Can Washington do something to help them? A growing number of politicians think so.

NY Times December 13, 2019 by Emily Badger

Among the millions of recent eviction cases researchers have begun to compile across the country, there are a startling number of modest sums. There are dozens of families in Texas evicted with money judgments — unpaid rent, late fees, court costs — totaling $516. There are multiple families in Cumberland County, N.C., who owed all of $301. There is a household in Providence, R.I., whose 2016 court record shows a debt of just $127.

Such relatively small sums suggest that, for all of the intractable problems of poverty and affordable housing driving the nation’s eviction crisis, a little intervention could help many people. And politicians in Washington increasingly have such ideas in mind: court translators, more legal aid, mediation — even emergency rent assistance.

One bill, introduced in the Senate on Thursday by a Democrat, Michael Bennet of Colorado, and a Republican, Rob Portman of Ohio, would create a federal grant program to fund local emergency aid for tenants at risk of eviction. The bill, which would also establish a national database tracking eviction cases, is the latest in a series of federal proposals aimed at a problem that touches high-cost coastal cities and smaller towns alike.

Several Democratic senators — Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Tim Kaine of Virginia and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland — introduced a bill this fall that would create federal grants for landlord-tenant mediation programs and translators. In the House, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has introduced a bill that would fund legal aid in states and cities that establish a right to counsel for tenants that is akin to a new mandate in New York City.

And in the Democratic primary, an anti-eviction agenda is now practically a required element of candidates’ housing plans. Bernie Sanders supports a national “just cause” standard, limiting the grounds on which a landlord can evict a tenant. Cory Booker wants to prevent consumer reporting agencies from listing eviction cases won by the tenant. Amy Klobuchar wants to create new kinds of savings accounts that renters could tap in an emergency.

Such strategies most likely would not address the structural problems of sluggish wage growth and a scarcity of low-cost housing that underlie the eviction crisis. But they imply that even if eviction is a necessary remedy for landlords, perhaps there could be less of it.

“Sometimes you hear this response from property owners who say, ‘What do I do if a tenant is behind five, six, seven months?’ And that’s a really important question,” said Matthew Desmond, a sociologist at Princeton whose eviction research has influenced politicians. In data his Eviction Lab has analyzed from 22 states, that situation of tenants deep in debt is rare. It’s far more common, the lab has found, that tenants owe the equivalent of less than a month’s rent.

“That suggests a shallower end of the risk pool that you could lop off,” Mr. Desmond said.

Failure to pay rent is by far the most common cause of eviction. Across the 22 states where the Eviction Lab has data covering at least some counties, the median money judgment for cases between 2014 and 2016 was $1,253. Because that total includes other costs accumulated during the court process, most tenants initially faced eviction for the failure to pay a smaller rent sum (which is often not documented in eviction records).

Nearly half of the money judgments the lab has analyzed in Virginia were for less than the median rent in the census tract where the eviction occurred. In North Carolina, that’s true in more than 40 percent of cases. Across the 22 states, about a third of money judgments were for less than the local median rent.

“That third of the people that can’t come up with a month’s rent, finding a way to stabilize their housing situation will actually be less costly than the remedy of throwing them out in to the street — for everybody,” said Mr. Bennet, who is also running for president. “Today, the externalities of that third of people are invisible to society.”

The public doesn’t see the cost of homeless shelters, or the cost to landlords of having to find new tenants, or the costs when newly homeless children change schools and classrooms are disrupted, said Mr. Bennet, who was previously the superintendent of the Denver Public Schools.

Many of these proposals are effectively trying to slow down the eviction process, or to create more alternatives to it.

“The court system has been set up so that the choice for the landlord is really eviction or nothing,” Ms. Hassan said.

Her bill would also charge the Department of Housing and Urban Development with studying insurance models that landlords or tenants could buy into to guard against the possibility of a missed rent payment.

“Most families in poverty that are renting are spending half their income on rent, with no margin for error,” said Mike Koprowski, who leads a network of advocacy groups through the National Low-Income Housing Coalition that has pushed for emergency assistance grants. “There’s no margin for the broken-down car, the unreimbursed medical bill, the hours cut at your job.”

Landlord associations respond that such precariousness is the real problem. Wages have stagnated for the poor, and the supply of housing affordable to the poorest renters has dwindled. Between 1990 and 2017, the national stock of rental housing grew by 10.9 million units, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. Over that same time, the number of units renting for less than $600 a month in inflation-adjusted dollars fell by 4 million. All net growth in rental housing in America, in other words, has been for higher-income tenants.

“We regard evictions generally as a symptom of a larger problem that we have, which is a lack of housing that’s affordable,” said Greg Brown, the senior vice president of government affairs for the National Apartment Association. “The question we have to ask ourselves is, do changes in the process address that core issue, or do they lengthen a process of eviction and really end up in the same place?”

One recent study linking eviction records in Cook County, Ill., with credit report and payday loans data suggests that policy interventions to the court process itself may be too late to help many poor families. The study found that in the years leading up to an eviction filing, tenants who would ultimately wind up in court had mounting and substantially higher debts, compared with random tenants in the same neighborhoods.

“The signs of that disruption and financial distress appear two to four years ahead of the eviction filings,” said Winnie van Dijk, one of the study’s authors. For policymakers who want to help these families, she said, “it’s not as simple as avoiding a court order for eviction, unfortunately.”

The Bennet-Portman bill envisions some outcomes where a tenant might lose housing they can’t afford but still land in a better place. The bill would also create a grant program to support community courts that might, for instance, be tied directly to local providers of social services. The Cleveland Municipal Housing Court currently operates a similar model, where the most vulnerable tenants facing eviction are flagged for social services. In 2018, about 17 percent of eviction cases that came before the court were referred to case workers who tried to find programs like mental health support and homeless services for tenants.

Sherrae Landrum, 74, was summoned to the Cleveland court last December for accumulating clutter that her landlord objected to. She ultimately lost her home, but a social worker the court connected her to helped her find a temporary homeless shelter and then a permanent home. The social worker drove her to doctor’s appointments and accompanied her to pay the deposit on her new apartment. She helped enroll Ms. Landrum in a home health aide service, a meal-delivery program, and a class to manage hoarding tendencies.

Eviction court can present, at least, an opportunity to connect tenants with agencies that might help halt cycles of poverty, said Casey Albitz, who runs the court’s social service referral program.

“It was a blessing,” Ms. Landrum said of her case. She has more resources and support now than she ever did before. “They did me a favor.”