Marilyn Hoffman lost her job as an aide at a group home for mentally disabled adults and is now facing eviction from her home in Sanford, N.C.
Marilyn Hoffman lost her job as an aide at a group home for mentally disabled adults and is now facing eviction from her home in Sanford, N.C.Credit...Kate Medley for The New York Times
Matthew Goldstein

Fending off an eviction could depend on which judge a renter in financial trouble is given, despite a federal government order intended to protect renters at risk of being turned out.

The order, a moratorium imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is meant to avoid mass evictions and contain the spread of the coronavirus. All a qualifying tenant must do is sign a declaration printed from the C.D.C. website and hand it over to his or her landlord.

But it’s not as simple as it sounds: Landlords are still taking tenants to court, and what happens next varies around the country.

Some judges say the order, which was announced on Sept. 1, prevents landlords from even beginning an eviction case, which can take months to play out. Some say a case can proceed, but must freeze at the point where a tenant would be removed — usually under the watchful eye of a sheriff or constable. Other judges have allowed cases to move forward against tenants who insist they should be protected.

With millions of people unemployed and no progress on an agreement on another relief package, housing advocates and legal aid lawyers are fretting over the confusion.

Marilyn Hoffman showed up to a hearing in North Carolina — where court administrators informed state court clerks last week that the protections “must be invoked by a tenant” — and expected to have her eviction case postponed. But the judge refused to accept her signed declaration.

Ms. Hoffman, who rents a single-family house in Sanford, N.C., said the judge seemed to be under the impression the C.D.C. order applied only to rental apartments that were covered by a previous moratorium under the CARES Act, which had a more limited scope. The judge gave Ms. Hoffman, whose monthly rent is $649, 10 days to come up with more than $3,000 in back rent and late fees or face eviction.

“If I had the money, I would pay the rent,” she said.