By Chris Bowling
As new COVID-19 infections remain higher than ever before in the pandemic, Douglas County has once again halted court dates and in-person appearances to slow the spread. All court dates except evictions.
On the day before Thanksgiving, about 20 people crowded into Courtroom 20 in the Omaha-Douglas County Civic Center on Farnam Street. Today, the risk one person would have the virus in that group is more than 60%, according to a national risk assessment tool.
“I don’t think of myself as a frontline worker but I kind of am,” said Caitlin Cedfeldt, a housing attorney with Legal Aid of Nebraska, which is one of few resources offering free legal help to low-income people. “And I shouldn’t have to be. And tenants shouldn’t be put into this situation as well. It’s upsetting how cavalier the courts are right now.”
These evictions continue despite a federal moratorium on evictions halting any eviction for nonpayment of rent until after Dec. 31. And while that order has slowed evictions, Cedfeldt worries what’s going to happen as Nebraska heads into the new year when that ends along with the county’s rent assistance program.
When the state’s previous hold on evictions was lifted in May, they saw 300 in the first week of June, Cedfeldt said. She expects this deluge of new and deferred cases will be at least as bad, if not worse.
“How am I going to keep up?” Cedfeldt asked. “There are five of us who cover Nebraska…it’s scary.”
For now, the order, which comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is a tenants best bet to staying housed, Cedfeldt said. The form only requires a signature and a date. Once a tenant hands that to a landlord, it’d be very hard for them to continue an eviction.
When the order was announced on Sept. 4, Cedfeldt couldn’t believe it.
“It was like Christmas for housing lawyers,” she said. “Seriously. I was so excited.”
But after the moratorium ends on Dec. 31 and while prospects of a new federal moratorium seem murky, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts has declined to institute a state moratorium, despite evidence that evicting people from their homes increases their likelihood of contracting the virus.
To Doug Paterson, an advocate with Omaha Tenants United, a renters rights organization, it shows a clear disregard for the safety and wellbeing of the poor.
“It’s not equal justice,” said the retired professor of theater at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Advocates with Omaha Tenants United have come to the courthouse multiple times a week since the pandemic started to try and help people facing eviction.
They’re not lawyers, which they make clear. Instead, they try to help people walking into a courtroom without legal help to stand a chance against their landlord, or likely their landlord’s lawyer.
There’s usually little they can do once proceedings have got to that point. Emma Garcia said a lot of times it’s about offering support. One person she met in eviction court needed someone to watch their home so that their furniture didn’t get thrown on the street. When the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department deputies came, Garcia and others helped the person move.
“People can be broken by these things,” she said. “But they can also be moved to fight against them.”
Paterson said some judges have pushed back against Omaha Tenants United members educating people about the moratorium, accusing them of practicing law without a license. But most honor the order. And while not every landlord has stopped evicting people for nonpayment, the more people who’ve learned about it, the greater impact it’s had.
To educate people about the order, Cedfeldt said Legal Aid of Nebraska sends mail to every person with a scheduled eviction hearing. They ask if the person knows about the moratorium, explains what it is and tells the person they can call Legal Aid, which offers free legal representation for low-income people.
The broadness of the order shocked Cedfeldt when it was announced in September. While it’s exactly what she and other housing lawyers around the country needed to keep their clients housed, rarely do they get such a lucky break. And now she’s hoping they get another in the coming weeks.
And as this order runs out, so do a lot of local relief programs to help people keep their rent paid and utilities running.
The last day for people in Douglas County to apply for rental assistance is Dec. 13. In addition to paying back rent, if someone has been approved for assistance, they’re not supposed to be evicted.
Since late July, the county’s rental assistance program, which can pay up to $7,000 owed rent in CARES Act dollars, has approved less than half of the 5,761 applications it’s received. Some are still waiting to be processed and others are waiting on landlord responses, but more than 1,500 were denied, mostly due to insufficient documentation. About half of those remaining were denied upon resubmission.
In all, the county has awarded $6.2 million to 2,539 including more than 3,500 kids and 3,100 adults. But that’s still far short of the $10 million that the county originally allotted, and far shorter than the $35 million Douglas County Commissioners considered increasing the fund to. Any CARES dollars not spent by the end of the year will have to be sent back to the federal government.
An additional $1.5 million remains of the county’s utility assistance fund, which can go to helping pay owed electric and gas charges. The last day to apply for that is Dec. 14.
Melissa Sewick, director of Douglas County General Assistance, said the leftover funds are not an indictment of the program. Rather the stipulations attached to the federal funding tied their hands on how freely they could distribute funds.
“We made it as simple as possible for tenants to receive the funding and for us to be in compliance,” Sewick said. “Unfortunately we don’t make the rules. But we followed them and we followed the wishes of the commissioners as a whole. We tweaked what we could tweak.”
County Commissioner Jim Cavanaugh has advocated for simpler ways to spend CARES Act money since the summer. But county administrators as well as Deloitte, a consulting firm hired by the county to manage the CARES Act spending, have stayed tight on compliance checks to make sure Douglas County doesn’t owe money by the end of this. Still, they’re making progress.
“We’re getting there. We’re moving in that direction,” Cavanaugh said. “But it’s been a slow go with the bureaucracy and consultants to get a quick turnaround and get the money they need as fast as possible.”
Cedfeldt said the inflexibility is frustrating. She has clients who don’t have smartphones and have trouble filling out the long online application. Others have landlords who’ve stopped responding and won’t fulfill their side of the rental assistance application.
“It’s frustrating to see people that clearly need this money and should qualify for it, be denied for reasons that may not always be in their control,” she said.
Advocates like Talia Smith, who organizes with Omaha Tenants United, said the best thing people can do now if they’re having problems is to talk to their neighbors. If you’re having problems, chances are so are they. Whether that’s the fact you’re facing eviction or your landlord isn’t fixing an issue in your home. Because while the pandemic’s highlighted so many inequities in Omaha, one that Smith hopes will stick is that there is a clear lack of access to good, safe and affordable housing.
“The housing we have is not affordable, it’s not healthy, it’s not safe and you could lose it at any moment,” Smith said. “So we’re moving toward tenants building their power… this is how we live and we deserve quality housing now.”
Cedfeldt hopes that changes. She hopes that there’s going to be another moratorium on evictions in the new year to halt what’s already a busy time in eviction court—most landlords wait until after the holidays to evict a tenant, she said. She hopes there’s new legislation that makes landlords more accountable, gives tenants more rights and gives everyone a right to legal counsel in eviction proceedings. But right now she’s preparing for a harsher reality.
More evictions. More COVID-19 infections due to housing instability. And the possibility that the government won’t be there to help.
“As far as tangible changes, locally I’m not seeing much,” she said. “People are still filing [evictions], people are protesting and that’s great, but I just wish we could carry that energy and attention into better conditions and more protective tenant laws.
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