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Pandemic eviction crisis leads to more tenant safety


NEWPORT NEWS, VA – In a mostly empty conference room at the Virginia Cultural Arts Center, Tara Simmons was looking for someone who could help her evict.

Simmons, already battling health problems, said she feared she would hit the road.

“I have been in my house for four years now. And two months ago my lease expired, I got an email saying they were not renewing my lease,” said Simmons of Newport News, Virginia . “Simply. No explanation why or whatever.”

“Ever since I got that, I’ve been trying to go somewhere. I still haven’t been able to find a way to walk because of the economy. … This pandemic is tough.”

As one state lawmaker made some remarks and others took a free lunch, Simmons was joined by lawyers for the Legal Aid Society of Eastern Virginia. He advised her that her landlord needed a court order to evict her. For now she was safe.

The Virginia incident in late July is part of a growing national movement – strengthened by tens of billions of dollars in federal rental aid – to find ways to keep millions of at-risk tenants hurt by the coronavirus pandemic in their homes.

According to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, the push has the potential to reshape the long-skewed system in favor of landlords, resulting in about 3.7 million evictions each year—about seven minutes. There are many black and Latino families.

“This is an opportunity not to go back to normal, because for so many renters across the country, normal is broken,” said Matthew Desmond, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book on evictions and principal investigator of Eviction Lab. White House conference on this issue.

“This is a chance to try and address the eviction crisis in a way… that without a stable shelter, everything else falls apart.”

Housing advocates have attacked the problem mostly from two directions.

Some started programs with lawmakers and court administrators to resolve eviction cases before they reach the courts. Others focused on state and local tenant protection law, including sealing eviction records and ensuring tenants get attorneys. Having an eviction record can make finding a new apartment impossible, while the right of attorney is the playing field, as most landlords, but not tenants, come to court with an attorney.

Many ideas have been around for years. But the scope of the eviction crisis during the pandemic, the historic amount of federal rental aid available and the eviction withholding changed the calculus. Politicians in areas that rarely see evictions were hearing from concerned constituents and seeking solutions. Landlords were more willing to participate in the programs as eviction of tenants became a challenge.

“The pandemic, at least here in Baltimore, has created a sense of urgency around creating some form of tenant protection,” said Carissa Hatfield, a housing attorney for the Homeless Persons Representation Project, a bill Baltimore passed last year. in which the tenants were guaranteed rights. for consultations and the state adopted a similar measure this year. The city temporarily barred fare increases and banned late fees during the pandemic.

“Politicians saw the same urgency that we did,” she said. “It provides an opportunity to have conversations with politicians about the real problems surrounding evictions, the very real implications for evictions.”

In Colorado, State Sen. Julie Gonzales said the widespread eviction threat prompted legislators to pass several bills this year, including a grace period for late fees and what charges can be imposed. Tenants can also withhold payments for problems such as utilities being clogged or mold, and present this as a defense in court. Another bill that was passed gives evicted tenants 10 days instead of 48 hours to find new housing.

“We realized it wasn’t just an urban thing, rural Rangadan, mountain towns were struggling with people unable to pay their rent,” Gonzales said.

According to the Urban Institute, 47 state and local programs nationwide now offer some mix of legal help, a housing counselor, and mediation between landlord and tenant.

Some, such as Texas, Michigan and Massachusetts, offer statewide programs, while others, including Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Pinellas County, Florida, launched their own initiatives. Even states commonly associated with evictions, such as New Hampshire and Montana, do not offer programs.

In Philadelphia, the City Council passed a series of bills last year that include requiring landlords to participate in the city’s eviction program if a tenant was affected by the pandemic. Then in April, courts mandated that landlords engage in the program before filing evictions.

“This is a fundamentally significant change to the way Philadelphia evictions work,” said Rachel Garland, managing attorney at Community Legal Services’ housing unit in Philadelphia.

“Rental Assistance and Diversion prioritizes the economic health of landlords and the overall health and welfare of tenants by resolving situations so that landlords can be paid, issues are resolved and tenants are able to live in their homes, ” He said.

“Even though it was created in response to the pandemic, its importance will long outweigh the pandemic and will hopefully become a permanent fixture in Philadelphia.”

A pilot arbitration program in two New Hampshire cities this year was fueled by concerns that eviction cases would overwhelm the courts. For the program’s success, the court has requested $750,000 from the state to expand its arbitration efforts.

“If we can bring the parties together and either settle the matter or get them to have this emergency funding, then I’m saying it’s a win-win,” said the New Hampshire Circuit Court Administrative Judge David King, who handles landlord-tenant matters, said.

“It’s a win for the landlord, who gets paid. It’s a win for the tenant, who gets to stay, and, selfishly, it’s a win for the courts because it’s one less case we have to process.” “

The right to counseling has also spread.

John Pollock, coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Rights Counsel in Baltimore, said Washington state, Connecticut and Maryland have passed right-to-counsel laws. Ten cities, including Seattle, Cleveland and Louisville, have approved the measures. Milwaukee County set aside money to provide low-income tenants with lawyers.

So far, the initiative is proving successful.

According to the city, about 75% of the 1,788 tenants participating in the Philadelphia program have been retained. In New York, 86% of tenants who had lawyers were able to live in their homes. Cleveland, which saw a 2% to 19% increase in legal representation since the law went into effect last year, said all tenants seeking rental help had received it and 93% who wanted to prevent evictions were successful. are.

A program in Michigan last year resulted in 97% of tenants being laid off, according to a study by the University of Michigan, State and Southern Michigan Legal Services.

Among them is Regina Howard, a 53-year-old disabled veteran from Southfield who last year faced eviction from the $1,600-a-month home she shared with her husband and grandchildren. She turned to the state’s eviction diversion program, where she was involved in free legal services. From there, Lakeshore Legal Aid helped her obtain $24,550 in federal funds to pay her 15 months of rent.

“I felt frustrated that there was no help. I feel better now,” Howard said. “You can tell they really wanted to help.”

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Casey reported from Boston.

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