/Mississippi evictions never stopped despite federal moratorium and COVID-19 relief

Mississippi evictions never stopped despite federal moratorium and COVID-19 relief

Advocates argue that many Mississippi families, particularly those who suffered before the pandemic hit, were not protected by the government’s narrowly targeted efforts to keep people home during a pandemic. “Housing is fundamental and, in a perfect universe, it would be an original consideration for funding,” stated Scott Spivey of Mississippi Home Corporation. He noted that Congress had not yet appropriated funds to help tenants in need, even though previous relief bills were passed. Spivey stated that Mississippi will receive approximately $200 million of the $25 billion he has allocated for rental assistance under a stimulus package Congress passed Dec. 20, which President Donald Trump signed Sunday. Spivey stated that it is not coming to Mississippi until now, and has been discussed since mid-summer. According to records Mississippi Today obtained from the Hinds County Justice Court clerk, Jackson property owners filed evictions against over 1,100 families during the federal eviction moratorium. According to the Princeton University-based research organization the Eviction Lab, that’s nearly 13 families per day over this time period. This compares to approximately ten per day in 2016. Nearly 200 Jackson renters were also evicted by the landlords, who obtained warrants of removal. READ MORE: Although COVID-19 makes in-person court risky, eviction hearings are still held virtually. Because there is no data about actual evictions, it’s difficult to estimate how many families were affected. According to the Eviction Lab, Jackson was ranked fifth for the year 2016 in terms of the number of evictions. Why then did Mississippi continue evictions despite a federal moratorium against evictions and $1.25 billion in pandemic relief from the federal government? The federal government increased unemployment benefits by $600 per week for those who were eligible, shortly after thousands of Mississippians lost their jobs in March. Many people continued to struggle due to the inability of the overwhelmed unemployment agency to process the influx. August was the last month for the $600 boost. An agency spokesperson stated that a $300 boost was given to some recipients in September, but it lasted just six weeks. After which checks dropped to $235 per week. The $300 increase was extended by Congress in the most recent relief bill. However, more than 11,000 people living in Mississippi’s capital were also unemployed prior to March. This means that although the virus caused them severe hardship, they wouldn’t have been able claim they lost their jobs due to the pandemic. Therefore, most relief would not have been available to them. A U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program known as the Emergency Solutions Grant provided the first pandemic-related funding Mississippi received in order to assist struggling renters. The program provided rental assistance in Mississippi and cost $18 million. The Rental Assistance for Mississippians Program (RAMP) had received 8,736 phone calls, approved 1,155 applicants, and only $2.88 million in funding. The program was still processing 925 additional applications. Renter households must be below 50% of the area’s median income — $35,450 for Hinds County for a family with four children — and be at risk of becoming homeless or have been directly affected by the pandemic. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ordered a halt to all evictions and residential relocations from Sept. 4 through the end of 2011. However, for the program to work, a renter must have given a declaration to their landlord, or property manager, certifying that they are subject to the order. Desiree Hensley runs the University of Mississippi School of Law’s Housing Clinic. She said, “It is pretty narrow.” “You must have income loss directly related to COVID. This can be difficult for tenants to prove, especially as time goes by.” Mississippi Today discovered this when it attended a virtual hearing on September. Spivey explained that if the moratorium was applied to a renter they would be ineligible to any assistance under the RAMP program because they were not close enough to homelessness or eviction to be eligible for emergency funding. Spivey stated that it was so counterintuitive, it’s almost absurd. The landlord doesn’t get paid when the moratorium is used instead of rental assistance to avoid eviction. Rent debts continue to mount. Although the moratorium was set to expire in December, the relief bill extends it until January 31. Spivey stated that he was sitting in a chair with money to aid low-income renters and thinking, “Man, I hope they don’t extend this moratorium of evictions.” “I’m in a crazy town.” In October, the next addition to rental assistance was a $20 million legislative appropriation from the state’s federal Pandemic Relief Funding under the CARES Act. This money must be spent before the end of this year. The Mississippi Development Authority administers the Mississippi Rental Assistance Grant program. Between Oct. 22 to the Nov. 15 deadline, landlords applied for this grant – up to $30,000 per property owner – The agency’s website states that landlords were required to apply for funds to help tenants with rent arrears, who they would consider paying in full, and units that have been left vacant due to the pandemic. It approved 3,846 of 7,213 requests, authorizing $11.9million in relief. However, several million were still unplowed by mid-December. The law was passed by the state legislature so that any CARES Act funds not used are diverted to the state’s unemployment fund prior to Dec. 31, instead of being returned to the federal government. Gov. Tate Reeves’ Office also informed Mississippi Today that he had decided to dedicate the entire $38 million additional Community Development Block Grant to rental aid, as this publication reported in October. Mid-December saw no guidance from the federal government on how to spend the funds. The Mississippi Development Authority, which will manage the money, hadn’t yet signed a grant agreement. This will allow the Mississippi Home Corporation, which will run the program, to continue its work. The $200 million additional in relief funds would be administered by the home corporation. Spivey stated that these programs will allow for greater flexibility in helping renters who are struggling before they become homeless. The program would be available to those who earn at least 80% of the Hinds County area media income, which is $56,700 for a family with four. Spivey stated in October that “when they’re ready, we’re willing to go”, so it could be as quick as possible and reach the most people._x000D