HELENA — During the COVID-19 pandemic, both the federal government and the state of Montana have issued orders limiting when someone can be evicted for failing to pay rent. However, those moratoriums don’t cover all situations, and eviction cases are still being filed.
Currently, the CDC has an order in place that protects tenants from eviction if they sign a legal declaration certifying that they cannot pay their full rent due to loss of work or income, and that they meet several other criteria:
- They have done all they can to get government assistance with rent or housing.
- They will earn no more than $99,000 (or $198,000 for those filing joint tax returns) in 2020, or they did not have to report income to the IRS in 2019, or they received a stimulus check under the CARES Act.
- They are making their best efforts to pay as much of the rent as they can.
- Eviction would likely leave them homeless or them into a new shared living setting.
Governor Steve Bullock has instituted a more limited directive, which applies only to people who have suffered financial hardship due to the pandemic, are part of a vulnerable population, and are sheltering at home. Bullock initially had a broader order against evictions, which expired in May.
From September 4, when the CDC’s order took effect, to December 1, Lewis & Clark County Justice Court took 23 complaints from landlords seeking to evict tenants. MTN took a closer look at the court documents in those cases.
In seven cases, the COVID-19 orders didn’t apply because the property owners were claiming other violations of lease agreements. The remaining 16 cases do center on failure to pay rent. In a number of those complaints, landlords said they sent tenants notice that they could claim protection under the state’s directive, but they didn’t receive a response.
Amy Hall, a senior attorney with the Montana Legal Services Association, said Bullock’s directive required landlords to inform tenants they could claim it, but the CDC order didn’t include a similar requirement.
“It’s up to the tenants to find out about that,” she said.
In October, MLSA launched the Montana Eviction Intervention Project, using CARES Act funding to provide free legal assistance to tenants in eviction cases around the state. Leaders say the project has handled 108 cases and helped 271 people so far.
The organization also collects updated information on the moratoriums and other legal questions around COVID-19 on the website MontanaLawHelp.org.
The CDC order is currently set to expire Dec. 31. The COVID-19 relief package that Congress approved this week would extend that through January and provide an additional $25 billion in rental assistance. However, President Donald Trump has been sharply critical of the legislation, and it is not clear that he will sign it.
Bullock’s directive will not expire until the end of the COVID-19 emergency. However, governor-elect Greg Gianforte could make changes to it once he takes office next month.
Hall said MLSA is recommending that renters who believe they qualify for protection against eviction fill out their declaration now and submit it to their landlord – and the court, if a case has already been filed.
“It doesn’t hurt to submit the declaration or the letter as long as the tenant meets the qualifications, and then if it ends up expiring before the judge hears it as part of a hearing, it would be up to the judge to decide what to do at that point,” she said.
The Montana Landlords Association has been critical of eviction moratoriums – particularly the CDC’s order, which covers more people. John Sinrud, the group’s president, told MTN he saw the orders as unconstitutional takings from landlords, but that it would be prohibitively expensive to challenge them. He said many of his members believe tenants are simply choosing not to pay rent.
“They’re requiring all the landlords to comply with everything in the Landlord-Tenant Act, yet they’re telling the tenants they don’t have to comply,” he said.
Sinrud also questioned why more support hasn’t been given to rental assistance programs, saying the burden will eventually fall back on landlords.
“I’m concerned about the mom and pops out there that still have to pay their mortgage,” he said.
Hall said she hasn’t seen evidence that the people she works with are trying to avoid rent. She said MLSA works with their clients on creating a monthly budget so they can pay as much of their rent as possible.
“We’ve been trying to advise tenants all over Montana to talk to their landlords,” she said. “Communication really is important in this time where everybody’s struggling – landlords are struggling, tenants are struggling, and hopefully if the two can talk to each other and make a plan for how the tenant can get current on the rent, that’s the best option.”
It does appear the overall number of eviction cases in Lewis & Clark County will be down in 2020. Last year, Justice Court handled 186 landlord-tenant cases, compared to just 116 through Dec. 1 this year.