LITTLE ROCK -- 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.
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 Arkansas:
WHAT'S THE STATUS OF EVICTION MORATORIUMS IN THE STATE?
Arkansas doesn't have its own moratorium. It also doesn't track evictions, but advocates for renters say they've seen eviction cases proceeding, despite the CDC's moratorium.
WHAT'S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?
Arkansas set aside $173 million in federal funds to set up the Emergency Rental Assistance Program for people who have lost jobs or are struggling financially because of the pandemic. So far, though, only about $251,000 has been expended from that fund.
Renters can qualify if someone in the home gets unemployment benefits, if their household income went down or if someone in the home incurred significant financial hardship due to the pandemic. They also must meet income eligibility requirements based on their area's median income and the number of people in their household.
Funds are paid directly to landlords and can cover up to 15 months of rent and utilities from April 1, 2020 through the end of this year.
Advocates say a problem with rent assistance is that some landlords are refusing to take the money.
The state was also allocated $6.1 million for "rapid rehousing" aimed at getting homeless people into permanent housing, and nearly $1.1 million of that has been spent. The state was also allocated $4.3 million in homeless prevention, of which about $714,000 has been spent. The funds are distributed by community organizations around the state.
HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?
The Arkansas Supreme Court issued an order last year requiring any new eviction complaints to state that they would not be prevented by a moratorium under the CARES Act. That moratorium, which covered federally subsidized mortgages or properties, ended last July. The state Supreme Court did not issue a similar order regarding the CDC moratorium, which took effect in September.
Kendall Lewellen, managing attorney at the Center for Arkansas Legal Services, said eviction procedures vary across the state but that for the most part, she has seen courts enforcing the CDC's moratorium by allowing a hearing on whether the tenant qualifies for protection under the moratorium. If so, the court either schedules another hearing for after the moratorium expires or gives the landlord a court order that doesn't take effect until after the moratorium expires.
HOW AFFORDABLE ARE THE STATE'S MAJOR RENTAL MARKETS?
There is a shortage of affordable rental homes available to low income households in Arkansas, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. It says the annual household income needed to rent a two-bedroom home in Arkansas is $29,514.
ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?
A surge in homelessness and evictions is possible, but it's unclear what the scale of it would be. One indication of the scope of the problem is recent census data showing that more than 65,500 Arkansas residents said they were very likely or somewhat likely to be evicted within two months.