Amid pandemic, WV renters are faced with confusion and uncertainty

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – About half of West Virginia renters are facing eviction as moratoriums on housing during the pandemic are expiring.

Despite efforts from the state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey to keep tenants in housing, a confusing and uncertain situation still unfolded. Part of this extended from what renters originally believed about their monthly payments.

Shannon Cunningham-Snead

“[Many] thought they didn’t have to pay their rent, and they thought the amounts due would be forgiven,” said Shannon Cunningham-Snead, executive director of Central West Virginia Community Action (CWVCA). “They did not realize they would owe all that money once the courts reopened and landlords started filing for evictions.”

At the end of July, the moratorium on rented property evictions ended. For public housing recipients, this meant those who were being evicted were given a 30 day notice before the landlord could file for that eviction in court. For privately owned property that is being rented out, tenants who were also being evicted only had until the courts opened up again before those notices were filed. This led many renters to seek assistance for living expenses who never had to before.

“The requests [for assistance] that we were starting to see in the last month have been overwhelming,” said Cunningham-Snead. “We’re seeing a lot of people who have been financially self-sufficient, but because of employment, childcare and health transitions, they are finding themselves needing to ask for help for the first time.”

Cunningham-Snead explains that many renters have been at risk to lose housing throughout the pandemic, but were able to stay afloat through friends and family. Once that ran out, those same renters had to look for other assistance options.

Some landlords in the state have also been working with tenants to arrange an understanding regarding payments. As landlords have had to arrange payments with lenders and refinance their own mortgages on properties too, there is a general understanding and anxiety shared between them and tenants. However, others have used this as a chance to get rid of tenants they have seen as troublesome.

“If the tenant has been proactive [with the landlord], generally the landlords have been pretty receptive,” said Timothy Litten, attorney for Legal Aid of West Virginia, a non-profit legal services organization. “Where you see the issue is where there is a tenant who maybe has a history of paying rent late or there were reports of them bothering other tenants, landlords are less willing to work with them and use it as an opportunity to evict them without alleging bad behavior. They can just go to court and say they haven’t paid their rent in four months.”

As more individuals are facing evictions, they are also seeking out more services. This also puts unintended strains on those services and those who regularly seek out that assistance.

“We’re seeing increases in people seeking services at the homeless shelters, and we’ve seen an increase in Charleston of people going to food pantries,” said Litten. “There has been an excess of [people] which lessens the amount of food in other services for those who routinely need it.”

Another unintended consequence of mass evictions is the impact on children due to their changing housing situation.

“As we move into the school season, you might see children going to different schools as parents struggle to find new housing,” said Litten. “If you couldn’t pay your rent and now you’re forced to move, paying for a security deposit and first and last month’s rent, which are what landlords want, you can’t do that.”

For North Central W. Va., Cunningham-Snead says CWVCA is “very nervous” about how the current housing situation looks.

“We are seeing overwhelming balances owed for rent and utilities,” said Cunningham-Snead. “There certainly isn’t enough local dollars available in the current pool of money to meet the needs our community has. We are also concerned our homeless population will increase.”

Though donation and social services are coordinating with each other to fill in gaps for each individual and family, there still seems to be a lot of grey area surrounding renters. Needs are met on a case-by-case basis, but they often have to do more than just with rent.

“The issue facing families is so much deeper than rent, and it is an overall financial picture,” said Cunningham-Snead. “It is rare that we see someone who needs assistance with their rent who also doesn’t need assistance with their utilities, or that doesn’t come with a stumbling block of employment because they are unsure about childcare and they maybe don’t have a support system for watching their child outside of schools and afterschool programs. It’s a complex picture.”

Local and state officials have been working to limit evictions. Morgantown City Council recently passed an ordinance to punish landlords who evict tenants during the pandemic. Governor Jim Justice has also publicly asked landlords to be aware of the strains COVID has put on people.

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