COVID-19 evictions: Healthy at home for some…

“Healthy at Home” has been a catchphrase in Kentucky and across America for six months now. But, for the millions of Americans at risk of eviction during a global pandemic, a phrase that should simply be cheerful-and-dreadful pablum of our pandemic is instead a terrifying question that leads to more terrifying questions:

Healthy… at Home?

How? For how long? Where will I go?

The question of how people who rent their homes can stay “Healthy at Home” has not been easy to answer. I am the senior litigation and advocacy counsel of a statewide nonprofit. It is my job to help protect and build systems that ensure every Kentuckian has the food, shelter, medical care and security they need to thrive.

For six months, tracking, understanding, preparing for and responding to the changes to eviction processes and renter rights in Kentucky has been a dizzying, full-time job. 

That’s only a slight exaggeration. 

After eviction moratoriums, Executive Orders, Supreme Court Orders, lawsuits, CARES Act protections, here’s where we are now:

— On Sept. 1, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a public health order that protects renters from eviction for nonpayment of rent until Dec. 31 if the renter sends a Declaration to their landlord. The Declaration requires the person to swear to certain facts about the person’s income and efforts to pay.

The Kentucky Equal Justice Center has built an app at HomerenterDeclaration.org that allows renters to review, sign and email the required Declaration to their landlords in just a few minutes. The tool is useful nationwide. Because people have to send the Declaration to get the CDC’s protections, sharing HomerenterDeclaration.org on social media is one of the simplest things people can do to help their neighbors avoid being evicted during a global pandemic.

We already know that landlords are trying to rush eviction cases through courts across the country before people learn about the CDC’s eviction protections. 

Don’t let them get away with it. 

Preventing evictions is literally a matter of life and death. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania recently estimated that preventing 70 evictions saves one life in a city of 1 million people with a monthly eviction rate of 0.25%. Whose life? We’ll never know. But, reducing the spread of COVID-19 by reducing the number of people “doubling up” with friends, family, neighbors after an eviction will save lives. In Louisville, out of all residential rental properties, landlords evict people from 0.35% of those properties each month, so we would have to prevent even fewer than 70 evictions to save a life.

Every voter should wonder why we haven’t seen more action from local officials and local judges to save lives by preventing evictions in the last six months.

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Meanwhile, outside of the CDC’s recent action, things have only gotten worse for Kentuckians facing eviction for reasons other than nonpayment of rent (and renters whose landlords are willing to create pretextual reasons to evict people when the real reason is their inability to pay rent during an unemployment crisis and global pandemic).

Across Kentucky’s 120 counties, the courts’ eviction processes, the rental assistance programs available and the law describing renters’ rights are a kaleidoscopic mishmash of the personal preferences of district court judges, antiquated law and customs and bureaucratic hoops. Does the court mandate in-person eviction hearings? Or, does the court require remote hearings? Some mix of the two? Are the hearings via telephone? Skype? Zoom? Will the court allow a person facing eviction to request an in-person hearing so she can present witnesses or documents? Can a person request to appear remotely for health or logistical concerns? It all depends on what county you live in. The confusion, the variation and the lack of information benefit only the landlords, of course.

Here’s where we need to go, in no particular order:

— The federal government must provide generous assistance to landlords in exchange for a nationwide eviction moratorium. Not a “send this paper and maybe if your landlord wants to follow the law you’ll have three months of safety until Dec. 31” eviction moratorium. Not that kind of eviction moratorium. I’m talking about a “nobody moves who doesn’t want to move no matter what” eviction moratorium. It will be expensive, but less costly than the continued spread of SARS-CoV-2. What I’m saying (what I’ve been saying since April) is: Just Print the Money.

— Local governments, the court and Gov. Andy Beshear should implement processes that make the promise of the CDC’s Order a reality for more Kentuckians. The courts must provide renters facing eviction with a copy of the CDC’s Declaration form with the first court papers a person receives in an eviction. Courts should refuse evictions when the only lease “violation” is overstaying a month-to-month lease. Local governments and the governor should consider expanding their eviction protections to avoid this specific injustice, a transparent abuse of landlords’ asymmetric power.

— The court system must require district courts across the state to implement uniform, safe and fair eviction processes. Better service. Better notice. Less rubber-stamping.

The eviction process was already broken before 2020 added the twin crises of a global pandemic and a surge of unemployment to the increasingly toxic mix of desperation, danger, inequality and financial ruin. A patchwork of outdated laws governs Kentucky’s fast, cruel and unthinking eviction process. In eviction courts, 90% of landlords have lawyers while almost no renters have assistance of counsel.

It is not OK to mandate only in-person eviction hearings. Simultaneously, it is not fair to hold eviction hearings only remotely (over the phone, Zoom or whatever). After four months of evictions after an initial statewide moratorium, it’s clear: The Kentucky Supreme Court must mandate that every district court across the state offer a mix of both to accommodate the unique challenges of the moment. This will mean evictions take more time, but it also means fewer renters will lose their homes (and offices and kids’ school and sanctuary).

Every single step of the eviction process can be improved, made fairer. The Kentucky Supreme Court must do more to ensure that Kentuckians receive the basic fairness and dignity required by their humanity and guaranteed to them by the U.S. Constitution.

Kentuckians deserve systems founded on the dignity of every person, systems that prize the right to life above the right to property and systems that recognize the urgent biological and economic imperative that everyone be allowed to remain #HealthyAtHome right now, whether a home is rented or owned. •

Where to get help:

HomerenterDeclaration.org works nationwide to let homerenters email the CDC’s Declaration to their landlords. Kentuckians will also find information to connect with local legal aid organizations at HomerenterDeclaration.org. Please share this link.

—In Louisville, StopMyEviction.org is the first stop for rental assistance and legal help with an eviction.

Download or order door-to-door flyers about the CDC’s eviction protections. 

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