Explainer: Iowa Wary Of Evictions As Renter Protections End

FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2020, file photo, housing activists erect a sign in Swampscott, Mass. A federal freeze on most evictions is set to expire soon. The moratorium, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)
FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2020, file photo, housing activists erect a sign in Swampscott, Mass. A federal freeze on most evictions is set to expire soon. The moratorium, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

A federal freeze on most evictions that was enacted last year is scheduled to expire July 31, after the Biden administration extended the date by a month. The moratorium, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, has been the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. Many of them lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic and have fallen months behind on their rent.

Landlords successfully challenged the order in court, arguing that they also had bills to pay. They pointed out that tenants could access more than $45 billion in federal money set aside to help pay rents and related expenses.

Advocates for tenants say the distribution of the money has been slow and that more time is needed to distribute it and repay landlords. Without an extension, they feared a spike in evictions and lawsuits seeking to boot out tenants who are behind on their rent.

As of June 7, roughly 3.2 million people in the U.S. said they would face eviction within the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. The survey measures the social and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic every two weeks through online responses from a representative sample of U.S. households.

Here’s the situation in Iowa:

WHAT’S THE STATUS OF EVICTION MORATORIUMS IN THE STATE?

Iowa's state ban on evictions expired in May 2020 as Gov. Kim Reynolds moved aggressively to lift coronavirus restrictions in the state. That left the federal moratorium on evictions as the only protection for renters.

WHAT’S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?

Iowa set up a rent and utility assistance program with $195 million in federal money. The aid covers up to 12 months of late rent and utility bills for renters who make up to 80% of their area's median income. Iowans also have to show that they either lost their job or experienced another significant financial blow caused by the pandemic.

So far, the state estimates that $2.55 million in rent and utility assistance has been distributed to 934 families statewide, but that doesn't include a separate aid program for the Des Moines area that has distributed more than $8 million of its $14 million to 1,856 households. The rest of that money has been earmarked for applications being processed now.

Last year, Iowa distributed $31.3 million to roughly 14,000 renters in the state through a different rental assistance program.

“We can’t possibly process applications fast enough to help people avoid evictions after the moratorium ends if we can’t get the courts to be patient for the folks who have already applied for assistance, but it is just taking a while to get approved,” said Anne Bacon, of the IMPACT Community Action Partnership group, which is overseeing the Des Moines area programs.

HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?

The CDC moratorium has prevented many but not all evictions in Iowa. Alex Kornya, general counsel at Iowa Legal Aid, said some landlords have been able to evict people whose leases had expired by arguing that they were being evicted because of the expired lease, not because of late payments. Still, the number of eviction lawsuits statewide fell from roughly 18,000 in 2019 to 12,364 last year because of the moratoriums, Kornya said. So far in 2021, 5,944 eviction cases have been filed in Iowa courts.

WHAT IS THE AFFORDABILITY IN THE STATE’S MAJOR RENTAL MARKETS?

Iowa has a tight rental market and a shortage of affordable housing. The state reported a 4.9% vacancy rate last year, which was below the national average of 7%. Statewide, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment last year was $774.70, which was 5% higher than in 2017, when the average rent was $738.70. Data on rental housing during the pandemic is not yet available.

ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?

It's hard to say how much homelessness might increase in Iowa, but evictions are expected to jump. The number of inquiries Iowa Legal Aid received about evictions nearly doubled last year after the federal $600 a week boost to unemployment benefits expired.

Kornya said he's concerned that evictions will spike in Iowa once the CDC moratorium ends, particularly because the state quit participating in enhanced unemployment benefits this month, depriving recipients of $300 a week in federal aid.

“We see enough out there to be extremely worried about what the future will hold,” he said. Recent census data showed that there were 31,702 adults in the state who feared they could be evicted within two months.