With federal moratorium expiring, states and localities must step up

With federal moratorium expiring, states and localities must step up
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Today, an emergency federal policy that has stood between thousands or millions of families and eviction will lift. As of early this month, nearly 6.5 million renter households weren't caught up on rent, and an unknown proportion of these families will immediately face eviction as August begins. 

Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Temporary Halt in Residential Evictions is ending, Congress has sent tens of billions of dollars of emergency rental assistance (ERA) to state and local governments to patch over gaps of unpaid rent that accrued during the pandemic and economic crisis. The problem is that very little of this money has reached tenants. The vast bulk of the funding remains tied up in red tape as governments have scrambled throughout 2021 to set up a social welfare apparatus mostly from scratch. With the White House getting out of the business of pausing evictions, and in the absence of congressional action, state and local governments must step up to keep people housed during this crisis. 

The CDC implemented the temporary moratorium on evictions last September to reflect the understanding that eviction can lead to increased transmission of COVID-19 and mortality. Throughout the pandemic, eviction protections have been a patchwork. The CARES Act included a moratorium on residential evictions from properties that touched federal financing. States and local governments implemented their own measures, too. The CDC moratorium promised housing stability for any qualifying renter living anywhere in the United States or its territories. As others have reported, that promise was not fulfilled everywhere, but an unknown number of households have remained housed temporarily because of this protection. 

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Moratoria and rental assistance are two sides of the same coin. A moratorium temporarily prevents landlords from moving forward with eviction cases. Rental assistance gives landlord-tenant pairs a way to resolve the dispute permanently. Without a moratorium, landlords lack a crucial incentive to seek out rental assistance. Research on ERA programs found that program administrators see landlord non-participation as a major hurdle to successful aid distribution. By the same token, without rental aid, a moratorium simply kicks the can down the road. 

Lifting the eviction moratorium before the rental assistance has been fully distributed to families in need puts those families at risk for eviction and illness, as the Biden White House acknowledged in a statement Thursday. Analysis by the Eviction Lab, the research group where I work, found that eviction filings increased when the last federal moratorium expired and when local moratoria have lifted.  The Supreme Court has put extending the moratorium without further action by Congress off the table. But states and cities don't have to — and should not — permit families to go into freefall with the CDC moratorium lifting this weekend.

States can issue their own eviction moratoria, as many did earlier in the pandemic. A few states, like California and New Jersey, will keep eviction moratoria in place following Aug. 1. Courts could continue all eviction hearings until ERA programs have had enough time to reach families in need, and issue information about rental assistance directly to litigants. Governments could require landlords to pursue rental assistance or mediation prior to filing to evict the tenant for nonpayment of rent, as Philadelphia has done. States could require that courts not consider eviction cases for households that are waiting to hear back about rental assistance, a policy Minnesota and Oregon have put in place. 

State and local governments can invest in eviction diversion programs (EDPs). These programs work to resolve problems between landlords and tenants outside of the courtroom. An effective EDP combines three elements: advocacy (someone to advocate on the tenant's behalf, ideally a legal aid lawyer); assistance (wraparound services that resolve the dispute, like rental assistance); and an alternative to court (like mediation or out-of-court settlement hearings). The White House has held two summits in recent weeks on eviction prevention, with policymakers and advocates from around the country Zooming in to explain their eviction prevention programs. Between the new federal funds and new resources and research from groups like the National Center for State Courts, the Urban Institute and Harvard's Dispute Systems Design Clinic, to name a few, it has never been easier to rethink how courts handle landlord-tenant disputes and move towards a new model with better outcomes for both groups.

States and local governments can also improve their ERAs to streamline assistance and get money out the door faster. The National Low Income Housing Coalition has been a leader in researching and publishing best practices for rental assistance distribution. Back in spring and summer 2020, one could write off failures in ERA programs as a lack of experience or know-how. That isn't so true anymore. Research and resources on best practices are available, including advice directly from the Treasury Department, on topics like how to limit the documentation tenants need to submit with their applications.

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What's most important is that states and local governments do not throw up their hands and allow a return to the status quo. Prior to the pandemic, in a normal year, landlords filed 3.7 million eviction cases in the United States. That was before the economic meltdown and childcare crisis, both of which have disproportionately burdened women and Black and Latinx families, groups that disproportionately experience eviction filings. 

Every state and local jurisdiction can do something to keep families housed, even if that action is as simple as putting a table with a couple of ERA employees outside the door to the courtroom. With millions of families who are behind on rent at risk for eviction, all levels of government from Congress to the local justice of the peace must work to do whatever is possible to keep people housed. 

Anne Kat Alexander is a researcher and project manager at the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.