Explainer: Will Alaska Financing Program Ease Eviction Woes?

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)

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — A federal freeze on most evictions enacted last year is scheduled to expire Saturday, after the Biden administration extended the original date by a month. The moratorium, put in place by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. Many of them lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic and had fallen months behind on their rent.

Landlords successfully challenged the order in court, arguing they also had bills to pay. They pointed out that tenants could access nearly $47 billion in federal money set aside to help pay rents and related expenses.

Advocates for tenants said the distribution of the money had been slow and that more time was needed to distribute it and repay landlords. Without an extension, they feared a spike in evictions and lawsuits seeking to boot out tenants who were behind on their rents.

Even with the delay, roughly 3.6 million people in the U.S. as of July 5 said they face eviction in 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 Alaska:

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

The Alaska Legislature last year put in place moratoriums on the disconnection of utility service or evictions because of nonpayment of rent. Both expired last year.

WHAT’S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?

The Alaska Housing Finance Corp., a public corporation, is administering a program using about $240 million in federal recovery aid money to provide up to a year of rental or utility payment assistance for those affected by the pandemic who meet eligibility requirements. Under the program, past-due rent and utilities back to March 13, 2020, were to be paid first, with remaining funds going toward future assistance. The program allowed renters who did not owe back rent to also apply.

The application period closed in March.

As of July 23, the corporation reported paying about $77 million to landlords and utilities. About $25 million of that had gone toward past-due rent or past-due utilities.

Bryan Butcher, the corporation's CEO and executive director, in a statement on the corporation's website, said the program came together quickly.

“We’ve worked hard to understand the guidance coming from the federal government, develop a program that would benefit both tenants and landlords, and hire contractors and temporary staff that would allow us to administer rent assistance as quickly as possible," he said.

The municipality of Anchorage and 15 regional housing authorities partnered with the corporation as part of the program, said Stacy Barnes, a corporation spokesperson.

The program provides "an important bridge for renting families who have and may still be struggling through the pandemic as our economy recovers,” Barnes said.

She said it also “gives peace of mind to the landlords who are dependent on the income and keep the overall housing market healthy.” More than 8,000 landlords, many who own multifamily dwellings like duplexes, are participating, Barnes said.

HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?

From late March through late July, 408 eviction cases were filed in Alaska courts, according to information provided by the state court system. Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, had the highest share of those cases.

The court system provided numbers only and not the reasons for the eviction proceedings.

The court system, on a frequently asked questions page, provides a link to the form tenants seeking temporary eviction protection under the soon-to-expire CDC order could use. The site notes tenants are still responsible for rent due under their lease agreements.

If an eviction case began before a tenant provided their landlord a declaration form and a form subsequently was submitted to the landlord or court, judges have been required to stop the case until the CDC order ends, the court system says.

ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?

Brian Wilson, executive director of the Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, in June said there was concern surrounding the issue because it is already a struggle to meet the needs of individuals “who are currently at risk of or literally experiencing homeless.”

A recent U.S. Census survey of nearly 16,460 Alaskans showed 5,220 respondents were concerned they could be evicted in the next two months.