The economic impact of COVID-19 has left thousands of families struggling to pay rent and to keep the lights on. To help renters stay in their homes, Gov. Roy Cooper last week announced Executive Order No. 171 to strengthen eviction protections already put in place by a federal agency.

Cooper’s order supplements the state’s HOPE initiative, started two weeks ago, that makes direct payments to landlords and utilities so that people already under financial strain because of the virus can stay in their homes with the lights on.

Cooper’s newest order requires landlords to make residential tenants aware of their rights. For eviction actions commencing after Executive Order No. 171, landlords must give residents the option to fill out a declaration form before starting any eviction action. The order also enables protection for residential tenants once they provide the required declaration form to the court or to the landlord.

Both programs try to bolster a temporary moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rent. Confusion over who is protected under the order has arisen, causing inconsistent enforcement and unwarranted evictions in some parts of the state.

In order to qualify for protection, individuals must have used their best efforts to obtain government assistance for housing, are unable to pay their full amount of rent because of a substantial loss of income, are making their best efforts to make timely partial payments of rent, would become homeless or would have to move into a shared living space if evicted. Also, individuals must earn less than $99,000 a year; joint filers must earn less than $198,000 a year. Additionally, the applicant must have received a stimulus check and was not required to report any income to the IRS in 2019.

The governor’s latest order took effect at 5 p.m., Friday and expires Dec. 31 unless it is repealed, rescinded or replaced. The order prohibiting landlords from evicting certain tenants also expires Dec. 31.

The HOPE program will provide rent and utility assistance for renters who have been affected by the economic impact of the pandemic, have a household income that is 80% or less of their area’s median income, occupy the rental property as their primary home and are behind on rent and/or utilities when they apply.

Applicants must have lived in the rental property for at least 30 days, be named on the written lease agreement or a party to a verbal lease agreement and be named on past-due utility bills that are a part of the request for assistance. Applicants also should be prepared to provide monthly household income, the landlord’s name and contact information, amounts owed for back rent and/or utilities and have documents supporting all that information.

According to the National Council of State Housing Agencies, as many as 410,000 households across North Carolina are currently unable to pay rent, and an estimated 240,000 eviction filings will hit the state’s courts by January, 2021.

Renters who need assistance can apply online at Applicants who do not have Internet access can dial 2-1-1 and speak with a program representative over the phone to complete the application process. Callers can reach 2-1-1 between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m., Monday through Friday.