The landlord was knocking, but Jill Ferguson had made a promise to her children. She was 66 years old with chronic bronchitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), someone far more likely to die if she contracted the coronavirus. Ferguson had been self-isolating for days inside her Wisconsin duplex, so on Monday, she waited until the knocking stopped before she opened the door. Taped onto it was an eviction notice.

"Remove from the following described premises on or before April 15," it read.

Ferguson slammed the door and rushed to find her inhalers. She felt like she couldn't breathe. She knew her landlord outside Milwaukee was selling her building and that the new owners might want to take over her unit. But she hadn't thought it would be this soon. How was she supposed to find a new place if leaving her home meant risking her life?

As millions of Americans are being told to stay inside their homes, eviction notices are still being issued by landlords across the country.

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President Donald Trump on Wednesday declared that the Department of Housing and Urban Development would be "providing immediate relief to renters and homeowners by suspending all foreclosures and evictions until the end of April."

But Trump misstated what is actually occurring.

The federal actions announced last week would protect more than 30 million homeowners from eviction, but they do not cover the nation's 40 million renters. HUD issued a 60-day moratorium on evictions for homeowners who are unable to pay their federally backed mortgages. The Federal Housing Finance Agency also granted relief to homeowners with loans backed by two government-controlled companies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Jill Ferguson has COPD. She is afraid to look for a new place to live because of the possibility of contracting coronavirus. Photo / The Washington Post by Darren Hauck
Jill Ferguson has COPD. She is afraid to look for a new place to live because of the possibility of contracting coronavirus. Photo / The Washington Post by Darren Hauck

Some public housing authorities, including New York, the largest in the nation, also imposed moratoriums on evictions, but that reprieve only applies to tenants in federally-subsidized apartments.

While some governors, mayors, city councils and judges are taking action, most state- and municipal-wide moratoriums on evictions last only a few weeks. The day after Ferguson received her eviction notice, a Milwaukee judge ordered that sheriff's deputies stop serving eviction orders in the county, but only until April 9.

Without a national moratorium on evictions, housing advocates say, some of the country's most vulnerable people will lose the homes that could keep them from contracting the virus. Black and Hispanic Americans, who are more likely to be renters and work low-wage jobs, would be disproportionately impacted.

"It's important that there be a uniform policy that gives everyone in America an assurance that we won't lose our home in the midst of a public health emergency," said Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

In Congress, lawmakers are beginning to take note of the mass layoffs happening across industries - in restaurants, hotels and retail - that will worsen in coming weeks. But protections from eviction for low-income renters were not included in the first two coronavirus relief bills that have been passed. Senators are meeting at the Capitol this weekend to negotiate a third economic stimulus package.

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Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee, unveiled a legislative proposal on Wednesday that would ban all evictions and foreclosures and suspend rental payments for tenants receiving federal housing subsidies. It would also include $100 billion in financial assistance to help people cover rent. Landlords, too, need to be compensated for the lost income to maintain their apartment units, housing advocates say.

For Ferguson, who paid her rent on time but whose landlord had the right to sell the property, there was no obvious form of relief. After seeing the notice, she picked up the keys to her rusted Honda and headed for Home Depot, breaking her self-isolation. She had $50 in cash left until her next Social Security payment was set to come in early April.

"I couldn't get food; I had to get boxes," she said. "The stress was just overload. It was just too much."

Ferguson has been homeless before after a husband became abusive, injuries became surgeries and medical bills became medical debt. But four years ago, she qualified for a rent assistance voucher. She moved out of her car and into a two-bedroom duplex, where her rent is $290 a month before utilities. She hung Joni Mitchell album covers on the wall and put a lounge chair on the back porch. She bought a toy basketball hoop for the grandchildren she babysits, three rambunctious boys.

As she drove home from Home Depot, feeling guilty for breaking her promise to stay inside, she started to realize that there was no way to both relocate and self-isolate. She could not move in with one of her children. If she found an apartment that would accept her voucher, she could not go see it. She could not have someone come over and help her pack.

She emailed a legal aid organization, hoping they might know of a solution. And then her mind started to drift to all the leftover pills she had from her many surgeries. She could end it, she thought, before things got worse.

"I don't have the fight in me anymore," she said.

The rented home of Jill Ferguson in Milwaukee County. Photo / The Washington Post by Darren Hauck
The rented home of Jill Ferguson in Milwaukee County. Photo / The Washington Post by Darren Hauck

With each passing day, those feelings of hopelessness were seeping into homes across the country as the coronavirus pandemic shut down much of the economy.

The Washington Post spoke with bartenders, home health aides, line cooks, hairdressers and entertainers whose hours have been reduced or who are suddenly without jobs and who are afraid that they, too, will soon receive eviction notices.

The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits rose 33 percent in one week to 281,000, the Labor Department reported last week. Economists predict that more than a million workers are expected to lose their jobs by the end of the month.

Property owners whose ability to pay their own bills depends on their rental income debated how much of a break they could give their tenants.

In Greensburg, Pennsylvania, Dawn Adair is trying to negotiate a deal with her landlord.

Adair worked in the stockroom at a Dollar General until she was laid off last year while pregnant. Her fiance was a prep cook at a local university until the school shut down because of the coronavirus. Now she fears that their family of five, including an 8-month-old daughter and two teenagers, will soon be homeless. They have been there before - they were evicted last July, days after she gave birth.

Rent in their new three-bedroom apartment is $1,300 a month. Adair has $383 from her fiance's final paycheck.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has halted evictions statewide until April 3. Still, Adair asked her landlord if they would be evicted next month if they do not pay their rent.

"She said to come up with half and we can figure out the rest later because, she said, 'I have bills also,'" Adair said.

In the absence of federal legislation, courts and governors in more than 20 states issued statewide halts to eviction proceedings. Elsewhere, the solutions are patchwork: Many major cities have taken action, while renters in smaller communities remain at risk. Some sheriff's departments have made unilateral decisions not to enforce court-ordered evictions; others said they were legally obligated to follow through.

In Nevada, where the shutdown of casinos and the tourism industry has crippled the economy, at least one judge ordered that the eviction process continue through e-filings and phone hearings.

Jill Ferguson, 66, received an eviction notice on Monday in West Allis, Wis. Photo / The Washington Post by Darren Hauck
Jill Ferguson, 66, received an eviction notice on Monday in West Allis, Wis. Photo / The Washington Post by Darren Hauck

Courts throughout the state later issued a 30-day halt to evictions, but legal aid groups there and in other states where courts have taken similar action say they are still receiving calls from people who have received eviction notices.

In Louisiana, one notice arrived on the door of Amanda Hiern, a longtime French Quarter bartender and server turned Uber driver. On Wednesday, days after New Orleans closed eviction court until April 24, Hiern's landlord ordered her to pay her March rent in full by Monday or "we will initiate eviction proceedings against you."

"PLEASE NOTE THAT NO PARTIAL PAYMENTS OR CHECKS WILL BE ACCEPTED!" the note read.

Tenants being evicted, it added, would be responsible for the $186 in court fees.

While housing advocates have assured Hiern that the city's and state's stay on evictions means she will not be thrown out of the apartment where she's lived for six years, she worries. She is already a month behind on rent because a recent illness prevented her from driving as many hours as she needed. She had counted on picking up more hours during St. Patrick's Day celebrations, but the city canceled festivities because of coronavirus.

"I'm a gig worker so how am I supposed to earn this money? I live day to day - not even paycheck to paycheck," said Hiern, 47. "All my income is dependent on events, tourism, and the bars and restaurants being open. This eviction notice is making me feel like I should go out and risk my life for money."

Maxwell Ciardullo, the policy director at the Fair Housing Action Center in New Orleans, said eviction moratoriums are not enough because people such as Hiern will not have a way to catch up on back rent.

"Moratoriums are only going to put this off for a month or two," he said. "As soon as courts open up, we are going to see a tsunami of evictions."

Bracing for that impact are the legal aid clinics across the country, most of which have closed their doors to walk-ins and are trying to help clients remotely.

In Wisconsin, attorneys worked from their couches and kitchen tables to respond to Ferguson's request for help as they advocated for a statewide moratorium on evictions.

"It's not that landlord rights don't matter," said Christine Donahoe, the housing law priority coordinator for Legal Action of Wisconsin. "It's that right now, this is a life or death matter."

The attorneys quickly realized that, at the very least, they could buy Ferguson a few more weeks in her home. They informed her that although the notice taped to her door said April 15 - 28 days from the day she received it - it should have been 28 days after her next rent payment, April 29.

What happens to her after that depends on whether the Milwaukee County courts extend the halt on eviction proceedings and whether a uniform state or federal response to evictions is issued.

On Friday, Ferguson watched the news from safely inside her duplex and worried about how long the coronavirus can live on surfaces. She FaceTimed her grandchildren and told them how much she missed them. And she kept packing. She is not sure what she will do when she runs out of boxes.

Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website