Nonprofits brace for 'potential tidal wave' of homelessness from moratorium lift

·6 min read

Sep. 19—With the end of the federal eviction moratorium last month, city officials and local nonprofits have expressed concerns that Norman could find itself facing a wave of homelessness at a time when city resources are already limited.

On Aug. 26, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out an eviction moratorium originally instituted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a means to prevent landlords from evicting tenants for failure to pay their rent and prevent an increase in COVID-19 cases among homeless individuals.

While the CDC had reinstated the moratorium after it had expired July 31, the court ruled the moratorium exceeded the scope of the CDC's authority.

"The CDC has imposed a nationwide moratorium on evictions in reliance on a decades-old statute that authorizes it to implement measures like fumigation and pest extermination," the majority opinion said. "It strains credulity to believe that this statute grants the CDC the sweeping authority that it asserts."

Since the beginning of February, the Cleveland County Sheriff's Office has handled 198 rental and lease evictions and a single home eviction. Three of those rental and lease evictions have been served since the lapse of the moratorium on Aug. 26.

While Cleveland County sheriff's spokesperson Mendi Brandon said no deputies were available to speak with The Transcript on the way evictions are handled, she said the deputies "recognize the impact of eviction on all parties involved." She said deputies enforcing the evictions show compassion to the evictees "while still upholding the lawful orders signed by the judge."

Food and Shelter director April Heiple said her organization had received hundreds of phone calls as the original end to the moratorium loomed closer. Many of those calling were families who had never experienced homelessness and were desperate to access rental assistance, she said.

City homeless program coordinator Michelle Evans said she is concerned the city will face an influx of homelessness as landlords are now allowed to evict tenants for failure to pay rent.

"What we're worried about seeing is that people who have been holed up in their apartments unable to pay rent because of the pandemic will now be out on the street," Evans said. "And in these situations, we're going to be seeing increased rates of first-time homelessness, and that means a whole new pool of people in the system."

Problem preceding COVID-19 pandemic

Prior to the pandemic, Cleveland County already experienced higher rates of eviction dating back to 2016.

According to Eviction Lab, Cleveland County had a 3.95% eviction rate in 2016. It is 1.61% higher than the national average, Lab estimates.

A contributing factor to the ongoing homelessness situation in Norman and the risk for new homelessness in the wake of the overturned eviction moratorium is a lack of affordable housing, according to Norman Housing Authority Executive Director Karen Canavan.

The housing authority currently offers a Section 8 Rental Assistance Program, wherein qualifying low-income individuals are provided vouchers to subsidize rent. Canavan said the program currently has 200 individuals looking for housing under this program, but the biggest barrier is the inability to find affordable housing.

"Rent has skyrocketed in Norman, making it very difficult to secure affordable housing," Canavan said. "It's a nightmare for people looking for affordable one-bedroom apartments, even if they aren't using housing assistance. Affordable living in Norman is just so very scarce."

According to RentData, the average cost for a one-bedroom apartment in Cleveland County is $738 — $137 higher than the average cost in Oklahoma. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Norman has increased by 13% compared to last year, according to the rental listing platform Zumper.

Canavan said that were more low-income individuals and families to find themselves homeless as a result of the lapse of the eviction moratorium, the lack of affordable housing even with existing programs would make it difficult to provide ready assistance.

Evans said she hopes the results of an ongoing study to develop a strategic plan to address the city's homelessness situation might provide some answers. The study, contracted out for $100,000 to San Francisco-based nonprofit Homebase is scheduled to conclude by the end of October.

'I just don't know what will happen'

Evans said the city struggles prioritizing service administration to individuals based on how long they have been housed or whether they are experiencing homelessness for the first, second or even third time.

She added that an additional consideration is that the majority of the aid funding the city has available are supportive resources for chronic and permanent homeless situations.

If there is an increase in first-time homelessness, Evans said, the available resources are much more limited.

"People often forget that the majority of the money we utilize comes from HUD [sic] and the federal government," Evans said. "That money is subject to strict limitations and requirements that we are bound to follow."

On top of that, Evans said the city's emergency homeless shelter established last December is routinely operating near capacity. While the shelter is capable of housing nearly 50 individuals, Evans said that number has been reduced to 35 as a result of CDC COVID-19 requirements.

While other nonprofits such as the Salvation Army also provide shelter for homeless people, Evans said these also have struggled with available space.

Nonprofits like Food and Shelter have feared a situation like this ever since the moratorium was instated, Heiple said. She said while the moratorium had good intentions, it only deferred the payment of rent and did not relieve tenants of their obligation to pay.

Heiple said this meant sooner or later tenants would be obligated to pay the rent that accumulated during the moratorium and could find themselves homeless if they were still unable to pay.

"It created kind of this bubbling potential tidal wave of homelessness now that people have gotten so far behind on their rent," Heiple said.

Heiple said Food and Shelter will provide the assistance it's able and help people apply for assistance "wherever else they can get it. But she said the nonprofit has limited resources

"I just don't know what will happen if we see significantly more evictions," she said.

For now, Evans said the city and their nonprofit partners are monitoring the situation as it unfolds. She said they're pooling resources to provide everything from basic needs to rapid-relief housing.

Evans said city officials will know how to better respond as the situation unfolds over the weeks.

"The best thing we can do until then is work together as a cohesive group, because Norman's homelessness is not something the city or a single agency can address alone," she said.

For rental assistance, Norman residents can apply for the city's Community Development Block Grant Rental Assistance Program online at normanok.gov.

Additional rental and utility assistance is available starting Oct. 15 through Community Cares Partners, a program of the Communities Foundation of Oklahoma. The application is currently closed due to a backlog of applications.

Transcript News Editor Max Bryan contributed to this article.

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