Pandemic eviction crisis causes greater tenant protection

Tara Simmons, a former tenant at the Virginia cultural arts center was searching for someone to help her avoid eviction.

Pandemic eviction crisis causes greater tenant protection

Tara Simmons, a former tenant at the Virginia cultural arts center was searching for someone to help her avoid eviction.

TheEditor
TheEditor
01 August 2021 Sunday 15:19
733 Reads
Pandemic eviction crisis causes greater tenant protection

Simmons, a 44 year-old home health aide, was just a month behind her rent. She lives with her children and grandchildren. But that didn't stop her landlord from ordering her out of the house by Saturday, when the federal eviction moratorium ended.

Simmons, who is already suffering from health issues, said that she was afraid she would end up on the streets.

"I have lived in my house for the past four years. Simmons, Newport News, Virginia, said that two months before my lease expired, he received an email stating that they were not renewing his lease. "That's all. There is no explanation.

"I have been searching for somewhere to move ever since I got it. The economy has kept me from being able to find a place to move. ... This pandemic is difficult."

Simmons met with lawyers from the Legal Aid Society of Eastern Virginia as a result of her remarks as a state legislator. They informed her that she needed to obtain a court order from her landlord in order to be released. For now, she was safe.

The Virginia event of late July is part a larger national movement, bolstered in large part by tens to billions in federal rental assistance, to find ways to keep millions at-risk tenants in their homes safe from the coronavirus pandemic.

The push has the potential to reshape a system long skewed in favor of landlords that has resulted in about 3.7 million evictions a year -- about seven every minute -- according to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University. Many of these families are Black or Latino.

"This is an opportunity to not go back to normal because for so many renters across the country, normal has broken," Matthew Desmond, author and principal investigator at Eviction Lab, said to a White House conference about the topic.

"This is an opportunity to reinvent how we adjudicate the eviction crisis and address it in a manner that works for tenants better than the status-quo. It also invests in families, communities, and homes with the understanding that without stable shelter, all else fails."

The problem of housing advocates has been mostly addressed from two angles.

Many teamed up to create programs that would resolve eviction cases prior to reaching the courts. Others focused on local and state tenant protection legislation. This included sealing eviction records, and ensuring that tenants have lawyers. An eviction record could make it difficult to find a new apartment. However, the right to counsel equals the playing field since most landlords but not tenants come to court with a lawyer.

Many of these ideas have been around for many years. The pandemic's scale, the historical amount of federal rental aid available, and the eviction moratorium have changed the equation. Many of the evictions are not common in rural areas, so politicians from these areas were eager to find a solution. Because evicting tenants was a difficult task, landlords were more open to participating in the programs.

"The pandemic, at least here in Baltimore, has created a sense of urgency around creating some forms of tenant protection," said Carisa Hatfield, a housing attorney for the Homeless Persons Representation Project, noting Baltimore passed a bill last year guaranteeing tenants the right to counsel and the state adopted a similar measure this year. The city also banned rent increases and late fees during the pandemic.

She said that politicians saw the same urgency as she did. It gave me the chance to talk with politicians about the very real problems surrounding evictions and the very real consequences for families.

State Senator Julie Gonzales of Colorado stated that the widespread threat of evictions prompted legislators to pass several bills in Colorado this year. These included a grace period for late fee payments and caps on fees that can be imposed. Tenants can also withhold payment for issues such as mold or shutting down utilities. This can be used in court to defend the case. Another bill passed that gives tenants 10 days to search for new housing, instead of 48 hours.

Gonzales stated that they realized it was not an urban problem, and that people in rural Coloradans, as well as mountain towns, were having trouble paying their rent.

The Urban Institute reports that 47 states and local programs offer legal assistance, a housing counselor, and mediation between landlords and tenants.

Some states, such as Massachusetts, Texas and Michigan, offer statewide programs. Others, like San Francisco, San Francisco, Chicago and Pinellas County in Florida, have their own initiatives. Even states that are not often associated with evictions like New Hampshire or Montana offer programs.

The City Council of Philadelphia passed a number of bills last year. They include requiring landlords participate in a diversion program for tenants who have been affected by the pandemic. In April, the courts ordered that landlords participate in the diversion program before filing an application for eviction.

Rachel Garland, managing lawyer at Community Legal Services' housing unit in Philadelphia, stated that "This is an important change to how Philadelphia approaches evictions."

She stated that "rental assistance and diversion prioritizes landlords' economic health and the complete health of tenants in order to resolve situations so landlords get paid and issues are resolved, and tenants can stay in their homes."

"Even though it was established in response to pandemics, its significance will outlast them all and will hopefully be a permanent fixture of Philadelphia."

In part, concerns about the possibility of courts being overwhelmed by eviction cases prompted two New Hampshire cities to launch a pilot mediation program. Due to the program's success, the court requested $750,000 from the state in order to expand its mediation efforts throughout the state.

David King, an administrative judge at New Hampshire Circuit Court that handles landlord-tenant issues, stated, "If we can get the parties together and either get it resolved or get them access to emergency funding, then I believe it's win-win-win."

It's a win-win situation for the landlord who gets paid. It's a win-win for the tenant who can stay and, selfishly speaking, it's also a win win for courts as there is no more case to deal with.

It is also now possible to get legal advice.

John Pollock, Baltimore's coordinator for the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, stated that Maryland, Connecticut, and Washington have all passed right-to counsel laws. Seattle, Cleveland, and Louisville are just a few of the ten cities that have approved these measures. Milwaukee County has set aside money for low-income tenants to have lawyers.

The initiatives have been successful so far.

According to the city, 75% of 1,788 Philadelphia tenants who participated in the program were able to remain housed. New York's 86% of tenants with lawyers were able stay in their homes. According to Cleveland, legal representation increased from 2% to 19% following the law's implementation last year. 93% of tenants who sought to avoid eviction were successful.

According to a study by the University of Michigan and the Legal Services of South Michigan, 97% of tenants were still housed last year as a result of a program.

Regina Howard, a 53 year-old Southfield disabled veteran who lives with her husband, grandson, and $1,600 per month house, was one of them. She sought help from the state's eviction diversion programme, which connected her with free legal services. Lakeshore Legal Aid assisted her in obtaining $24,550 federal funds to cover 15 months rent.

"I felt hopeless and there wasn't any help. Howard stated, "Now I feel better." "You could see they wanted to help."

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