Kathryn Reynolds is a senior policy program manager in the Urban Institute’s Research to Action Lab. Her work focuses on rental housing policy, equitable economic development, and inclusive growth. Abby Boshart is a policy coordinator in the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center, where her work focuses on rental assistance, eviction and homelessness. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own.
After the CDC’s national eviction moratorium expires on July 31, millions of renters could lose their homes.
Congress has allocated almost $47 billion toward emergency rental assistance to help renters stay stably housed and help property owners cover their costs. But it’s very unlikely the money will reach most renters and landlords before courts resume judgments in eviction cases in August.
Rental assistance is reaching households very slowly, with renters waiting months after applying. Some states and localities started their programs in May or June and are still ramping up their emergency rental assistance programs. The good news, though, is that some states and localities are rushing to institute short-term eviction prevention policies that could help renters and landlords access assistance, including time-limited safe harbors from eviction for tenants who apply for rental assistance, local eviction moratorium extensions, and eviction diversion programs that offer services to landlords and tenants.
These short-term efforts shouldn’t end when the current crisis subsides. But more structural and enduring eviction reforms are needed to address longstanding inequities, ensure millions of families have housing stability, and avoid unnecessary costs to households, communities and the nation.
A crisis long in the making
An eviction crisis affected American families long before the pandemic. On average, 3.6 million evictions were filed each year in the US before Covid-19, with evictions disproportionately affecting women of color and single parents and their children. Families who have been evicted are more likely to enter a homeless shelter and spend more time experiencing homelessness than their peers, but the costs and impacts don’t stop there. Research has also found links between evictions and diminished physical and mental health outcomes for parents and children, reduced earnings and job instability for parents, and negative effects on children’s education attainment.
Landlords also face costs from evictions, including legal fees and lost rent while re-leasing their units, because they have few other avenues besides evictions to collect missed rent or solve other disputes. And governments at every level, particularly local governments, bear high costs to provide services to families experiencing housing instability.
Long-term strategies can reduce evictions and promote housing stability
Changing national eviction policy and local court practices is critical to address the nation’s long-term eviction crisis. To start, researchers, policymakers and advocates need better and more uniform data on evictions. This data is notoriously uneven and incomplete, making it hard to track evictions over time, identify communities hardest hit and design effective solutions. One proposal gaining traction is to create a federal database of eviction filings and completed evictions.
As a first step, the federal government could provide funding and technical assistance to help states and local communities create their own eviction databases.
A national right to counsel would also give renters a fairer shot in the justice system. Most landlords in eviction cases are represented by counsel, but renters can rarely afford lawyers and often aren’t aware of their rights. In response, local governments, like Maryland and San Francisco, have adopted policies and funded programs that guarantee representation for every renter facing eviction. Early data from these programs show promising results in preventing evictions, and many landlords are more likely to participate in mediation with tenants when they are represented.
The civil courts that administer evictions also need to work more closely with housing and social service practitioners, including housing assistance and financial counseling administrators, and with case workers who can connect evicted tenants to new housing opportunities. One way to do this is by setting up eviction diversion programs that offer services to landlords and their tenants, including requiring mediation and rental assistance before an eviction can proceed. At least 47 such programs already exist in state and city court systems across the United States. These types of programs can promote judicial fairness by reorienting the goal of court proceedings to promote housing stability while balancing the landlord’s property rights.
Finally, and most importantly, all of these steps are necessary because we don’t have a strong housing safety net. If the government were to expand rental assistance permanently to the many households who qualify, but who normally don’t receive assistance due to a lack of funding to cover the need, there would be fewer evictions for nonpayment of rent and greater housing stability.
The impending end to the national moratorium puts millions of American families at risk of eviction if they cannot access emergency rent relief in time. But this ticking clock shouldn’t keep policymakers and local leaders from addressing the broader eviction crisis affecting the country. Long-term solutions are the only way to guarantee every family has a home, not only during a pandemic, but always.
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