A New York court taking measures to protect the spread of COVID-19.

Evictions surged when protections lifted, low-income renters lack legal counsel

Low-income renters are getting help from a Right to Counsel movement to get legal aid in eviction cases. Pictured is a New York court taking measures to protect the spread of COVID-19. Photo by nycourts.gov

Eviction filings surged in August and September, during the short time there was no federal eviction moratorium in place. And corporate eviction filings even continued after the current eviction moratorium was ordered by the CDC.

This gives us a preview of the eviction crisis that low-income renters may face in January. Because few low-income renters can afford lawyers in housing court, a growing Right to Counsel movement is helping low-income renters stay in their homes.

Since the pandemic began, many states, counties, and cities have enacted temporary eviction moratoria. Many of these measures did not get renewed when they expired. The CARES Act eviction protections for residents of federally backed properties also expired on July 24, allowing landlords to begin submitting eviction filings on August 24.

As a result of an August executive order to fight the spread of COVID-19 by providing assistance to renters and homeowners, the CDC issued an order placing a nationwide moratorium on evictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The CDC eviction moratorium applies to all renters and homeowners earning less than $99,000 or who received a stimulus check. It took effect on September 4, and will protect renters through the end of December this year. In order to qualify, though, renters must meet certain qualifications, complete a self-certification form and give it to their landlords. Evictions for lease violations not related to COVID-19, such as illegal activity, can still be processed.

Princeton’s Eviction Lab has been tracking evictions in 17 cities around the country. When the CARES Act eviction moratorium expired, these cities saw a surge of evictions.

Eviction Lab logo. Image by evictionlab.org

Eviction filings in these cities jumped more than 100%; from a total of around 2,000 in the first week of August, to more than 3,000 in the last week of August. Once the CDC moratorium took effect on September 4, there was a significant drop in total eviction filings to fewer than 2,000 cases.

Although the Eviction Lab found that the CDC order had immediate effects, they varied some across the different jurisdictions. Some cities had their own local eviction moratoria, and eviction filings were already low. Cities with few tenant protections saw a larger initial drop in eviction filings.

The Eviction Lab data also suggests that the effect of the CDC order may be short-lived. In many of these cities, eviction filings went down sharply the week of the order, but rose again within two weeks. This was especially true in the cities with more limited tenant protections. 

Some corporate landlords also took steps to accelerate evictions and beat the CDC moratorium. According to the Private Equity Stakeholder Project, corporate eviction filings accelerated massively right after the announcement of the CDC’s eviction moratorium and have continued.

The research, which focused on companies in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, and Texas, found that weekly corporate eviction filings in these areas doubled two weeks from the date of the CDC order.

With each of these companies owning or managing several thousands of rental units, policies and practices of these corporate landlords can affect thousands of low-income renters at once.

Many of these companies were rushing to get evictions filed before the law took effect. And even if they filed after the order’s starting date, they may still get judgments from local judges. Many local judges may not know about the CDC eviction order. Many tenants likely do not know they have to provide landlords with paperwork to be protected from eviction.

If Congress does not act, there will likely be a tidal wave of evictions around the country in January, when the CDC moratorium expires. The data we have shows that without eviction moratoria, evictions will skyrocket. Large landlords will lead the way, displacing thousands of renters around the country.

The data we have shows that without eviction moratoria, evictions will skyrocket…displacing thousands of renters around the country.

Even before the pandemic, low-income renters rarely had legal counsel in eviction court and landlords almost always had a lawyer by their side. While landlords showed up to court with lawyers 80% of the time, tenants only had legal representation in 10% of cases. Without lawyers, low-income renters rarely win their eviction cases. As courts face a growing wave of eviction filings next January, legal resources for low-income renters will be stretched thin. 

And going to court is another complication for renters, since attending a hearing in person means you risk COVID-19 infection. Renters with compromised immune systems and other conditions may not be safe with in-person court hearings at all. Some courts are citing people for not wearing masks, but not all courts are doing so.

Courts are doing remote hearings, but low-income renters are also more likely to have access issues with poor or no internet connection. Limited access to interpreters and difficulty sharing documents can also work against low-income renters making their case.

There is a growing Right to Counsel movement committed to ensuring access to legal services for all. The Supreme Court has upheld that all people have a right to a lawyer in criminal cases, but there is no national or state requirement that guarantees a right to a lawyer for civil cases involving housing.

Image by civilrighttocounsel.org

The National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel (NCCRC) is one of the leading organizations in this movement. NCCRC Coordinator John Pollock shared information about cities that have enacted Right to Counsel laws in a National Low Income Housing Coalition webinar on September 21.

Renters in these cities — New York City, San Francisco, Newark, Cleveland, and Philadelphia — have seen improvements in representation, according to Pollock.

For example, New York City has gone from only 1% of tenants having lawyers in housing court to 38% now having legal representation. In 84% of New York City eviction cases after the Right to Counsel Law was enacted, tenants got to stay in their homes. In San Francisco, it was 67%. With legal counsel for more low-income renters, a higher percentage of tenants have been able to stay in their homes.

Right to Counsel laws also seem to make landlords more reluctant to bring eviction proceedings against tenants. New York City saw a 30% decline in the eviction filing rate and San Francisco had a decline of 10% in its eviction filing rate.

Right to Counsel laws are pending in more states and local jurisdictions. Connecticut, Massachusetts and Minnesota are considering laws that will ensure legal counsel for low-income residents. These protections are also being considered in Boulder, Los Angeles, and Santa Monica.

If you are a renter who has received an eviction notice, you should contact your local legal aid office. The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) provides funding to 132 nonprofit legal aid organizations in every state, the District of Columbia and U.S. Territories. You can use the LSC website to look up the closest legal aid office to you. There may be other organizations that provide free legal assistance in your area, so you should also check local listings.