BOSTON — The eviction system, which saw a dramatic drop in cases before a federal moratorium expired over the weekend, rumbled back into action Monday, with activists girding for the first of what could be millions of tenants to be tossed onto the streets as the delta variant of the coronavirus surges.
Landlords tired of waiting for federal rental assistance were in court hoping to evict their tenants, while families from Ohio to Virginia turned up before judges hoping for a last-minute reprieve. In Detroit, at least 600 tenants with court orders against them were at immediate risk.
"It's very scary with the moratorium being over," said Ted Phillips, a lawyer who leads the United Community Housing Coalition in Detroit.
The Biden administration allowed the federal moratorium to expire over the weekend and Congress was unable to extend it. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called for an immediate extension, calling it a "moral imperative" to prevent Americans from being put out of their homes during a COVID-19 surge.
The Biden administration had hoped that historic amounts of rental assistance allocated by Congress would help avert a crisis. But the distribution has been painfully slow: Only about $3 billion of the first tranche of $25 billion had been distributed through June by states and localities. A second amount of $21.5 billion will go to the states.
More than 15 million people live in households that owe as much as $20 billion to their landlords, according to the Aspen Institute. As of July 5, roughly 3.6 million people in the U.S. said they faced eviction in the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey.
In Rhode Island on Monday, Gabe Imondi, a 74-year-old landlord, was in court hoping to get an eviction execution — the final step to push a tenant out of one of four housing units he owns in nearby Pawtucket.
Imondi said he and his tenant both filed forms for the billions in federal aid meant to help keep tenants in their homes but so far, he said, he hasn't seen a cent of the state's $200 million share.
A retired general contractor, Imondi estimates he's out around $20,000 in lost rent since September, when he began seeking to evict his tenant for non-payment. The eviction was approved in January.
"I don't know what they're doing with that money," Imondi said.
Meanwhile, Luis Vertentes was told by a judge he had three weeks to clear out of his one-bedroom apartment in nearby East Providence. The 43-year-old landscaper said he was four months behind on rent after being hospitalized for a time.
"I'm going to be homeless, all because of this pandemic," Vertentes said. "I feel helpless, like I can't do anything even though I work and I got a full-time job."
Outside the courtroom, Katie Barrington, a case manager with Crossroads Rhode Island, a nonprofit housing and homeless agency, signed him up with a housing counsellor to help him secure a new home and enrolled him for federal rental assistance.
In Columbus, Ohio, Chelsea Rivera showed up at Franklin County court Monday after receiving an eviction notice last month. A single mom, she's behind $2,988 in rent and late fees for the one bed-room apartment she rents for herself and three young sons.
The 27-year-old said she started to struggle after her hours were cut in May at the Walmart warehouse where she worked. She's applied to numerous agencies for help but they're either out of money, have a waiting list, or not able to help until clients end up in court with an eviction notice.
Rivera said she's preparing herself mentally to move into a shelter with her children until her situation improves.
"We just need help," Rivera said, fighting back tears. "It's just been really hard with everyday issues on top of worrying about where you're going to live."
But there was more optimism in Virginia, where Tiara Burton, 23, learned she would be getting federal help and wouldn't be evicted. She initially feared the worst when the moratorium lifted.
"That was definitely a worry yesterday," said Burton, 23, who lives in Virginia Beach. "If they're going to start doing evictions again, then I'm going to be faced with having to figure out where me and my family are going to go. And that's not something that anyone should have to worry about these days at all."
She was relieved to be told by an attorney she had been approved for assistance through the Virginia Rent Relief Program. Her court hearing was postponed for 30 days, during which time she and her landlord can presumably work things out.
"I'm grateful for that," she said. "Just hearing, 'Okay, we're going to push it back 30 days, but we're going to assist you still,' … that's another weight lifted off of my shoulders."
Around the country, courts, legal advocates and law enforcement agencies were gearing up for evictions to return to pre-pandemic levels, a time when 3.7 million people were displaced from their homes every year, or seven every minute, according to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.
Some of the cities with the most cases, according to the Eviction Lab, are Phoenix with more than 42,000 eviction filings, Houston with more than 37,000, Las Vegas with nearly 27,000 and Tampa more than 15,000. Indiana and Missouri also have more than 80,000 filings.
While the moratorium was enforced in much of the country, there were places like Idaho where judges ignored it, said Ali Rabe, executive director of Jesse Tree, a non-profit that works to prevent evictions in the Boise metropolitan area.
The non-profit represented renters in about 800 evictions in the past year, and only once was the moratorium enforced, Rabe said. Statewide about 1,500 people were evicted in the past year, she said.
"Eviction courts ran as usual," she said.
That was much the way things played out in parts of North Carolina, where on Monday Sgt. David Ruppe knocked on a weathered mobile home door in Cleveland County, a rural community an hour west of Charlotte.
"We haven't seen much of a difference at all," he said. "We would still have evictions issued from the court and we would still serve them as if it happened pre-COVID."
He waited a few minutes on the porch scattered with folding chairs and toys. Then a woman opened the door.
"How are you?" he asked quietly, then explained her landlord had started the eviction process. The woman told Ruppe she'd paid, and he said she'd need to bring proof to her upcoming Aug. 9 court date.
Ruppe, who has two young sons, said seeing families struggle day-after-day is tough.
"There's only so much you can do," he said. "So, if you can offer them a glimmer of hope, words of encouragement, especially if there's kids involved. Being a father, I can relate to that."