As stay-at-home emergency orders and eviction moratoriums begin to sunset, one thing is clear: The Eviction Cliff feared by local leaders, renters and landlords alike has arrived. It is estimated that roughly one out of every five people living in a renter household (19 to 23 million people) are at risk of eviction by September 30th.
This problem isn’t a new one, but the current scale is unprecedented following a spike in mass unemployment and a pandemic-driven economic slowdown. The anticipated wave of evictions nationwide comes amidst a shortage of seven million affordable rental homes and following decades of discriminatory housing practices such as redlining, predatory lending, and racialized urban renewal and exclusion efforts. More than 40 percent of renters were cost-burdened before the pandemic and roughly 50 percent of those cost-burdened households spent more than half of their monthly income on rent and utilities alone. Additionally, the risk of eviction — and the subsequent hardships such as the impact on someone’s credit score or difficulty being approved for housing in the future — falls disproportionally on communities of color and Black women in particular, who are more likely to be impacted by systems of oppression and subject to housing discrimination. One assessment of data from the Eviction Lab found that Black women renters had evictions filed against them at twice the rate of white renters.
This combination of high cost-burden and low availability of affordable units puts millions of renters— particularly Black, Indigenous, and People of Color — at high risk of eviction at a time when staying home has been central to staying safe.
How have cities mitigated the eviction crisis in the short-term?
As the pandemic and resulting economic impact has progressed, many cities have adopted short-term, targeted, and equitable strategies to keep families housed:
Extending eviction moratoriums and implementing repayment plans. Forty-two states and the District of Columbia had statewide eviction moratoriums in place at the peak of the pandemic, supplementing the temporary federal moratorium on evictions for most federally subsidized homes and properties with federally-backed mortgages. In states where gubernatorial executive orders are ending, some cities are leading the charge on extending moratoriums for residents, as in the cases of Detroit, MI and Denver, CO. San Diego, CA is on track to institute an extended repayment period, giving tenants until the end of December to repay rent. And some cities are encouraging or requiring tenants and landlords to negotiate repayment agreements before beginning the eviction process, as in the case of Dallas, TX.
Launching or bolstering rental assistance programs. Cities of all sizes have implemented or supplemented emergency rental assistance programs that provide residents with needed infusions of cash to cover rent payments. Many cities are issuing these supports in the form of one-time payments dependent on income level, including San Diego, CA (up to $4,000), and Alexandria, VA (up to $1,800). Others are providing reoccurring payments, such as Jersey City, NJ (up to fair market rent for up to six months) and Philadelphia, PA (up to $750 per month for up to six months).
Funding legal assistance for tenants. Legal representation for tenants in housing court is associated with tremendous declines in the rate of eviction judgments and can even prevent a share of cases from ever being filed. Yet right-to-counsel laws such as the one achieving impact in New York City are still rare. In general, 90 percent of landlords in eviction cases have legal representation in court while just 10 percent of tenants do. To combat this, cities such as Baltimore, MD, Providence, RI , Arlington, TX and Kansas City, MO are providing or funding legal assistance to low-income residents facing eviction.
Long-term strategies for alleviating the eviction crises
As these short-term solutions expire or as funding becomes depleted, cities must consider the long-term impacts of mass evictions on their communities, and implement and institutionalize effective policies or programs:
Eviction Mediation Programs
Facilitated by a professional, independent mediator, eviction mediation programs offer an opportunity for landlords and tenants to discuss disputes in a power-neutral setting, prior to the formal filing of an eviction. If an agreement is reached during mediation, the landlord and tenant can enter into a legally binding resolution while avoiding court proceedings all together. If an agreement is not reached, however, the dispute can still be brought to a formal court hearing.
Electing to use mediation programs as an entry point for landlord-tenant disputes offers benefits to all parties involved. Mediation can provide legal cost savings for the landlord, rental history protections for the tenant, and a decreased caseload for overwhelmed court systems. These benefits, along with the demonstrated success of eviction mediation programs, has prompted an expanding number of cities to consider this approach.
For over 30 years, the City of Palo Alto, California has provided free, voluntary mediation services to community members to assist with landlord-tenant disputes. In partnership with a local non-profit, the Palo Alto Mediation Program manages roughly 150 cases a year and reports that around 80 percent of mediated cases reach resolution; subsequently providing an amicable alternative to court proceedings for the parties involved.
The Twelfth Judicial Circuit Court in Florida, serving the counites of DeSoto, Manatee and Sarasota, has also embedded eviction mediation services in its conflict resolution efforts through the Citizen Dispute Settlement Program. This initiative provides free landlord-tenant mediation services to 12th circuit county residents, at four locations. Pre-established landlord-tenant mediation programs can serve as a critical resource in combating the impending eviction crisis. By integrating eviction mediation programs into current recovery strategies, cities can begin to capitalize on preexisting resources while concurrently providing an additional avenue in assisting landlords and tenants in reaching amenable resolutions.
Eviction Diversion Programs
Eviction diversion programs often involve multi-layered strategies in an effort to avert legal action against tenants and uphold the rights of landlords.
Following the launch of a state-wide diversion program by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MHSDA), cities in Michigan are using conditional dismissals, rental assistance, and payment plans to assist landlords in recouping past-due rent, while simultaneously helping renters remain stable and housed. Durham County, North Carolina has also experienced moderate success in mitigating evictions through the use of an intercommunity eviction diversion program. Launched in 2017, Durham County residents now receive information on rental assistance and legal aid resources attached to their eviction court summons. This intake strategy has led to a reported 80 percent of clients who participate in the diversion program avoiding an eviction judgment on their record. Following these examples, and in light of the eviction crisis ahead, cities must develop diversion strategies that contain both pre-filing and post-filing interventions.
The Stanford Legal Design Lab, which is currently partnering with NLC on eviction solutions, has developed a three-phase outline of interventions that cities and courts can take to provide greater supports for leaseholders facing a rental dispute or pending court action:
What’s next for cities?
Eviction diversion and mediation programs have proven potential to combat the eviction crisis in the wake of COVID-19 and beyond, particularly when implemented strategically and in tandem.
Cities should take immediate action to secure sustainable funding streams to continue and bolster these programs and supports. While the pandemic in many ways put vulnerable renters, specifically Black, Indigenous and People of Color, under the spotlight, evictions and their disproportionate impacts on communities of color are systemic and long-term problems that cannot be effectively addressed with temporary relief or patchwork solutions. Deep partnerships between cities, community-based nonprofits, local court systems, and state legislatures are vital to meeting the needs of residents — and institutionalizing, not rolling back, the programs that have been developed by cities during this time of crisis is critical if we want to achieve real progress.
About the Authors
Alexis Butler is a Senior Program Specialist for Housing & Community Development at the National League of Cities.
Natasha Leonard is a Senior Program Specialist for Housing & Community Development at the National League of Cities. Follow her on Twitter @NatashaJLeonard