In response to the devastating rise in evictions during the pandemic, MLSA and the Montana Department of Commerce came together this past fall to develop a new program: the Montana Eviction Intervention Project (MEIP). First launched in October, MEIP provides tenants facing court-ordered eviction with free legal representation, with the goal of helping tenants secure rental assistance, navigate the justice system, negotiate with landlords, and, ultimately, avoid eviction when possible.
The potential impact of MEIP is significant. Evictions are a leading cause of homelessness, but because there is no right to an attorney in civil cases, many tenants are unable to afford an attorney on their own or do not know their legal rights or how to enforce them. Once a tenant has an eviction filing on their record, many landlords will refuse to rent to them, regardless of whether a judgement was actually filed. Lack of affordable housing creates further challenges. In Montana, where there are only 39 affordable and available rental units for every 100 extremely low-income renter households, tenants spend more of their income on housing and are more likely to face homelessness if they are evicted.
That’s what makes MEIP so important – by giving tenants the tools they need to address their legal problems and avoid eviction, it helps to increase housing stability for low income Montanans and their communities. Already, MEIP has seen successes. From October to December 22, 2020, MEIP handled 108 evictions, helping 271 people, with more individuals calling for assistance every day. So far, $25,375 has been returned to tenants, mostly through reduction in rent owed and some returned security deposits. Of the cases settled with court action, 72.7% resulted in an agreement for the tenant to move out rather than having an eviction on their record. Of the clients who have negotiated moving out, all are moving into other housing. Zero have reported moving into a shelter or into homelessness.
MEIP also helps tenants navigate the often confusing mix of federal and state rental protections that currently exist to help tenants avoid eviction. As a recent Billings Gazette article on MEIP explained, there have been a number of eviction moratoriums issued in the past 10 months, including a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order banning evictions for non-payment of rent that was recently extended through the end of March. Determining whether a tenant is covered by a moratorium can be confusing for tenants and landlords alike, especially because the CDC order requires tenants to fill out a declaration form in order to receive protections.
MLSA anticipates that the increased need for legal assistance will continue into 2021. As MLSA’s Disaster Coordinator Megan Helton explained in the Billings Gazette article, the pandemic and recession can cause problems to quickly compound on one another and make a bad situation worse, such as childcare closures leading to parents losing wages, ultimately causing them to fall behind on rent. As a result, MLSA attorney Monique Voigt doesn’t expect the demand for MEIP to slow down. “It’s only been increasing,” she said.
If you have received notice that your landlord wants you to move or if you have been served with court papers related to your rental, click here to apply for help through the Montana Eviction Intervention Project.