With precious rental assistance money going fast, courtrooms reopening and moratoriums lifting, tenant advocates and local and state officials fear a coming surge of evictions as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the economy.
If it comes, any such flood would pour in a tight housing market where local governments already are straining to keep people from homelessness.
“There was a housing crisis long before COVID-19 hit Dane County and now it’s exponentially increasing,” said Robin Sereno, executive director of the Tenant Resource Center, which is disbursing $10 million in rental assistance from Dane County’s share of federal CARES Act.
As of July 31, the center had received 6,571 applications for assistance and authorized 4,303 applications, for a total of $6 million. Of those given assistance, 47% are Black and 18.9% are Latino, well above their representation countywide at 5.5% and 6.5%, respectively, according to July 2019 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. Three-quarters are from women, and a sobering 90% reported a job or income loss.
“I lost all my hours and my job. I’ve been trying to find something else, but it’s scarce out there,” said Cheyanne Kelley, 21, who worked full time at a hotel until March and recently received a five-day notice from her landlord at the apartment she has rented in the city of since 2018. She is now poised to get rental assistance through the Tenant Resource Center. “I was praying. I needed this.”
At the same time, landlords who rent to low- and moderate-income tenants, especially small “mom-and-pop” commercial operations, may not have been receiving rent but are still responsible for mortgage, utility and insurance payments and other expenses.
“We’re seeing needs rising for renters in cities, villages, towns and rural areas. It’s universal,” said Michael Basford, executive director of the Wisconsin Interagency Council on Homelessness.
It all creates pressure on Congress to extend a federal eviction moratorium that ended on July 24 and unemployment benefits that expired on July 31. The state’s moratorium ended on May 26. On Saturday, President Donald Trump announced limited executive orders to extend some unemployment benefits and an evictions moratorium, a payroll tax holiday and deferring student loan payments amid questions about impact, potential court challenges and uncertainties.
“The dam is holding but there are dark clouds on the horizon,” said Kurt Paulsen, a professor at UW-Madison who is surveying housing providers in the county to get insight into the extent of problems and the impact of rental assistance programs.
“Unless Congress acts ... I fear that we will see a significant increase in evictions and housing instability beginning in September,” he said. “People who are evicted during this crisis may end up having to double up with friends and family and are at heightened risk of experiencing homelessness or housing instability. That’s bad enough in a ‘normal’ situation, but potentially deadly in a pandemic.”
A big response
The pandemic has underscored the fragility of housing situations many in the Madison area experience, where even a temporary interruption in employment and income can compromise a household’s ability to meet rent, city community development director Jim O’Keefe said.
On March 27, Gov. Tony Evers issued a 60-day moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rent. But the order, which also included a stay on real estate foreclosures, lapsed on May 26. March 27 was also the date Trump signed the CARES Act, which included a 120-day moratorium on rental evictions from properties that receive a federal subsidy. It lapsed on July 24.
On May 20, Evers announced the Wisconsin Rental Assistance Program (WRAP) to deliver $25 million in emergency rental assistance, funded through the state’s portion of the CARES Act, for households at or below 80% of a county’s median income. About $3 million of that funding is flowing through Community Action Coalition of South Central Wisconsin to serve Dane, Jefferson and Rock counties.
The CARES Act is also delivering $90 million to Dane County, of which $10 million is being directed to rental assistance through the Tenant Resource Center.
The county’s Joining Forces for Families program is near the end of pre-COVID-19 funding allocated to housing but has $500,000 in pandemic relief money, officials said. Madison, which didn’t get a direct CARES grant, is providing $250,000 to community groups including Urban Triage, UNIDOS, Freedom Inc. and the African Center for Community Development to support underserved populations.
Critically, federal unemployment benefits under the CARES Act provided $600 weekly atop state unemployment insurance that delivers a maximum $370 weekly. The federal supplement, which let many stay in their homes and pay other expenses, expired July 31 and Congress is now haggling over the size of extended benefits.
Trump on Saturday signed an executive order that seeks to provide $400 in weekly unemployment benefits — $300 from the federal government and $100 from states; extension of the evictions moratorium; a payroll tax holiday for those making up to $100,000; and the student loan payment deferral.
There remain questions about how the orders will be funded. Congress, which has the power of the purse, has not reached agreement on the measures.
“It is reasonable to conclude that the emergency rental assistance programs are having an impact in terms of keeping tenants stably housed,” Paulsen said. “We have, so far, delayed the worst fears of an eviction tsunami. But that has only been (through) temporary and emergency actions.”
Since the beginning of March, the Tenant Resource Center has received 45,780 calls, including 17,779 in July, and another 3,500 calls with questions about tenant/landlord law from outside Dane County, which the center can’t answer because it lost state and federal funding for services outside the county, Sereno said.
Since June, the center has provided more than $7.1 million in rental assistance, helping keep 10,000 people in housing, Sereno said. The recipients owed an average 3.7 months in back rent.
Kelley, who had also worked part-time at an assisted living facility for a time while also holding the full-time hotel job and wants to be a certified nursing assistant, said she’d always been current with rent and bills until the pandemic, and that she likes her neighborhood, wants to stay and is grateful for the financial support.
“I didn’t want to live in my car with my dog,” she said.
Lolita Phillips, community partner and vice president of the Tenant Resource Center board of directors, who is helping Kelley get assistance to cover back rent and next month’s rent, said the need is overwhelming and stressful for struggling tenants.
“My phone never stops ringing,” she said. “Every call is like 911. Even when they don’t have the five-day notice, they still have the fear. They can’t sleep.”
Brad Paul, executive director of the Wisconsin Community Action Program Association, which is overseeing disbursement of state WRAP funds, has seen “a major response.” Before the pandemic, about a quarter of renters in the state were extremely low-income households, and more than 306,000 low-income renters paid more than half their income on rent, he said.
“Now, it is only heightened as the economy continues to struggle along,” he said, noting the initiative has helped about 4,000 households and projects the number to rise to 10,000.
Although court closings in early March and state and federal eviction moratoriums kept the center’s mediation services idle, those services are in high demand once again, Sereno said.
Since courts resumed holding sessions online, tenants have been subjected to default stipulations and default evictions simply for failing to navigate the new medium, she said. Some may not have had enough minutes on their phone’s data plan to attend a Zoom meeting, had difficulty working with the app or never received a copy of a stipulation agreement.
“We’re facing a situation where there is no state moratorium, the federal moratorium has expired and landlords covered by the federal moratorium will be able to start filing after the federal notice period is up on Aug. 24, and there will be no rent assistance funds to help,” said Heidi Wegleitner, a Dane County supervisor and attorney for Legal Action of Wisconsin.
“Late summer and fall is always a high point for evictions, but we expect it to be devastating this year,” she said. “No one wants to be searching for housing and moving during the pandemic, especially when they may have pre-existing conditions which make them more vulnerable to serious complications from infection.”
An eviction can also make it harder to get housing in the future.
Landlords in a bind
Landlords, too, are in a difficult situation.
“I don’t know a single landlord who, as a housing provider, hasn’t made an effort to assist residents with payment plans, delay serving notices and any legal action to give the residents time to apply for rental assistance,” said Nancy Jensen, the former executive director of the Apartment Association of South Central Wisconsin who still assists the group.
So far, with so many means of assistance, there has been no flood of evictions, Jensen said. She said 95% to 98% of rents have been paid within the month due or 30 days later, and that many of those more than 60 days past due are waiting for rental assistance. But when monthly rent payments to landlords drop lower than 92% to 95%, paying mortgages, insurance and property taxes becomes a problem, she said.
“If amounts of unpaid rent reach 60-90 days past due, and the tenant has not made an effort to develop a payment plan with the landlord, there will likely be evictions,” she said.
But even when there’s money to get caught up, state law does not require the landlord to enter a payment plan with the tenant, Wegleitner said.
O’Keefe said the problem isn’t helped by the bad behavior by some tenants and landlords.
“Unfortunately, a small number of renters have taken advantage of the eviction moratorium and simply stopped paying rent,” he said. “And some landlords are going to use this situation to rid themselves of tenants who have exhibited behavioral issues by nonrenewing leases. We need to get through this together — a collaborative rather than adversarial approach — as much as possible.”
Paulsen said a significant portion of the affordable housing stock in Madison is owned by small landlords who have just a few units. “They are struggling as well,” he said. “Most of the small landlords in our survey are doing the best they can to work with tenants on a payment plan and help them apply for rental assistance. However, if these smaller properties are unable to survive financially, they may end up being sold to out-of-state investors.”
Surge in homelessness
Behind the strained dam of rental assistance looms possible homelessness.
“This is all unfolding even as we strain to support — in hotels, shelter settings and on the street — 650 or more Madison residents who have no housing,” O’Keefe said. “A surge in homelessness caused by evictions would pose a tremendous challenge to this system.”
Basford said his biggest concerns is a rise in homelessness. “As the pandemic prevents congregate sheltering at capacity, communities will need to plan long-term workarounds to shelter as may people as they can,” he said
The city and county are increasing efforts at diversion and rapid re-housing, but the greatest obstacle continues to be the lack of low-cost housing units, even when there are funds to support those seeking the housing, O’Keefe said.
“There are so, so many pieces to this as well as the next steps that are beginning to roll out — homelessness, and crimes of poverty, opportunity and desperation,” Sereno said. “Panhandling is up as are street campers and substance abuse. There was a housing crisis long before COVID-19 hit Dane County, and now it’s exponentially increasing.”
Editor's Note: The story was updated to correct a reference to the city of Verona.
"There are so, so many pieces to this as well as the next steps that are beginning to roll out — homelessness, and crimes of poverty, opportunity and desperation. Panhandling is up as are street campers and substance abuse. There was a housing crisis long before COVID-19 hit Dane County, and now it's exponentially increasing."
Robin Sereno, executive director, Tenant Resource Center