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Missouri rental aid may lag lifting of federal eviction freeze

Missourians who have fallen behind on their rent due to the pandemic can seek relief through the Missouri Emergency Rental Arrears Program beginning in January.

But housing advocates fear that the help won’t come soon enough to prevent thousands of Missourians from being evicted on January 1, when the federal moratorium will be lifted.

The program will reimburse landlords for past due rent payments, or rental arrears, for the period beginning April 1. A one-time payment of up to six months of arrears can be made to the landlord on the tenant’s behalf.

The Missouri Housing Development Commission is facilitating the program, in conjunction with the Missouri Department of Social Services.

As of Nov. 13, Missouri had $28.3 million in CARES Act Emergency Solutions Grant funds to provide housing assistance to homeless or nearly homeless residents. Of this amount, $15 million will go towards the rental arrears program.

Landlords will be able to complete an online application for the program beginning sometime in January. To participate, landlords must sign a guarantee that they won’t evict tenants for nonpayment for 120 days from the date of the rental arrears application.

Sarah Owsley, a housing advocate and organizer with the nonprofit Empower Missouri, said she was glad the program existed. However, she has concerns about how quickly the state will be able to turn around the likely “thousands of requests,” with the federal moratorium expiring on Dec. 31.

An eviction moratorium ordered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is currently preventing some Missouri residents from physically being removed from their homes due to the pandemic. However, the moratorium does not prevent landlords from filing for evictions in court, or stop a judge from granting an eviction order. 

When it is lifted on Jan. 1, sheriffs statewide will be forced to serve these evictions and remove individuals from their homes. 

“The application comes out in January,” Owsley said. “Checks won’t go out until February at best. That’s at least two months without an eviction moratorium where tenants and landlords will be waiting.” 

Owsley applauds the program’s focus on tenants earning below 50 percent of the area median income in the county where they reside. 

According to household pulse surveys, Missouri households will be an estimated $184 million to $340 million behind in rent in January. Owsley estimates that the $15 million would help about 2,500 families at $6,000 a household. 

“But that leaves 40,000-plus households still eligible for eviction in January,” she said.

On Nov. 20, the commission also awarded nearly $1.5 million in the ESG homeless prevention funds to various agencies statewide. For instance, Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri received $250,000 to provide rental and utility assistance to area residents. ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit law group that represents low-income individuals in eviction cases, received $50,000.

In order to decrease evictions during the pandemic, several states have allocated federal COVID relief funds towards legal representation for tenants. 

The rental arrears program will also be helpful in keeping eviction cases out of the court and resolved through mediation, said Elad Gross, a mediator and outreach coordinator for the St. Louis Mediation Project.

“These are exactly the programs that we need,” Gross said. 

Because rental-assistance funds appear to have run dry in St. Louis, mediators have been trying to negotiate payment plans between tenants and landlords, he said. But that’s not a great option.

“If you are thousands of dollars in the hole, it’s going to take forever to catch up,” Gross said. 

Gross learned about the commission’s program a couple of days ago, and since then he’s been able to mediate cases with even the promise that these funds will soon be available.

He is telling landlords in his mediation cases to apply the moment the application goes online. 

“It’s going to be flooded with requests,” Gross said. “And $15 million won’t be nearly enough.” 

Read this article at the Missouri Independent.

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