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New Program Is Preventing Evictions Of Polk County Residents

Renters who arrive at the Polk County courthouse for an eviction hearing can get legal and rental assistance through a new on-site program.

In its first four weeks of existence, a new eviction prevention program kept 249 Polk County residents—including 131 children—in their homes as the coronavirus continues to spread rapidly in Iowa.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control have temporarily banned some evictions through December because of the pandemic, but Iowa has seen a spike in evictions since the extra $600 unemployment payments expired, according to Iowa Legal Aid. In Iowa, the extra payments were replaced with a short-term $300 weekly benefit, but that funding has also run out.

Since early September, Iowa Legal Aid staff and Polk County Housing Trust Fund officials have been stationed at the Polk County Courthouse to help renters who show up for eviction hearings.

“Tenants can come to us, and we’ll analyze their case,” said Nick Smithberg, executive director of Iowa Legal Aid. “And critically, we can help connect them with resources to help them pay the rent. Because right now there’s a CDC moratorium in effect, but it does not relieve tenants of the obligation to pay rent.”

The eviction diversion program started Sept. 2, as housing advocates were seeing what Smithberg called a “deepening crisis” of eviction numbers.

Iowa Legal Aid saw a 35 percent increase in eviction filings statewide between mid-March and mid-September. Polk County had a 61 percent increase in eviction cases.

Smithberg said the new program has been able to prevent the evictions of almost all tenants who showed up for their hearing. But he emphasized tenants must show up for their eviction hearing for this to work.

“It is of vital importance that tenants engage in this process, deliver the CDC [eviction moratorium] notices to their landlords, and show up for their court cases,” Smithberg said. “They will not win if they don’t show up.”

If tenants don’t show up for their hearing, they will be evicted.

Smithberg said that to his knowledge, this is the first program of its kind in Iowa. He hopes to expand it to other counties, and to keep it going after the pandemic ends.

He said the program is a win for all involved.

“The landlords get income that they would have lost and don’t have vacancies, the tenants keep a roof over them, and the public gets the benefit of avoiding the adverse health crisis of having people become homeless during the middle of a pandemic,” Smithberg said.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter