At a White House summit on eviction prevention, researchers and experts in the field shared resources and best practices from around the country.
After outlining documented long-term health and economic impacts of evictions, Matthew Desmond, director of the Eviction Lab at Princeton, focused on the problems present in eviction courts. Since so few municipalities guarantee families facing an eviction the right to counsel, many families simply don’t show up because they don’t think they can win. Labeling eviction courts those without “justice or fairness,” Desmond called for advocates to focus three alternate approaches:
- Advocacy – including the right to counsel, with either a lawyer or a caseworker
- Assistance – wraparound social services
- Alternative Processes – eviction diversion
Desmond urged advocates to focus as much as possible on early stage interventions, because a third of families move between notice and filing, court records can follow families and make it harder to move into a good home, and because families can still end up moving or being harmed by court proceedings without an official eviction. Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta also recommended that state courts consider issuing orders requiring landlords to apply for emergency rental assistance before filing, and alerting litigants about availability of rental assistance.
To help stand up new eviction diversion programs that include these three pieces, the National Center for State Courts has developed an eviction diversion program that offers models, resources, and technical assistance here. Multiple administration officials repeated in today’s summit that Treasury made it clear that the $350 billion from the American Rescue Plan can be used for court-supported eviction diversion programs.
Experts from the field then shared their knowledge about how to make these programs work in practice. Rasheedah Phillips, Managing Attorney of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, and Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget Mary McCormack both recommended that diversion programs need a right to counsel or other tenant representation. Philadelphia passed a right to counsel law in 2019, and uses trained mediators, housing counselors, and legal representation depending on tenant need. However, Michigan has only included a right to counsel in its emergency diversion program for COVID, and it has made a significant difference in both application rates and successful cases. Prior to this program, only 4% of tenants in Detroit had representation in eviction cases.
Philadelphia has also recently passed the Renters Access Act, which prohibits landlords from rejecting potential tenants solely because of evictions or low credit scores, prohibits rejections based on failure to pay rent or utility bills during the pandemic, and requires landlords to inform potential tenants why they were rejected.
From the landlord perspective, Gilbert Winn of WinnCompanies, which houses over 45,000 tenants in more than 15 states, spoke about the program his company launched to prevent evictions, which WinnCompanies believes can serve as a blueprint for other landlords going forward. This included:
- Long-term, sustainable payment agreements to have backpay addressed
- Pre-court checklist before any staff can file for eviction
- Incentives to property staff and property legal counsel to lower eviction filings
With zero evictions in the last 15 months with all 15,000 participating families, the program has been extremely successful, and WinnCompanies intends to use it into the post-pandemic period.
More resources on eviction prevention can be found here.