NARRATION: The coronavirus pandemic put tens of millions of Americans at risk of being evicted. To protect them, the federal government ordered billions in rent relief and a temporary ban on evictions, first through the CARES Act, later through a moratorium issued by the CDC.
ARCHIVAL (PBS NEWSHOUR, 9-2-20):JUDY WOODRUFF: In an unprecedented move, the Trump administration announced a temporary national moratorium on evictions for tens of millions of renters who have lost work.
NARRATION: Over the course of a year, we went to states across the country to see how the protections were being carried out
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 10-15-20):NEWS REPORT: Time is running out to keep families from being kicked out of their homes.
NARRATION: and how the effectiveness depended almost entirely on how local officials were enforcing it.
ARCHIVAL (CBS THIS MORNING):GAYLE KING: And some states have put a short term hold on all evictions, but protections are hodgepodge.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 7-31-20):NEWS REPORT: Theres a patchwork of eviction policies that vary by state.
NARRATION: Tenants scrambled to understand what their rights were like Alexys Hatcher in Texas a state that already had limited protections for tenants.
MARK MELTON (DALLAS EVICTION ADVOCACY CENTER): When the pandemic really started hitting strong in the United States, and we started to see business closures and eviction moratoriums, I just started posting explainers on social media, just to help people understand exactly what was out there and how it would apply to them. Those posts started to be shared quite a lot. And so before I knew it, I was getting phone calls and emails and Facebook messages and tweets and everything else from people all over the county asking for advice on their particular situations.
NARRATION: Mark Melton, Hatchers attorney, created a network of lawyers to help people at risk of losing their homes.
LAUREN MELTON (MARK MELTONS WIFE): This landlord is trying to evict her by email. Thats cute.
MARK MELTON (SPEAKING TO LAUREN): By email, huh?
LAUREN MELTON: Yep
MARK MELTON: The government interventions that weve had to date have been helpful, certainly. But the problem with this protection is its not very effective because it doesnt apply automatically. It only applies if those tenants know about the law well enough to sign an official declaration that they have to give to their landlord and the court for it to apply.
MARK MELTON (SPEAKING ON THE PHONE): Hello, is this Jane? Whats going on? I saw your message today at 1 oclock.
JANE: Well yes, Im still behind on my rent but the thing is is my landlord is talking bout some type of paper that dont show us the late fees or something.
MARK MELTON (SPEAKING TO JANE): Well, the late fees are still chargeable but what city do you live in?
MARK MELTON: These are not deadbeats. These are people that had jobs that felt secure. And then all of a sudden the business that they work for is closing or theyre furloughing people. It was taking months to get unemployment insurance to go through because there was such an over-log of applicants that the state just couldnt process them quickly enough. And so people were really in a bad situation where they had no real options.
MARK MELTON (SPEAKING TO JANE): But they cant force you to leave your home until a court orders you to leave.
JANE: Yeah, I know, I know.
NARRATION: In February 2021, a federal judge in Texas cast doubt on the validity of the CDC moratorium, saying it had overstepped its authority.
ARCHIVAL (KVUE, 2-27-21):NEWS REPORT: The CDCs moratorium on evictions is unconstitutional. The judge ruled that while individual states have the power to put such restrictions in place, the federal government does not.
NARRATION: And then, separately, the Texas Supreme Court began allowing evictions to move forward. Which left many people like Alexys Hatcher in a precarious situation. She became one of the first in the state to be evicted. She had been a manager of a shoe store, which closed during the pandemic. She lost her income and fell behind on her rent.
ARCHIVAL (NBC5, 4-8-21):NEWS REPORT: Court documents for her eviction case show Hatcher filed the necessary CDC declaration saying she faced homelessness. Still this week a judge allowed for the eviction to move forward.
MARK MELTON: Effectively, what happened with Alexys was the CDC moratorium was still there. It didnt go away. But, the Texas courts decided that the CDC order no longer applied in Texas, as crazy as that is. They started allowing landlords to evict people at will.
EMILY BENFER (EVICTION LAB): In Texas you have one of the first states to challenge the CDC moratorium, and successfully so.
NARRATION: Throughout the pandemic, Emily Benfer was tracking how states were handling evictions.
EMILY BENFER: Much of a tenants experience during the pandemic was completely dependent upon the zip code that they lived in. Whether or not you stayed in that home depended almost entirely upon whether or not your landlord was going to comply with the CDC moratorium, or a local moratorium for that matter, what sheriff showed up at your door and what judge you appeared before.