A federal eviction moratorium is still in effect throughout the United States, but Grand Forks County residents who haven’t taken advantage of it are still being pushed out of their homes after falling behind on their rent. It's equal parts surprising and perplexing to staff at High Plains Fair Housing, who have put together a program designed to halt evictions for non-payment during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Grand Forks-based advocacy group typically handles complaints of housing discrimination – a landlord who is less amenable to a tenant with disabilities than one without, for instance – but federal money administered by Grand Forks City Hall staff means they’ve got the financial room to pay for a staff member to help with area evictions, generally, and to pay for legal advice for tenants on the verge of losing their home. A “fair housing specialist” at High Plains aims to help Grand Forks residents take advantage of the moratorium, plus that free-to-them legal advice and a North Dakota-wide program designed to subsidize up to a year’s worth of rent payments.
“There is a lot of federal money to pay rent, so there’s no reason why people should be evicted for non-payment of rent,” Michelle Rydz, the nonprofit’s executive director, told the Herald, “and we are seeing evictions, still, for non-payment of rent.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention instituted the moratorium in September, claiming that the widespread evictions, threatened by the virus’ economic effects, would be a detriment to public health. That moratorium was set to expire at the end of 2020, but the CDC extended it once through the end of January and again through the end of March, and Rydz and Jade Eagle, the housing specialist who administers the eviction prevention program, expect the feds will extend it further.
“I can’t understand why they would end it right now,” Eagle said.
But that moratorium only matters if tenants present to their landlords a letter swearing that they lack the money to pay their rent and will do whatever they can do find the money they owe. It’s meant that the number of evictions in the county has been considerably less than the dire numbers suggested at multiple times throughout the pandemic, but, by Eagle’s count, a few dozen Grand Forks tenants have still faced eviction for nonpayment.
The moratorium does not block evictions based on any grounds, such as drug use, and it also doesn’t help tenants who’ve fallen behind find the money to pay their landlords. The statewide rent subsidy program can step in there: North Dakota’s COVID-19 Emergency Rent Bridge program means people who make less than 60% of Grand Forks County’s median income can ask the state government to pay 70% of their owed rent directly to their landlord. The remaining 30% of past-due rent is still up to the tenant.
North Dakota leaders apportioned about $2.9 million for the rent bridge program from the state’s share of the multi-trillion-dollar Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
The money for High Plain’s eviction program comes from Grand Forks’ Community Development Block Grant Program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and received a total of $566,000 in supplementary funding from the CARES Act. The eviction program is set to receive $50,000 in 2021 from the act via the city’s “CDBG” program, and that money is set to cover part of Eagle’s salary and the legal counseling.
The intake number for High Plains’ eviction assistance program is 701-203-1077.
A premade form tenants can fill out to take advantage of the federal eviction moratorium is at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/downloads/declaration-form.pdf
And a PDF of that form is below: