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‘The need is enormous’: Moratorium not stopping evictions in WI

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Dane County courtroom

(WKOW) -- A federal ban on evictions has not kept landlords from finding ways to remove people from their homes during the pandemic.

The CDC's eviction moratorium order took effect Sept. 4. It aims to keep people from becoming homeless as the coronavirus spreads. President Biden recently extended that ban on evictions through March.

As families in Rock County face job loss or lose their homes, the pandemic has led to a waitlist for Family Promise of Greater Beloit's shelter program.

"We have noticed an increase, or an uptick, in the amount of families needing shelter in our area," said executive director Devin Blay-Stahl. "Usually, January and February are a lull month for us. Even last year we had openings available for families. I have now about 20 eligible families on my waitlist for seeking out shelter."

The shelter served about 50 more people last year than in previous years, thanks to additional funding from the federal government and local supporters.

Blay-Stahl says the organization tries to work with landlords to connect renters with that help, to find solutions to avoid eviction.

"We love that relationship building. We try to build a really good rapport with the landlords. But I have heard of some landlords that are still kind of head-to-head with their clients and it doesn't matter what happens in the end. The moratorium, once it is lifted, they will be evicting their tenants," she told 27 News.

Despite the moratorium, Legal Action of Wisconsin attorney Heidi Wegleitner says there have been 7,163 eviction cases filed across the state since Sept. 4. 424 of those were in Dane County.

"This moratorium actually puts the burden on the tenant to know about the protection," she said.

Many renters don't realize to be protected by the moratorium and avoid eviction, they need to sign and deliver a declaration form to their landlord, so they end up going to court.

There are five exceptions in the moratorium that allow landlords to evict someone for reasons other than missing a rent payment. That includes protections against criminal activity, threats, significant damage, health and safety violations or other lease violations.

Wegleitner believes some are taking advantage of the other options to get people out, skirting the purpose of the CDC's order.

"Really, the intent of the order was to prevent people from moving into unsafe situations that would contribute to spread and lead to infection with COVID," she said.

Still, the ban and support from local governments have helped prevent some eviction filings since the pandemic started.

Based on unemployment numbers in Wisconsin, Legal Action predicted last year there would be 44,000 new evictions, on top of the backlog in the courts that piled up when the pandemic halted court proceedings.

"It's a smaller number than we would typically see. It would have been a disaster had the CDC not issued that order," Wegleitner told 27 News. "What we don't know is, how many tenants had to move anyway because they didn't want an eviction case filed against them."

She said the Tenant Resource Center calculated Dane County alone was facing an $8.5 million rent debt every month, far exceeding the help available right now.

TRC started accepting applications Wednesday for a new rental assistance program. Dane County and the city of Madison got about $16 million from the federal government to help struggling renters avoid eviction.

"The need is enormous. It's enormous, and this money is gonna, it will help, but there are still going to be a lot more people that need help," Wegleitner said.

Renters who need help with eviction cases can contact Legal Action of Wisconsin.

Jennifer Kliese

Weekend Anchor and Reporter, 27 News

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