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EXPLAINER: How Nebraska might fare once evictions rev up

Eviction Moratorium
Posted at 1:06 PM, Jul 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-15 14:06:57-04

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — 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 Nebraska:

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

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts temporarily banned evictions for 2 1/2 months near the start of the pandemic, before the CDC moratorium was in place. Ricketts' order expired at the end of May 2020.

WHAT’S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?

Nebraska has earmarked $200 million from the coronavirus aid package Congress passed in December to help tenants with back rent, utility bills and other expenses.

The program, which is managed by the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority, offers up to $20,000 in assistance to renters or homeowners who need help paying up to 15 months of their bills. But the aid is only available to people who make 80% or less of their county’s median income and can show they’re unable to pay rent because of a financial hardship caused by the pandemic or they’re at risk of becoming homeless.

So far, more than $15.8 million has been distributed to 4,420 households in Nebraska by the state agency and local programs in Lincoln and Omaha.

HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?

Eviction cases have generally been put on hold or dismissed by Nebraska judges after tenants raised the CDC moratorium as a defense. Scott Mertz, an attorney with Legal Aid of Nebraska, said the number of eviction lawsuits fell by more than 40% last year after the moratoriums were put in place. About 5,300 eviction cases were filed in Nebraska courts last year, which was down from roughly 9,300 in 2019. Numbers aren't yet available for this year.

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

The rental market in Nebraska remained tight last year as the state continued to have a shortage of affordable housing. The state finance authority said the vacancy rate for apartments statewide was 3.7% last year, which was significantly lower than the 7% national average. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Nebraska increased by nearly 20% from 2015 through 2020, reaching $770.60 last year. In the Omaha metropolitan area, rent for a two-bedroom apartment averaged $974.20 last year. In the Lincoln area, that figure was $802.80.

ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?

Nebraska's homeless ranks could swell once the eviction moratorium ends because evictions and homelessness are closely linked and there is a lack of low-income housing in the state, Mertz said. Although the number of evictions in Nebraska is expected to jump after the moratorium ends, it's not clear how many landlords are waiting to act once it expires and the rental assistance programs may prevent some evictions.

“It’s going to be a real shock to the system if the backlog is as high as some people fear,” Mertz said. Recent census data shows there were 10,150 adults in the state who feared they could be evicted within two months.

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