Eviction prevention has been a central focus of governments’ COVID-19 response at the local, state, and federal levels – and it’s easy to see why. After all, people can only “stay safe, stay home” if they have a home to go back to.
For years, the Eviction Lab at Princeton University has been tracking evictions nationwide using their innovative dataset. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Eviction Lab created a new tool, the Housing Policy Scorecard, to track and score states’ housing responses to COVID-19. As of May 6, Connecticut ranks 3rd out of 50 states on the Scorecard with a state score of 3.78 out of 5.
What can we learn from this data, and how can we use it to create an effective and sustainable response to Connecticut’s eviction crisis? To learn more, we talked with Alieza Durana, Narrative Change Liaison at the Eviction Lab. Here are some of the key takeaways from the interview:
- State, local, and federal governments have a vested interest in preventing evictions. When families are evicted from their homes, that process leads to negative outcomes in public health, education, and employment.
- Connecticut has enacted several important policies to prevent eviction during COVID-19, such as declaring a temporary moratorium on evictions, as well as preventing eviction records from being forwarded to credit bureaus.
- In the coming months, Connecticut can act to further prevent evictions through a housing assistance fund for renters, as well as creating a right to legal counsel for tenants.
Read the full interview below.
Can you tell me a little bit about the Eviction Lab, and why you created the Housing Policy Scorecard?
The Eviction Lab studies the prevalence, causes, and effects of eviction and housing insecurity. We have been actively monitoring both the pandemic as it develops and the economic effects of the pandemic. For instance, we had already been concerned about the stagnant wages and rising rents that have put a lot of economic pressure on families across America, and we had already deemed that as a housing crisis prior to the pandemic hitting. But now, as we see Great Depression levels of unemployment, renters are increasingly unable to make rent.
In April, we saw estimates that one third of renters were unable to make rent, and we’ll be actively monitoring what that looks like in May. That inspired the creation of a COVID-19 housing policy scorecard to evaluate state responses to the pandemic in terms of what states are doing to keep people safely and securely housed. The scorecard is broken into five “buckets" that look at both the eviction process itself, as well as short-term supports and tenancy preservation measures that states can take to ensure their populations are safely and securely housed in the medium and long run.
Connecticut is currently ranked 3rd out of 50 states on the Housing Policy Scorecard, indicating that the state’s policy response to the pandemic has been positive. What are some of the more important things that Connecticut has done to help prevent evictions?
Connecticut is doing relatively better than other states by our measures on the scorecard. This is partially due to the fact that the state has frozen the filing process, so that landlords are unable to file for eviction. Connecticut has suspended the court process itself so that courts are not hearing eviction cases or processing judgments, and it has also frozen the enforcement process. All of that is good because it means that, right now, tenants in Connecticut should not face legal eviction. Tenants could still face informal or illegal pressure from landlords; however, the legal process of eviction has halted.
Connecticut has also put into place some short-term supports. The state has barred utility disconnections and created a grace period for renters to pay back rent. They are also preventing eviction records from being reported to credit bureaus which is important so that tenants don’t face ruined credit or job loss associated with an eviction, and they have also instituted a foreclosure moratorium.
Why is it important for governments to avoid the eviction process altogether? Is there a public benefit that comes from preventing evictions?
It’s important to prevent evictions for a number of reasons, some of which have to do with how it affects individuals and families, and some of which have to do with how it affects communities and public health writ large.
Eviction has the ability to affect someone’s credit, it affects whether and how they can access housing, their ability to keep and maintain a job, their children’s well-being and outcomes in school. In this particular moment, those effects are magnified because if you were evicted today, you might end up doubled up with family or friends. We do know that, in the case of China, the majority of transmission of COVID-19 was through family units. If you’re not so lucky as to be able to double up with family, you might end up in a homeless shelter. While homeless shelters are an important part of our safety net, they’re overburdened on a good day, and they’re not set up to promote the physical distancing that is recommended to prevent the spread of the virus.
In addition, people experiencing homelessness are uniquely vulnerable to upper respiratory diseases, so we’re concerned about how to promote the health of people experiencing homelessness today. Experiencing homelessness is incredibly stressful, and we’ve seen the resurgence of medieval diseases like typhus in encampments where people live.
So in the short-, medium-, and long-term, it’s important that we support and stabilize individual and family well-being today; it’s also important that the effects of eviction don’t linger in families through what children are exposed to over the long term, and also helpful to getting our economy up and running. If you’re worried about where you’re going to sleep at night, it certainly makes it difficult to find and maintain a job, or contribute in other ways – and again, this is through no fault of any individual person or family.
You mentioned that eviction can have a major effect on households’ credit; that one eviction can have cascading effects that last for years. Can you explain that connection further?
We usually talk about eviction as “The Scarlet E.” When you face an eviction, it’s usually reported to a credit bureau and, like a foreclosure, it can ruin your credit for years. That has a cascading effect on individual and family well-being because usually, when you look for new housing, your landlord will run a credit check, so when someone is evicted, they usually end up in poorer-quality housing.
Separating the credit process from the eviction process is an important short-term support for now, but we also suggest considering ways in which we can prevent the eviction process from taking place to begin with.
Going forward, what are some policy options that government should consider to prevent evictions and ensure that people are stably housed?
We’re concerned that, as many people have lost their jobs through no fault of their own, they might be increasingly unable to pay their rent, and that this rent might pile up over time. Not to mention any medical bills people may face due to COVID-19. Even prior to the pandemic, medical debt has been the leading cause of bankruptcy in the United States.
States and the federal government should think about ways that they can assist tenants in paying rent; this could come in the form of rental assistance, or it could come in the form of ongoing cash transfers which is something that we’ve seen in Canada, the UK, and other European nations. This would also be good for landlords as well, because if tenants can pay for their housing, food, and utilities, then landlords will also have the money to pay for their mortgages.
Something else that we’re recommending is that states and the federal government consider creating the right to a legal counsel in housing court. Currently, folks don’t have the right to counsel, which inhibits due process in housing cases. The main area that we’re exploring further supports needed is in measures which states and the federal government can take to support housing security in the medium- and long-term.
Before we go, is there anything else we haven’t discussed that you think is important to contextualize what we’re talking about today?
We’re absolutely concerned about how mom-and-pop landlords are faring right now, so when we’re talking about rental assistance or ongoing cash payments as something that would support tenants, it’s also something that would support the well-being of small landlords at this particular moment.
That being said, my colleague Matt Desmond has researched in the last several years that looks at how profit margins in rental housing vary across low, middle, and high-income neighborhoods, and what we’ve seen is that the profit margins in rental housing are highest in low-income neighborhoods. This really begs the question right now of, if a landlord has paid off their mortgage in a low-income neighborhood, do they actually need their tenant to pay rent? How can tenants and landlords work together to make sure everyone stays securely and safely housed?
An eviction notice also does not necessitate a rent payment. Just because you evict someone does not mean you’ll get that money back; it does not mean that you’ll find a new tenant, particularly in this economy where people are already struggling to pay for their basic needs. As a result, we’re both encouraging policymakers and landlords to think about how we can work together to ensure housing security and well-being for all.