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Why West Virginia Residents Are Worried About Evictions

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — 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 tenants could access nearly $47 billion in federal money 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 West Virginia:

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

West Virginia wasn’t among the states that enacted a moratorium last year halting eviction proceedings and is generally following the federal moratorium. Gov. Jim Justice had pleaded with landlords not to act toward evicting tenants during the pandemic, but thousands of eviction cases were filed, anyway.

WHAT’S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?

Justice was among four governors, all Republicans, who chose not to set up statewide rent-relief programs last year after Congress passed its first coronavirus relief package.

This year, West Virginia received $152 million for emergency rental assistance under the American Rescue Plan championed by President Joe Biden. Renters who meet income thresholds can apply for the program, administered by the West Virginia Housing Development Fund. An additional $38.5 million is earmarked to help low-income residents pay utility bills.

Public housing authorities and local government consortiums throughout the state also have received millions of dollars this year from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help offer rental assistance.

HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?

Magistrate courts have continued to accept eviction filings, but most hearings have been delayed until the CDC moratorium expires, said West Virginia Supreme Court spokeswoman Jennifer Bundy. Once the freeze ends, the state court system can expect “an influx of filings and hearings,” she said.

According to Legal Aid of West Virginia, the court eviction process moves fast. Typically a magistrate court hearing is held no more than 10 days after a landlord starts a case.

There are two types of procedures. One, called a summary eviction, is used by landlords to take quick action, but generally they cannot ask for monetary damages or rent unless the tenant fails to answer the complaint or appear at trial. Under the other procedure, called an unlawful detainer, the landlord can ask for damages.

Bundy said 10,625 summary eviction cases were filed from June 2020 to June 2021, while there were 920 unlawful detainer cases.

HOW AFFORDABLE IS HOUSING IN THE STATE’S MAJOR RENTAL MARKETS?

The market value for a two-bedroom apartment in West Virginia is among the lowest in the nation at $732, but many residents can’t even afford that. About 16% of West Virginia residents live in poverty, while 34% of children had parents who did not work full time in 2019, according to the U.S. Census.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition said there is a shortage of affordable rental homes available to low-income households. It says the annual household income needed to rent a two-bedroom home in the state is about $31,000.

“It sounds like affordable housing, but it’s not affordable when you’re not making even $15 an hour,” said Ellen Allen, executive director of the nonprofit assistance group Covenant House in Charleston. “There’s so many people that are on the edge, that are just cobbling together enough part-time jobs to get their rent and utilities paid.”

The Washington, D.C., metropolitan market, which is among the most expensive in the country, includes parts of West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. The median monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment there had risen 7% over the past year to $2,369, according to a report released July 15 by Realtor.com.

ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?

Allen said she is “greatly concerned” that homelessness will rise as court cases are heard.

One indication of the scope of the problem is census data showing nearly 15,000 state residents worried that they could be evicted over the next two months, more than double the number from a similar survey in June.

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