The Polk County Board of Supervisors, in an effort to stave off hundreds of evictions, is expected on Tuesday to approve allocating up to $800,000 to the Polk County Housing Trust Fund to pay the back rent of people on the verge of being forced out of their homes. 

“We’re talking about working people that, through no fault of their own, have been affected financially by COVID, and we’re doing all we can to make sure that we keep a roof over their heads,” said Matt McCoy, Polk County supervisors chairperson. 

Two weeks ago, there were 169 eviction cases filed in Polk County’s Small Claims Court; last week, 208 cases were filed, said Nick Smithberg, Iowa Legal Aid’s executive director. Statewide last week, 520 eviction cases were filed. 

Smithberg estimated the state is experiencing a 40% increase in eviction cases compared with a year ago.

In March, Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a public health emergency declaration that included pausing most evictions for nonpayment of rent. That order expired in late May. A month later, there was an uptick in eviction filings in courthouses across Iowa, said advocates working with people facing evictions.

On July 24, a federal moratorium expired that protected renters who live in buildings with some form of government backing from eviction. Landlords of those buildings are required to give renters 30 days’ notice before filing an eviction complaint in court. 

The end of July also brought an end to the extra federal unemployment benefits that some advocates believe helped many people pay their rent.

“It’s really been a perfect storm of supplemental unemployment benefits coming to an end and the state and federal moratoriums on evictions expiring,” Smithberg said. “It’s been in the pipeline for some time; now the numbers are just exploding.”

The eviction notice filings are occurring at a time when Polk County has reached a seven-day average COVID-19 positivity rate of more than 10%. Spikes in the virus are also occurring in other counties, prompting Reynolds last week to order bars closed in six Iowa counties.

Those closures will boost Polk County’s unemployment numbers, causing even more people to be unable to pay their rents and other expenses, McCoy said.

The $800,000 the supervisors are expected to allocate for past due rent payments is from the $6.2 million Polk County will receive from the state of Iowa through the federal CARES Act, McCoy said. Much of that money has been spent on personal protection equipment for county employees, additional staffing at the jail, and resources for the county’s child care centers and homeless shelter.

McCoy said about $800,000 was remaining from the federal allocation. 

An office will be set up at the Polk County Courthouse so that people will be available on-site to work with judges, landlords and those facing evictions, McCoy said. The goal is to clear up past debt as well as to establish a plan to keep them in their housing in the months to come, he said.

“We’re trying to create a method of getting them back on their feet financially,” McCoy said. “It doesn’t do a lot of good to get them caught up and then next month they’re in the same situation because they are still out of work.”

McCoy said he didn’t know how many renters the $800,000 would help or how long the money would last. He said the county has other money from other sources that also would be able to be tapped in the coming weeks or months.

Smithberg said he doesn’t see an immediate end in sight of eviction filings. Until there’s a vaccine for the virus and people return to work, the eviction cases will continue to mount, he said. 

“We are going to have a crisis,” Smithberg said.