rent.

The Biden administration has allocated another $250 million for rental assistance in Wisconsin through the American Rescue Plan Act, but the state has received only a small amount of that aid so far, Brennan said.

HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?

Legal Action of Wisconsin, which provides free legal services to low-income people, has twice asked the state Supreme Court to halt all eviction proceedings in light of the CDC moratorium. The conservative-leaning court refused both times, saying in its latest denial in May that the Legislature, not the court, should decide whether to tilt the balance in eviction proceedings in favor of tenants.

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

Wisconsin’s rents are relatively low compared with the rest of the country’s. As of May, the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis metropolitan area was $1,545, which was the same as last year, according to a report released June 16 by Realtor.com.

ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?

Thousands of Wisconsin residents fear they could be evicted soon, according to a survey the U.S. Census Bureau released June 16. A little more than 16,300 Wisconsin adult residents surveyed said they felt it was “very likely” they would be evicted within the next two months. Another 23,000 said they felt it was “somewhat likely” they would be evicted. Only about 7,000 of those respondents said they were employed. The survey did not break down responses by specific metropolitan areas in Wisconsin.

Brennan said it’s difficult to project how many people might lose their homes. The DOA set up a system this spring to monitor eviction filings in court, and the state will share that data with local housing advocates in the hopes that they can reach out to tenants and let them know about the government aid.