When Tiffany Robinson heard about an order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to stop evictions, it seemed like the life raft she needed.
"I thought this is going to help," said Robinson, "this is going to protect me."
But Robinson soon found out that what's often referred to as the "CDC eviction ban" is hardly a ban. This year after the coronavirus pandemic hit, Robinson lost her job managing construction sites. She was living in Bridge City, Texas, and was struggling to survive and raise her three kids on unemployment benefits alone. When she started to fall behind on her rent, her landlord filed an eviction case.
A Texas court entered a judgment ordering Robinson's eviction, but she was still in her apartment when the CDC order went into effect.
So she went to the CDC's website, printed out the required form to declare that she met the criteria, signed it and gave it to her landlord. In theory, that's supposed to stop an eviction if a renter has lost income and has no place else to go.
But on Nov. 5, Robinson's landlord told her that she and her family had 24 hours to gather their belongings and get out of the apartment. Either that, or the sheriff's department would evict them.
Because she had filled out the CDC form, Robinson thought it might be a bluff. But she was worried enough to file a complaint and plea for help on the state attorney general's website.
"I have nowhere to go. I meet all the criteria for protection," she wrote. "I have three kids who will be homeless tomorrow morning if I can't stop this. This is wrong."
But at 9 a.m., two men and a woman showed up at her door. They were neighbors from the same apartment complex who, she assumes, were hired by her landlord.
Robinson said they took sheets and blankets off the beds, spread them out on the floor and piled them with electronics, lamps, clothes, kids' paintings.
"Everything from the room, in the comforter, tie it up like a knapsack"; then she says they threw the bundles off the second-floor balcony and down into the yard below.
While all this was happening, her 12-year-old son was doing remote schooling in his bedroom until they yanked the Wi-Fi system out of the wall.
"I shut his bedroom door and told them that room is last," says Robinson. "He's doing schoolwork. Don't go in there."
Robinson, who recently separated from her husband, spoke to NPR from a hotel where she's staying with her kids while she tries to find another place to live.
Evictions expected to rise without more help
For people like Robinson, a lot is riding on the latest compromise relief bill in Congress. If it doesn't pass in time, some 12 million Americans are going to lose their unemployment benefits the day after Christmas.
"Tens of millions of people may lose their homes this winter during this height of COVID-19," says Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. "And the consequences of that would be catastrophic for kids, for families and for our country's ability to contain the pandemic."
Already one study has attributed thousands of deaths in Texas alone to evictions because displaced families have been forced into more crowded living situations where they caught and spread COVID-19.
That's why the CDC issued the order, but it is set to expire at the end of the year.
The compromise COVID-19 relief bill in Congress is expected to have $25 billion for emergency rental assistance and could extend the CDC order through January.
Housing advocates say that's a good thing. Yentel says that the rental assistance is desperately needed and that the CDC order is protecting many people. But she says the order itself also needs to be beefed up because there are many other cases where it's not working.
"One of the flaws is that it's not automatic, and so renters need to know that the protection exists and they need to know what actions to take in order to receive that protection," Yentel says.
The order is also being treated differently by judges around the U.S., so outcomes vary wildly depending on where people live or what court they end up in.
Robinson in Texas is now well aware of that. She says her son is still shaken up since the eviction.
"He has not wanted to leave my side," she says. "Like, not even to go to the bathroom leave my side, like he stands outside the door."
Her landlord said in an email to NPR that the eviction "was completed entirely through the court system."
It's unclear exactly what happened in Robinson's case. Legal-aid attorneys say the CDC order has murky legal gray areas — and many judges often just side with the landlord.
John Pollock is an attorney who heads up the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, which advocates for renters to be provided access to a lawyer before an eviction can happen. He says the vast majority of renters don't have a lawyer. "It's basically in every case, you're going to have a massive imbalance of power."
He says because of that, the CDC should order a simple blanket ban on evictions during the pandemic, just like some states had done earlier this year.
He says if there were a federal moratorium like that, "the tenant would not have to do something affirmatively to be protected." And he says, "The courts wouldn't have to get into, 'Well, does this cover this situation or that situation?' "
Pollock says he's also hearing about thousands of complaints to law enforcement and legal aid offices around the country from people who feel their landlord is evicting them improperly.
In her case, Robinson is convinced she was treated unfairly. She has filed complaints with various law enforcement offices. She says she even called the FBI to ask for help.
"I put it on speaker phone so that the kids could hear it." She says she wants them to know "that I didn't just give up, because I had done everything I knew to do and I thought that was going to protect us."