Two months into a public-private partnership to provide lawyers for Montanans facing eviction, program officials say many people remain vulnerable, even with a recent dose of relief from the federal government.
The Montana Eviction Intervention Program kicked off in the last week of October as a partnership between Montana Legal Services Association and the Montana Department of Commerce. MTLSA provides the lawyers, and the state provided a $70,000 grant using federal CARES Act money.
So far, the program has provided attorneys to 100 households facing eviction, including 27 in Yellowstone County. How many people were turned away wasn't yet clear, although in 2019, approximately 4,100 of the 9,000 people seeking help through MTLSA were given services, according to program coordinator Megan Helton. Applicants are denied if their income is more than 125% of the poverty line; they don't respond to follow-up calls; or they seek help on a criminal case, which the organization does not provide.
While the organization has income requirements for its services, the eviction intervention program is being made available to all Montanans regardless of income.
The program has had other wins, including recouping an average of $1,335 per tenant for things like returned security deposits or a reduction in rent after the landlord broke the law during the eviction process.
Most cases that have settled in court have ended with the tenant moving out, but so far none have become homeless or had to move into a shelter as a result. They’ve found alternative housing, Helton said.
A COVID-19 relief deal signed into law Sunday includes a one-month extension on a federal eviction moratorium, plus $25 billion in rental assistance and additional unemployment benefits that were set to expire for 12 million people.
Still, MTLSA attorney Monique Voigt said even if the package gets signed into law, she doesn’t expect the demand for legal aid to slow down.
“It’s only been increasing,” she said.
Part of the problem is a longstanding nationwide shortage of affordable housing.
“We’ve seen a lot of cases of substandard housing that people are desperately trying to hold onto because they can’t find anything else in their community,” Helton said.
In Montana, for every 100 extremely low-income renter households, there are 39 affordable and available rental units, according to a report from March by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. The report defines “extremely low-income” as at or below the poverty line, or at 30% of the area median income — whichever is greater.
The pandemic and economic recession pose dual threats, with more people under financial strain, and households increasingly crowded as people move in with friends or family due to a housing loss. Crowding means a greater risk for spreading the virus.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a public health order in September temporarily banning residential evictions through Dec. 31. The order was extended through Jan. 31, 2021, under the COVID-19 relief package and government spending bill signed Sunday.
The federal order came after the March order by Gov. Steve Bullock that blocked landlords from evicting tenants or charging late fees during the state’s stay-at-home order. The action sparked an outcry from landlords, who argued federal relief measures were sufficient to help struggling renters afford their payments.
Both measures likely explain a drop in evictions this year in Yellowstone County, said Montana Landlords Association President John Sinrud. In all of 2019, landlords in Yellowstone County filed 669 eviction notices. Through Dec. 22, or a week and a half shy of the end of 2020, that number was down to 471.
The Montana Landlords Association has approximately 1,400 members, the majority of whom own four or fewer rental units, Sinrud said. He blasted the Bullock order again in a recent call.
“Eight months later I still have landlords saying, ‘Hey, how do I get my rent paid?’” he said.
The federal moratorium has limits. Landlords can still evict for issues unrelated to rental payments, such as a violation of the lease.
But even for someone who fits the qualifications, the protection won’t apply unless they follow the required steps, which include first exhausting all government assistance options for housing or rent. More information on qualifications and requirements can be found online at cdc.gov.
The grant from the Department of Commerce that set up the legal aid program will end on Dec. 30, although Helton said program partners are looking for ways to continue the work past that deadline. She noted that under the circumstances of a pandemic and recession, problems can compound, such childcare closures leading to parents losing wages.
“It feels pretty dire, a lot of these situations,” Helton said.