At the 11th hour, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took the power out of Judge Margaret Gregory’s hands as she prepared for her first docket of eviction matters that had been stalled out of concern for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though the CDC’s initial moratorium expired Saturday, July 31, the agency filed a new ban late Tuesday, Aug. 3, lasting until Oct. 3.
The new ban temporarily halts evictions in counties with “substantial and high levels” of virus transmission and is expected to cover areas where 90% of the U.S. population lives.
Hall County was considered to be at a “high level” of community transmission.
Gregory, Hall County’s chief Magistrate Court judge, was then prevented from entering any writs, or court orders, during her Wednesday, Aug. 4, docket but was able to talk with the parties to see what headway can be made.
The judge had access to a spreadsheet listing people who applied through a rental assistance program, allowing her to see who has qualified and what funding would be disbursed. The Emergency Rental Assistance program provides for renters and landlords whose income was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those eligible for rent assistance included households earning less than 80% of the area’s median income, with those under 50% of area median income prioritized more highly, and those who faced significant costs or loss of employment due to the pandemic. Applicants can find full eligibility requirements online.
“My hands are tied. I’m here to try and get you some funds, because Hall County is desperately trying to reach out to landlords and tenants to try and get money for her into your hands,” Gregory said speaking with a landlord. “... I have a spreadsheet where lots and lots of people are getting a lot of money. I mean, we’re not just talking $1,000 or $2,000. We’re talking $10,000 that could be coming your way.”
Hall County received $6.15 million as part of the relief package passed by Congress at the end of last year, part of what was known as the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021.
As of July 27, the county has expended roughly one third — $2,063,689.09 — with $264,723.37 going to administrative and marketing expenses.
Only a handful of people were present in the courtroom Wednesday afternoon.
One person moved out in February and turned over the property, and Georgia Legal Services Program attorney Seema Reddy asked for a dismissal of the case.
Peggy Payne, who rents out houses and duplexes in North Hall, told The Times she “lost a lot of money last year.”
With some quick mental math, she estimated the loss so far is $20,000.
“The other ones that I evicted for not paying … that happened before you couldn’t evict,” Payne said. “It happened immediately before you couldn’t evict.”
Payne said she has dipped into her retirement funds, and the judge gave Payne some information on the rental assistance program.
Reddy said a good number of these eviction cases are being dismissed or resolved with help from the rental assistance program.
“But then there are cases where the client or the tenant has moved out because they just felt like they were accruing so much debt that they wouldn’t ever be able to catch up, and this may have been before the rental assistance was available to them, or maybe their landlord was refusing to cooperate with rental assistance,” Reddy said. “I think that some tenants have just moved on because they feel like they can never catch up on that back rent and don’t really have a choice, so they end up unfortunately moving in with family members, which is not great for COVID numbers.”
The new moratorium aims to keep millions in their homes and prevent the spread of the coronavirus’ delta variant. The order cites the fact that there are lower vaccination rates in areas most at risk for eviction.
Reddy, who works under the legal services’ eviction prevention project, understands the frustration felt by landlords who have had these cases pending for almost a year without receiving rent, but believes people must look at the bigger picture.
“We’re in an unprecedented time right now,” Reddy said. “There’s a global pandemic, and the government is trying to prevent deaths in our community, so I think you kind of have to weigh that against landlords getting paid late, getting paid through rental assistance programs versus mass evictions.”
Reddy also addressed the high cost of living and rent in Hall County.
“You would have to have a pretty good job and not be laid off, not have your hours cut at all during this pandemic to afford rent here and not get behind, so I don’t really see a lot of people who are falling behind because they’re lazy and trying to avoid paying rent using the CDC order,” Reddy said.
The Times reached out to a representative from Sun Communities to discuss the effects of the moratorium on rental companies, but the request was not returned.
The moratorium also gives states additional time to get out nearly $47 billion in rental assistance, most of which has yet to be distributed to tenants and landlords.
Most tenants facing eviction and who counted on the CDC moratorium in the past should be protected. The number of tenants protected is likely to change, however, since it would stop being applicable in counties that go 14 days without seeing substantial or high levels of coronavirus transmission. Counties that are not covered now, but later experience spikes, would also fall under the moratorium when that happens.
There are concerns among advocates that judges, especially in rural areas, may ignore the CDC moratorium as some did earlier in the pandemic. Already, a lawyer in North Carolina said Wednesday that a judge refused to accept it as a defense because the Administrative Office of the Courts has not provided any guidance on it.
Just like the original CDC moratorium, a tenant facing eviction for nonpayment of rent must fill out a form and present it to their landlord or the owner of the property.
The new order makes clear that someone protected by the original CDC order would still be protected. It also says that anyone in court for nonpayment of rent but whose case has not yet been completed would be protected by the order.
But as was the case previously, the order would not protect someone who engaged in criminal activities, damaged their apartment or threatened the health and safety of other residents among other violations
After pushing the CDC to reconsider its options, President Joe Biden acknowledged Tuesday that he wasn't sure the new moratorium could withstand lawsuits about its constitutionality. Landlords had successfully challenged the original order in court.
When the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the eviction ban to remain in place through the end of July by a 5-4 vote, one justice in the majority, Brett Kavanaugh, wrote that Congress would have to act to extend it further.
Landlords groups reacted to the new order as they did the old one, criticizing it as an unfunded government mandate. They have yet to detail their legal strategy, though most housing advocates are counting on more lawsuits. Even if the order is overturned in court, advocates are hopeful it gives states enough time to get rental assistance out.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.