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Tenant advocate predicts a 'fire-hose of actions against residents' this fall: What to do if you owe back rent

"Anything that Congress does now is not going to be timely enough to impact the millions of renters behind on their payments."

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Earlier this week, a group of Democrats in Congress, including Rep. Cori Bush, D-MO, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, introduced a bill that would reinstate a federal eviction moratorium. The Supreme Court struck down the previous ban, put in place by the Biden Administration, in August.

As Congress deliberates the bill, the threat of eviction looms over millions of renters. About 10.7 million Americans are behind on their rent, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. And although lawmakers approved $46.5 billion in emergency rental assistance for tenants and landlords in need earlier this year, only $5.1 billion had been distributed by state and local governments by the end of July, according to the Treasury Department.

"Anything that Congress does now is not going to be timely enough to impact the millions of renters behind on their payments," says Doug Ryan, a senior fellow at Prosperity Now, a nonprofit focused on, among other things, affordable housing. "Throughout the fall, we're going to see a fire-hose of actions against residents who owe back rent."

If you're behind on the rent, housing advocates say its important to take steps as quickly as possible to prevent an eviction. Here's what they say to do.

Talk to your landlord

If you're having trouble or anticipate having trouble paying your rent, your first step is to talk to the person who usually receives your checks, says Brian Carberry, senior managing editor at Rent.com. "You need to have conversations with your landlord or property manager to let them know the situation that you're in. Hopefully, you would have done that already," he says. "If not, you need to be open and upfront with them."

If you've lost income as a result of the pandemic, your landlord may be willing to negotiate a payment plan that works for both of you. And if you apply for rental assistance, you'll want to have your landlord on board. "If you're eligible for assistance, you should notify your landlord," says Ryan. "The landlord is the one who is supposed to apply for the funds. Of course, some aren't doing that."

Apply for rental assistance ASAP

Whether your landlord is on your side or not, housing advocates say it's a good idea to apply for rental assistance as soon as possible. For one thing, about a quarter of programs allow money to go directly to you if your landlord refuses to cooperate. For another, you can guarantee you stay in your home longer just by applying in some states.

Residents of Minnesota, Nevada, New York, Oregon, and Washington are entitled to some level of eviction protection as long as they've applied for assistance — even if they haven't received any funding.

To apply for aid, consult the National Low Income Housing Coalition's list of 496 state and local programs that are disbursing relief money, or use the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's online tool to help guide your application process.

To qualify, at least one member of your household will need to qualify for unemployment or attest in writing that pandemic-related expenses or loss of income have significantly hindered your ability to pay rent. Your 2020 income may not exceed 80% of your area's median income.

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Navigate roadblocks and know your rights

There's a reason that only a fraction of the money that the federal government allocated for rental assistance has made it to renters and landlords, says Ryan. "States and localities are putting up a ton of roadblocks."

"Maybe you can't find a copy of your lease. Maybe my employer never gave me a termination letter, or maybe I lost it. Maybe I can't get access to electronic pay stubs," he says. "These are all things that these programs are asking for."

If you're unable to produce the documents required by a particular program, shop for other programs in your area, says Ryan. You can also try to enlist professional help in locating the necessary documentation and navigating the application process. "There are many prominent networks of housing counseling organizations that are HUD-certified or affiliated," he says. "A lot of them are understaffed or over capacity, but they may be able to help. That's certainly a starting point."

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Worried that an eviction is imminent? Study the rights of renters in your state. Although the national moratorium is lifted, several states still have eviction bans in place.

Securing a lawyer if your landlord is indeed moving to evict you can at the very least buy you some time. LawHelp.org and the American Bar Association have useful guides for finding free or low-cost legal aid in your area.

"Tenants and their advocates should make clear to the judge that the tenant is eligible for assistance and ask the landlord apply for it," Ryan says. "If that property manager has to prove you owe X, they should be required to prove that they took this one step to be made whole. Some courts, but not enough of them, are requiring landlords to do that."

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