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For tenants facing eviction due to COVID-19, attorneys weigh legal options

Photo: Dennis Capati / MGN
Photo: Dennis Capati / MGN(WNDU)
Published: May. 26, 2020 at 7:12 PM AKDT
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Hundreds of renters will be faced with paying back thousands of dollars in unpaid rent or face eviction when moratoriums suspending evictions tied to COVID-19 expire in the next two months.

"The court actually is open for evictions at this point, but there's a state law in place, it was SB 241, and that law suspends evictions for people who are facing eviction because of failure to pay rent related to the COVID-19 pandemic," Alaska Legal Services Corp. Fair Housing Project Director Dan Coons said "In addition, there's the federal CARES Act, and that does the same thing. It stops evictions for COVID related income reasons for most types of federally subsidized housing as well as certain buildings covered by federally backed mortgages."

The state eviction moratorium is set to last until June 30 or until the governor ends the state of emergency, Coons said. The CARES Act moratorium ends July 25.

When those dates come, if there is no further government intervention, many people could be forced into homelessness if they cannot come up with the cash to cover unpaid rent.

"We think it could potentially be very big," Coons said. "Luckily there are some things in place that can help. First, anyone who can pay their rent now should, because, despite these suspensions, it doesn't take away the obligation to pay rent. Second, they should be making reasonable repayment agreements with their landlords so it doesn't all just become due once the moratorium ends. And finally, the city has a million dollars for rent relief, so people - tenants and landlords - should be calling 211 and asking if they can get assistance."

Coons hopes those measures can help prevent a massive wave of evictions and says Alaska Legal Services Corp. may be able to help people facing eviction.

While the municipality has set aside some funds for rent assistance, Public Interest Attorney James Davis fears the problem will be widespread without action from landlords and the government.

"Some landlords around the country have given tenants rent forgiveness, which is to talk with the tenant and see if, through no fault of your own, you can't pay your rent, I'm not going to make you homeless. That's happened in New York, it could happen here in Alaska," Davis, also a founding partner of the Northern Justice Project, said.

Davis says lawyers across the country are looking at ways to prevent people who are unable to work because of the coronavirus from being evicted.

"In West Virginia, a group of public interest lawyers filed a class action claiming it violated due process and the CARES Act by evicting tenants en masse," Davis said. "I think litigation is a last alternative because there's no easy solution."

Davis says that the state government should bear some responsibility for keeping people in stable housing while also ensuring landlords are able to pay their mortgage.

"When somebody is just too lazy to pay their rent that's one thing. When somebody's laid off because the whole state is shut down, that's a completely different situation. And so the state government can either help people now or they can help people now when they're homeless and all the social services that you need when you're rendered homeless with children are going to be called on," Davis said. "I think there needs to be some kind of subsidy by the state or local government because the local landlords need their money. They have legitimate debts to their bank that they need to pay."

Davis says that he views litigation as a last alternative, but one he will consider if necessary.

"If push comes to shove and none of the landlords in the state are willing to discuss rent forgiveness and if there's no assistance by the state government or more from the local governments to help this and we see hundreds of families getting evicted, then our firm is going to commence litigation like as in West Virginia," Davis said. "Because the options with trying something to prevent hundreds of evictions, or doing nothing, we're going to try something and see if the courts are going to give us some sort of relief."

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