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Housing advocates hope for extended federal eviction freeze

Freezing rain was pouring down when sheriff deputies knocked on Anthony Stinson’s apartment door in Kansas City. It was 2:15 p.m. on Jan. 6. 

At that time in Washington, armed insurrectionists had begun battling police officers at the U.S. Capitol.

While people across the country were gasping in horror, Stinson’s children — a daughter, 10, and a son, 2 — were trembling from fear as their small world fell apart. The deputies told Stinson, a single father, that he and his children needed to leave their home immediately. They were being evicted. 

“They told me to grab what I could and get out of there, so they could get out of the rain,” Stinson wrote in an Instagram post. “They said I could come back to get my stuff. They lied to me.” 

Anthony Stinson and his daughter

Instead, his landlord changed the locks and later told him that he could fish out all his belongings from the trash. His children’s Christmas presents, their clothes and all their belongings — everything was gone. 

A notice to vacate was put on his door a week earlier, but he never received the court summons because it had been mistakenly issued to “Jane Doe,” he later learned.

If he had received it, he could have filled out the “declaration form” required by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to temporarily halt evictions. 

The federal moratorium does not give automatic protection, and that’s why thousands of families such as Stinson’s are falling through the cracks in these cold months, advocates say. 

Thousands of evictions have been filed in Missouri courts.

The CDC order does not stop landlords from eviction filing petitions. It only prevents the physical removal of people from their homes — and only if the tenants fill out the declaration form.

And that’s only one of the loopholes housing advocates say riddle the federal eviction ban. Although they are glad President Joe Biden said he would extend the CDC’s order through March, they hope the order can be strengthened.

“Throughout the week, we were putting a lot of pressure on Rep. [Emanuel] Cleaver to get Biden to go further than the CDC moratorium directly through his day one executive orders,” said Tara Raghuveer, a leader with the grassroots housing advocacy group KC Tenants. 

On Jan. 19, Cleaver sent a letter to Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, explaining the problem with the loopholes in the order and asking the administration to strengthen the moratorium’s protections. 

“I understand this is the first full day of an administration with a plate fuller than Thanksgiving dinner,” Cleaver told The Independent, “But action must be taken as soon as possible. And I trust it will be.” 

‘Housing affordability crisis’

One of the first things that CDC Director Rochelle Walensky did in her new role was to extend the order temporarily halting residential evictions until at least March 31. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a “housing affordability crisis,” she said, that disproportionately affects certain groups of people.

“We must act to get cases down and keep people in their homes and out of congregate settings — like shelters — where COVID-19 can take an even stronger foothold,” Walensky said.

Housing advocates across Missouri have looked to the federal government as their only hope for keeping struggling families housed during the pandemic. 

But this kind of action does not need to happen at the federal level, said Sarah Owsley, policy and organizing manager for Empower Missouri.

“That is something that Gov. Parson could address tomorrow,” Owsley said.

Advocates have repeatedly urged Missouri Gov. Mike Parson to issue a comprehensive eviction order, but he has refused. They have also called on Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice George W. Draper III to institute an order declaring evictions a “judicial emergency,” as other state Supreme Courts have done. He, too, has not taken that step.

In the absence of statewide guidance, there is a stark disparity in how county courts are handling evictions.

In St. Louis and St. Louis County, the presiding judges have issued orders that prevent people from being physically removed from their homes during the pandemic. These orders do not require a declaration form as with the CDC moratorium, but they make an exception for drug or criminal activity.

Both judges have cited the emergency health orders from local government and health officials as their reason for the orders, as well as the high amount of community spread of COVID-19 in the region. 

However, they did not halt eviction proceedings. Judgments are still being handed down, and they keep piling up. In St. Louis County alone, the number of evictions on hold was 382, as of Dec. 4. When the local and federal orders lift, the sheriff’s office will have to execute those evictions.

In December, Kansas City’s health commission declared that evictions are a public health crisis. A similar declaration in St. Louis led the city’s presiding judge to issue his order. 

In Jackson County, Presiding Judge J. Dale Youngs has indicated that he does not feel he has the authority to issue an order that would go further than the CDC’s. If tenants do not go through the declaration form process in the Kansas City area, they can be removed from their homes. 

In smaller counties, some judges advise tenants that they have the option to fill out the CDC’s declaration form to keep them housed, according to a Missouri Bar Association panel discussion on evictions. And some don’t, leaving it up to agencies and nonprofits to inform people about the process since almost none of these have attorneys

Glenn Burleigh, community engagement specialist for the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council, said educating people around the CDC’s form process had been difficult.

“In the news, it can sound like it’s a big thing, and everything stopped,” Burleigh said. “And that’s not really what happened. Really, these court cases are still rolling. And tenants have to use this affidavit to invoke it.”

federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Missouri attempted to provide clarity for state judges on how they could respond to evictions.

U.S. District Judge Howard F. Sachs ultimately said he wanted to avoid a “heavy-handed federal intervention” by telling circuit judges what to do. But he did write in his opinion that the eviction crisis requires “balancing harms” of the tenants facing evictions and the landlords facing potential economic losses. 

Circuit judges could order a “stay” on eviction proceedings and executing evictions in order for tenants to seek and obtain free legal aid, he wrote. 

“The harm claimed might be alleviated, however, if an associate circuit judge would grant such a stay,” Sach said.

In St. Louis, in addition to the eviction order, court and city officials are actively working together to ensure that everyone on the eviction docket knows how to apply for CARES rental assistance funding, according to Mayor Lyda Krewson’s office. 

However, Kansas City officials said this collaboration with the courts was not happening.

The Independent asked Judge Youngs if he was considering issuing an order halting residential evictions in Jackson County to allow for tenants to apply for the new federal rental assistance passed in December and probably more from a new stimulus package ― as Sachs suggested.

A court spokeswoman said, “The court cannot arbitrarily choose which laws to enforce and which laws to ignore. The court is presently upholding the laws of the State of Missouri.”

The full article by Rebecca Rivas can be read at The Missouri Independent.

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