How To Fight An Eviction

This is Autostraddle’s “How To Survive A Post(?)-COVID World” series. In some areas, COVID restrictions are lifting, but regardless of how “post”-COVID some of our individual worlds might feel, a pandemic and its lasting effects rage on. These writers are sharing their struggles and practical knowledge to help readers survive, heal and thrive in 2021.
Loss of income, untreated mental and physical health issues, unemployment, lack of family support — these are just a few reasons why people end up evicted. When it happened to me in 2012, I was a year out of college pursuing a career in both music journalism and in the non-profit social impact space. I spent part of the year covering bands and live music in Detroit and another part of the year in Central America freelance writing while also working and volunteering at an arts and human rights organization. I came back home to Michigan after my contract ended, and only six months later, shortly after signing my lease, I was being forced out of my home.

On the outside, I probably looked like I had my shit together. But in reality, I was depressed, unemployed and grieving the loss of my brother who had died earlier in the year. I was ashamed, so I told no one about my downward spiral. Like so many people who live with depression, I felt uncomfortable bringing attention to what I was going through. I didn’t want to inconvenience or burden anyone with my problems and I was afraid of making people worry about me. In my silence, I wanted to be stronger. But because I wasn’t taking care of my mental health in the aftermath of his death, I missed deadlines and forgot about events and assignments. I lost the main writing contract that had been my financial life raft, and slowly over time, the bills started piling up. As a first generation college graduate, I didn’t have any family to fall back on. Eventually, I received an eviction notice, and though I secured new employment and tried to explain my situation to my landlord, it was too late. I was swiftly kicked out.

My story, like so many others, shows the way a single life event can create a ripple effect that leaves an already vulnerable person to deal with housing insecurity. As COVID-19 spread across the world, many people suddenly found themselves unemployed, scared and searching for answers amidst a chaotic political environment. As of today, hundreds of thousands of Americans have already been, or will be, evicted from their homes since the pandemic led to widespread job and income loss in March 2020. Given the poor protections for tenants, the economic fallout and the chronic lack of access to affordable housing and healthcare, America’s housing crisis has only deepened since the pandemic began. Over 6000 evictions were filed last week alone.

Eviction laws vary state by state, but there are steps to understanding and fighting eviction that can apply to everyone. Though the CDC extended the nationwide pause on evictions through June 30th, 2021, state and federal protections are not automatic. If you’re one of the millions of people experiencing financial insecurity right now, there are many steps tenants need to take to secure their housing. Let’s break down what you need to know:

Your Housing Rights

  • Your rental agreement is 100% the most important source of information about your housing rights and responsibilities as a tenant, so make sure you read it carefully to understand what’s expected of both you and your landlord. When in doubt, you can contact a housing counselor with questions or search for laws relating to your state via the Housing and Urban Development website.
  • Advocate for yourself — document EVERYTHING. Make sure to take photos of your unit before you move in so you have proof of any potential damage that occurred before you got there. If you ask your landlord for any sort of accommodation, send it in an email or do it in writing. Receipts aren’t just for catching your shady ex in lies — they’ll back you up and provide evidence if anything with your landlord gets taken to court. If the landlord agrees orally, send a letter to them confirming details of what you discussed.

If You Can’t Pay Rent

  • Check your lease or rental agreement to find out if you have a rent grace period and how long it may be (five days is usually standard). Communicate with your landlord about your struggles as early as possible to see if they are willing to accommodate you with a flexible payment plan. If you have any documentation of your loss of income or unemployment, present that information to help your landlord understand the situation. Tell your landlord when you believe you can have the payment or suggest a payment plan to pay some of the rent now and the remaining rent in installments over a period of time. When you reach an agreement together, put it in writing immediately.
  • Ask your landlord if they are getting mortgage help. If your landlord is receiving mortgage forbearance relief from the federal government during the pandemic, they have responsibilities to their tenants and aren’t allowed to evict them. To find out if your property has an HUD/FHA mortgage use the  U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) property search tool.
  • If you live in public housing or if you have a housing choice voucher, contact your public housing agency to let them know that there has been a change in your income, and they should adjust your portion. If you live in a federally assisted property, contact the property management to have them adjust your portion.

How the Eviction Process Works

The eviction process varies state by state, but in most cases, the first step of the eviction process is a written notice. Keep in mind that even when you’re facing eviction, you still have rights. Use government resources to aid your fight. All states have unique statutes and laws regarding eviction, so check with your local court system for more details about the eviction process.

In most states, there are specific guidelines about how landlords can present eviction documents to their tenants and exactly how long the tenant has to respond. If your landlord fails to meet any of these requirements, their eviction may be dismissed, which means they’ll have to start all over with the whole process. Keep in mind that if your lease has expired or if you have a verbal lease agreement, the landlord can simply give you a written eviction notice.

Attend your eviction hearing. Though most were closed during the pandemic, eviction courts are beginning to reopen across the country to process the increasing backlog of evictions that were filed in the last year. It’s important to show up, especially if you hope to fight and hopefully win the case. It’s at the eviction hearing you can advocate for yourself and present any evidence that may be helpful to the judge.

Seek out legal help. Find out if you’re eligible for free legal services to be able to speak to a lawyer to learn about your rights. A lawyer can help explain whether you’re protected by the CARES Act or other local mandate, as well as how regular eviction laws apply in your situation and what exactly you need to do to fight an eviction. Just be sure to collect any information you have regarding your rental property, including voicemails, texts, emails, letters, pictures, receipts, lease agreements, notices, etc., before reaching out to a lawyer, as they’ll want to have a clear understanding of the situation. Your local tenants’ rights organization regularly helps people facing and fighting eviction and can offer resources on any pro bono help available to tenants as well.

Regardless of what your situation is, don’t ignore the eviction notice. Make sure to check and double check the document date, including the one for the actual eviction, the court date and, most importantly, the date by which you must notify the court that you want a hearing. The earlier you ask for help, contact organizations and apply to rent assistance programs, the sooner you can feel some relief in finding a solution.

Federal Eviction Protection

Through the CARES Act, U.S. tenants are protected against eviction for nonpayment of rent through at least June 30, 2021. Renters seeking federal eviction protection must meet certain requirements, sign a form and give it to their landlord. If you break certain terms of your lease, though, like damaging property, you can still be evicted. The CDC order doesn’t apply to homeowners facing foreclosure, and the CDC protections don’t apply if you live in an area that already has the same or better eviction protections, which is why it’s important to check on your local housing policies.

State and local protections can widely vary, and several states have extended eviction moratorium dates. Find out if your state extended protection and research and apply for any rent assistance programs that may be available.

Check with local housing officials, tenants’ councils or other similar non-profit organizations to see if they have additional resources to share or any other enacted protections for eviction or foreclosure that potentially give more protection than the CARES Act or last longer.

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Koty Neelis

Koty Neelis is a queer writer, editor, and activist based in Austin, Texas. She serves as a Fair Housing Tester for Austin Tenants Council where she advocates for tenants experiencing discrimination and housing insecurity. Her writing covers mental health, music, culture, and identity. Her work has appeared in Vice, Dazed Magazine, Memoir Mixtapes, and more. She is currently at work on her first book.

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