At the beginning of 2020, things were looking up for Omaha resident Jolina Manley. She had a steady job at a call center; she was living in a townhouse subsidized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development; and she was taking classes in culinary arts.
“The kids were all in school," Manley says. "Everything this year started off like, 'Okay, this is going to be great. I'm going to do something and everything's going to be great.'”
Then the pandemic hit. The cooking classes went online, which Manley says was unmanageable. She got laid off at the call center. And then, last fall, the single mother of five got an eviction notice from her landlord.
“It's been stressful," Manley says. "You know, this was my worst fear.”
Manley says the notice came after her 11-year-old son got in an argument with another tenant. The police weren’t called, but her landlord wanted her out on the grounds of alleged criminal activity. This means she wasn’t covered by the CDC eviction moratorium, which only protects tenants from eviction due to nonpayment of rent.
To avoid having an eviction on her record, Manley signed an agreement saying she’d be out of the property by December 31. She didn’t have anywhere else to go, but she felt like she had no choice.
“I felt pressured, but I was okay with it at that time," she says. "But then four other people got evicted in my same building, and they all won their cases. And I was just devastated. I wish I would have took it to court.”
Since we spoke, Manley got a one-month extension on the agreement and was able to find a new place. But renters served with eviction notices are all too often left alone to navigate a complicated system of courts and landlord relationships. Unlike in criminal court, eviction court defendants in Nebraska aren’t entitled to legal counsel. That’s where groups like Omaha Tenants United and Legal Aid of Nebraska come in as advocates.
“The tenant and defendant in a lawsuit should not be expected to know all aspects of federal and state law before they go into a courthouse where they will be evicted,” says Legal Aid attorney Scott Mertz.
Legal Aid of Nebraska is a statewide nonprofit that provides civil legal services to low-income individuals. Much of their work is related to residential evictions. Mertz estimates the organization has fielded upwards of 2000 housing cases since the pandemic started — not much higher than in a typical year. The difference for clients this year?
“We have a lot more tools in our arsenal,” Mertz says.
“The services a lot of those callers might have received pre-pandemic was advice and counsel from an attorney over the phone," Mertz says. "Here, we're really trying to take on the clients and really doing whatever we can to get into court and actually stop the eviction from happening in every possible case. That's what's really different, because a lot of the people coming to us earlier didn't really have cases where we could do very much at the time they were calling us.”
However, one problem with the current CDC eviction moratorium is that it places the burden on the renter. Tenants currently at risk of eviction for nonpayment of rent must sign and send a declaration to their landlord to halt legal proceedings. The declaration, found on the CDC website, claims the renter has used “best efforts” to come up with rent money but is unable to pay due to loss of income. It is signed under penalty of perjury.
A more glaring problem is that many people simply don’t know the moratorium exists. Jade is a community organizer with Omaha Tenants United. He asked we only use his first name.
“The CDC didn't set out a budget to advertise the declaration, anything like that, right," Jade says. "It was just published, and it's been sort of up to advocates to get that information out to people.”
OTU is a tenants’ rights collective founded in 2018. Part of the Autonomous Tenants Union Network, OTU works to inform local renters of their rights and empower them to fight back against unsuitable living conditions. Their guiding principles are that housing is a right, and there are more tenants than there are landlords. It’s one of many tenants unions across the country doing more groundwork than ever during the pandemic rent crisis.
“There's like the old joke, like, if you owe the bank $1,000, it's your problem. If you owe the bank a million dollars, it's their problem," Jade says. "And so you have a weird situation where there's actually a lot of leverage because of all that debt the tenants kind of hold.”
During the pandemic, Legal Aid and OTU have both worked to keep people in their homes and inform renters of their rights. But while Legal Aid uses more traditional channels, OTU uses progressive direct action. Members stand outside eviction courtrooms to offer advice and information to incoming defendants. Their Facebook page is open to questions about housing law. Jade says the group also acts as watchdogs during court proceedings.
“We basically watch the judges and the lawyers and let tenants know that they're not alone in there," he says. "So sort of providing support and keeping an eye on making sure the law is followed properly.”
Congress has extended the eviction moratorium to January 31. But when it does expire, it will leave an estimated 30 to 40 million Americans who are already at risk of eviction in dire straits. Since the moratorium merely halts eviction proceedings and doesn’t prevent landlords from charging rent, many tenants are accruing more and more debt from months of missed payments and late fees. When that happens, advocacy groups will have to pick up even more of bureaucracy’s slack to keep people in their homes.