Evictions Are Back In Force As Housing Advocates Rue 'Missed Opportunity'
In the months since federal funding from the Emergency Rental Assistance Program ran out in jurisdictions across the U.S., eviction rates are back to their pre-pandemic levels or even worse in most of the country.
Most states and major cities ran out of ERA funds allocated by pandemic-inspired stimulus bills by the end of March.
Since then, the vast majority of jurisdictions are experiencing eviction filings at or above their pre-pandemic averages, according to data from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.
“The second all of the federal support [ran out], eviction rates went right back to the old normal,” Eviction Lab project director Carl Gershenson told Bisnow. “There was so much attention paid to housing instability during the pandemic, and for good reason. There were a plethora of programs to address it, and for two years, we had significantly reduced eviction rates. But as soon as you withdraw the spending, we go right back to where we were before.”
Months before President Joe Biden called the pandemic over in September, virtually all local and state governments had ended eviction moratoriums, while plenty of programs to keep people housed in the interest of public health had been allowed to expire, multiple housing law experts told Bisnow.
With the housing crisis back to being considered an economic issue rather than a public health issue, the appetite for addressing it with public funding has waned.
"In states that do have good protections, there was a huge focus on housing in the early months of the pandemic, but some fatigue has set in," said National Housing Law Project Eviction Initiative Project Director Marie Claire Tran-Leung. "For the wins that were secured, there’s a fight on to make it more permanent.”
Early versions of Biden's Build Back Better plan contained billions of dollars to address housing, to encourage both tenant protections and increased development of affordable housing. But by the time the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed, the housing dollars had been excised.
"What became the Inflation Reduction Act really didn’t have the full scope of housing interventions we would have liked," Tran-Leung said. "That was disappointing, and a missed opportunity there.”
Only New York and Boston are still seeing monthly eviction filings well below pre-pandemic levels among cities Eviction Lab tracks, Gershenson said.
Philadelphia, which has extended a pandemic-driven eviction diversion program through the end of next year, has nevertheless seen eviction filings rise steadily since it ran out of ERA funds in March. By September, filings in Philly had reached 85% of the city’s monthly average from 2000 to the start of 2020, according to Eviction Lab data.
Anecdotally, at least New York and Philly may only have below-average filing numbers because their housing courts don't have the staff and capacity to handle the caseload, The New Republic reports.
“Before we see if there’s a long-term effect on the eviction diversion program, I’d want more data," Gershenson said. "If Philly stays at 80-something percent of pre-pandemic evictions, I’d be willing to think it was due to the diversion program.”
In Pennsylvania’s Montgomery County, just to the west of Philly, eviction filings have declined over the same time period, said Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania staff attorney Michelle Dempsky, who represents low-income tenants in Montgomery County. Montco, as locals call it, is an outlier in that it still has ERA funds to distribute, but Dempsky said it looks likely to run out near the end of the year.
“If that money lasts into February, it’ll be a miracle,” Dempsky said.
Philly’s eviction diversion program mandates landlords go through mediation with tenants before they can submit an official eviction filing. It was trumpeted by the U.S. Department of Justice as a model to be emulated, but without financial assistance, it can’t solve the problem of a tenant simply not being able to afford rent. Knowing that, landlords could be less likely to play ball.
“The eviction diversion program is necessarily going to be more effective when there are both carrots and sticks for landlords and tenants to come to the table in good faith,” Gershenson said.
In areas like the Sun Belt that have seen substantial in-migration over the past three years, plenty of jurisdictions are seeing eviction filings at rates well above pre-pandemic levels, according to Eviction Lab data. In areas such as Las Vegas, Tampa and Phoenix, the lack of ERA funds and tenant protections has combined with rents that have risen well over 20% since 2020 to leave few, if any, places for low-income tenants to turn if a lease renewal comes with a price jump.
“Because rents are rising across markets, there’s not a lot of choice for residents in those situations to stay in neighborhoods where they have historically lived,” Tran-Leung said. “So if you find yourself forced out, whether because of a court filing or otherwise, it’s difficult to find another place of comparable rent, which can further increase housing insecurity.”
Even without the "carrot" of rental assistance, eviction diversion programs can still have some utility. In an age when more and more of the rental stock is coming under the control of corporate landlords and their property managers, a court order for mediation can be the only way to get a large company to negotiate their otherwise "ironclad" policies, Dempsky said.
“Big corporate landlords, who never wanted to negotiate with us before, actually do [negotiate] now," Dempsky said. “Everyone jokes about the ‘new normal,’ but it’s funny and depressing because it’s true. Some landlords made out like bandits, some got really hurt, but they’re all now dealing with the program as is.
"[Landlords] want uniformity and they want consistency, because that makes it easiest for them to keep running their business. I do not think landlords will drive to get rid of mediation programs as long as they retain even mediocre effectiveness.”