On Tuesday, August 2, The White House held a virtual event discussing the American Rescue Plan’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) and how we can build on it to ensure long-term eviction reform.
ERAP, which has been called one of the most important federal housing programs of the last decade, created the first national infrastructure and policy to prevent evictions and provide assistance to millions of tenants in distress and their landlords. Notably, ERAP made over 7 million multi-month payments towards rent, utilities, and other costs to ensure that people remained housed during the pandemic.
Prior to the pandemic, there were approximately 3.6 million eviction filings each year. While ERAP was successful in preventing poverty and homelessness during the pandemic, it is essential that we take the measures necessary to effect lasting changes to ensure we do not return to the unacceptably high pre-pandemic rates of eviction, with a focus on equity and assuring that aid goes to those who need it the most. Many states have already developed creative ways to employ ERAP funds to enact long-term reform that will lead to a more humane and just eviction policy, like creating law school clinics and eviction diversion and right to counsel in evictions programs.
Matthew Desmond, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Evicted and head of the Princeton Eviction Lab, noted that the eviction rate has disparate impacts, as the rate of evictions for African Americans is twice that of whites. The legal record that eviction creates prevents families from moving, and families are always worse off after eviction, and frequently move into more squalid housing. Evictions not only lead to housing insecurity but also often negatively impact people’s mental and physical health, employment status, and job opportunities. As such, efforts to decrease evictions aim to increase justice and economic dignity. To Desmond, the federal policies and interventions that were most effective are eviction moratoria and rental assistance from ERAP.
Diane Yentel of the National Low Income Housing Coalition explained that her organization was able to successfully advocate for $46 billion in emergency rental assistance, an amount that is 46 times the assistance granted during the Great Recession. Yentel called ERAP the broadest action by the federal government in decades, crediting part of its success to the robust equitable outreach. In total, they were able to make over seven million ERAP payments and put $13 billion towards affordable housing. ERAP also served as an accelerant for putting protections in place that could be more long-lasting. Yentel cautioned that significant needs remain unmet, though, and suggested that ERAP be made permanent to avoid long-term harm.
Chief Justices from different states were introduced by Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, who noted that one of the key ways that states addressed the eviction crisis was to start Eviction Diversion programs that will usher in lasting and transformative change. Chief Justice Bacon from New Mexico explained that the State Supreme Court used its power of convening and brought together TF with courts, state agencies, property owners, and legal services providers to recommend and implement an eviction diversion program. The New Mexico diversion program uses “navigators” who work with tenants and stay during the duration of the case with them to explain things and also have real-time access to data and their rental assistance applications.
Representatives from other cities discussed their recent successes in preventing evictions under ERAP as well. Chicago Mayor, Lori Lightfoot, explained that eviction prevention is about both housing security and creating a just and humane society. Her city enacted a three-year Right to Counsel program, allotted $8 million to serve 2,000 to 3,000 tenants each year, and allowed them to seal filings. Oregon Housing Community Services intentionally focused on equity when allocating ERP funds, and they were able to get help to the people who really needed it. 85% of the funds were disbursed to people who fall at 50% or below the median income. The Cleveland Right to Counsel program, which initially started with a partnership with United Way, helped 93% of tenants avoid eviction and involuntary moves. Philadelphia was able to reduce evictions by two-thirds, creating a path to economic stability and growth; city officials reported federal funding gave them the power to catalyze collaboration and transform dysfunctional systems.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, then recounted how he turned the committee from just the “banking” committee to one that held 7-8 hearings on housing. Brown expressed that a person’s home is the bedrock of their life, and many Americans spend more than 50% of their household income on housing. As such, it is important to determine what lasting changes are necessary to help keep people housed while letting them maintain their quality of life.