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Evictions could spike in Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota

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(AP) - A federal freeze on most evictions that was enacted last year is scheduled to expire on Saturday, raising concerns that thousands of residents in Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota will be unable to afford their and could be booted from their homes.

Each state has dedicated funds to helping people pay outstanding rent and utility bills, but so far only a small amount of that money has been distributed.

Iowa

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

Iowa's ban on evictions expired in May 2020 as Gov. Kim Reynolds moved aggressively to lift coronavirus restrictions. That left the federal moratorium on evictions as the only protection for renters.

-WHAT’S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?

Iowa set up a rent and utility assistance program with $195 million in federal money. The aid covers up to 12 months of late rent and utility bills for renters who make up to 80% of their area's median income. Iowans also have to show that they either lost their job or experienced another significant financial blow caused by the pandemic. Iowa Finance Authority spokeswoman Ashley Jared said the state hasn't decided yet whether to apply for a second round of federal rental assistance money that is available.

So far, the state estimates that $7.6 million in rent and utility assistance has been distributed to 2,753 families statewide, but that doesn't include a separate aid program for the Des Moines area that has distributed more than $15.2 million to roughly 3,400 households.

Last year, Iowa distributed $31.3 million to roughly 14,000 renters through a different rental assistance program.

Despite the aid programs, evictions are expected to jump in the state after the moratorium ends.

“We would expect to see a fairly significant increase in the next couple weeks,” said Anne Bacon, of the IMPACT Community Action Partnership group, which is overseeing the Des Moines area programs. “Right now we are just trying to keep people from becoming homeless.”

Follow this link to learn more bout Iowa's Rent and Utility Assistance Program.

-HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?

The CDC moratorium prevented many but not all evictions in Iowa. Alex Kornya, general counsel at Iowa Legal Aid, said some landlords have been able to evict people whose leases had expired by arguing that they were being evicted because of the expired lease, not because of late payments. Still, the number of eviction lawsuits statewide fell from roughly 18,000 in 2019 to 12,364 last year because of the moratoriums, Kornya said. So far in 2021, 7,318 eviction cases have been filed in Iowa courts.

-WHAT IS THE AFFORDABILITY IN THE STATE’S MAJOR RENTAL MARKETS?

Iowa has a tight rental market and a shortage of affordable housing. The state reported a 4.9% vacancy rate last year, which was below the national average of 7%. Statewide, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment last year was $774.70, which was 5% higher than in 2017, when the average rent was $738.70. Data on rental housing during the pandemic is not yet available.

-ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?

It's hard to say how much homelessness might increase in Iowa, but evictions are expected to increase once the moratorium ends.

“We hope it’s not as bad as we think it might be,” Kornya said. “But right now, there are a lot of extremely concerning signs.”

Recent census data showed that there were 30,115 adults in the state who feared they could be evicted within two months.

In addition to the moratorium ending, a change in unemployment benefits in the state last month could contribute to more evictions. Iowa quit participating in enhanced unemployment benefits last month, so people receiving unemployment checks are no longer receiving an extra $300 a week in federal aid.

The number of inquiries that Iowa Legal Aid received about evictions nearly doubled last year after the expiration of an initial federal $600 per week boost to unemployment benefits.

Nebraska

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

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts temporarily banned evictions for 2 1/2 months near the start of the pandemic, but it expired in May 2020. Unlike in some states, Nebraska cities don't have their own eviction moratoriums.

-WHAT’S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?

Nebraska has earmarked $200 million from the coronavirus aid package Congress passed in December to help tenants with back rent, utility bills and other expenses.

The program offers up to $20,000 in assistance to renters or homeowners who need help paying up to 15 months of their bills. But the aid is only available to people who make 80% or less of their county’s median income and can show they are unable to pay rent because of a financial hardship caused by the pandemic or are at risk of becoming homeless.

The Nebraska Investment Finance Authority said that so far, nearly $24.6 million has been distributed to 6,292 households in Nebraska by the state and local programs in Lincoln and Omaha.

Follow this link to learn about Nebraska's Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

-HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?

Eviction cases have generally been put on hold or dismissed by Nebraska judges after tenants raised the CDC moratorium as a defense. Scott Mertz, an attorney with Legal Aid of Nebraska, said the number of eviction lawsuits fell by more than 40% last year after the moratoriums were put in place. About 5,300 eviction cases were filed in Nebraska courts last year, which was down from roughly 9,300 in 2019. So far this year, about 2,800 eviction cases have been filed in the state, which is similar to the number last year at this time. That is expected to increase after the moratorium ends.

-WHAT IS THE AFFORDABILITY IN THE STATE’S MAJOR RENTAL MARKETS?

The rental market in Nebraska remained tight last year as the state continued to have a shortage of affordable housing. The state finance authority said the vacancy rate for apartments statewide was 3.7% last year, which was significantly lower than the 7% national average. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Nebraska increased by nearly 20% from 2015 through 2020, reaching $770.60 last year. In the Omaha metropolitan area, rent for a two-bedroom apartment averaged $974.20 last year. In the Lincoln area, that figure was $802.80.

-ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?

Nebraska's homeless ranks could swell once the eviction moratorium ends because evictions and homelessness are closely linked and there is a lack of low-income housing in the state, Mertz said. Although the number of evictions in Nebraska is expected to jump after the moratorium ends, it's not clear how many landlords are waiting to act once it expires.

“It’s going to be overwhelming. It’s just a question of how overwhelming,” Mertz said.

Recent census data shows there were 21,641 adults in the state who feared they could be evicted within two months.

South Dakota

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

South Dakota did not enact its own moratorium on evictions, so when the CDC’s expires, thousands of renters will lose their protection.

-WHAT’S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?

South Dakota has received $360 million in federal funds to help tenants with outstanding rent, utility payments and other expenses. The money can go toward 15 months of rent and other expenses, including internet access. Renters who pay 30% of their income toward rent and earn 80% or less of their area's median income qualify.

So far, only a small fraction of the funds have been sent to renters. The South Dakota Housing Development Authority, which oversees the money, estimates that it has distributed about $12 million to 1,903 tenants.

“There’s a large population that isn’t aware this assistance exists,” said Brent Thompson, the executive director of East River Legal Services, a legal clinic that aids renters facing evictions and that is one of several local groups working with the Housing Development Authority to make renters facing eviction aware of the assistance.

Follow this link to more about the SD CARES Housing Assistance Program

-HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION ACTIONS?

During the moratorium, courts had halted many eviction actions or landlords have decided not to file them. But Thompson said that is changing.

The East River Legal Services clinic has seen a 50% increase in people facing evictions since May. The clinic is now handling at least one case a day, Thompson said, adding he feared the situation will only worsen.

“We are expecting a tsunami of eviction actions,” he said.

According to the state court system, evictions decreased by about 10% after the pandemic started in March 2020. This year, evictions filings have been even lower, decreasing by about 22% from pre-pandemic levels.

-HOW AFFORDABLE ARE THE STATE’S MAJOR RENTAL MARKETS?

South Dakota's rental housing market has tightened, partly due to the strong economy and a shortage of affordable housing. From 2015 through 2020, rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Sioux Falls, the state's largest city, increased by 17%, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The state's vacancy rate was about 7% before the pandemic, which roughly matched the national average.

Statistics on rental housing during the pandemic haven't been released yet. But lawmakers have sounded the alarm about a run on affordable housing and formed a special committee to try to find solutions to the problem. Republican state Rep. Roger Chase, who also works as a realtor, said recently that the housing market was as tight as he had seen in more than 30 years.

-ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?

It’s hard to say how much homelessness will increase in South Dakota. Thompson, of East River Legal Services, expects evictions and eviction-related lawsuits to spike after the CDC's moratorium ends. One indication of the scope of the problem is census data estimating that there are over 13,500 adults in the state who are fear they will be evicted in the next two months.

Thompson feared the moratorium's end would create a “crisis event” in evictions, and his legal clinic is bracing for a surge in people facing evictions or owing multiple months of rent.

He is now trying to make judges and court administrators aware of the federal relief in the hopes they can help resolve the cases without ordering an eviction.

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Associated Press

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