As pandemic-era rental assistance funds and related resources started to sunset, the fight for better protections didn’t. 2022 was defined by groups across the country continuing to push for housing justice.
In 2022, the stress that many Americans felt daily about housing also reached polling places and city governments: according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there were dozens of housing ballot-related measures before voters in the midterm election and more than 150 tenant protections were implemented across the country since January 2021.
This happened as historic resources were winding down across the country. More than $46 billion in federal rental assistance and eviction moratoria were crucial to keeping eviction filings below historical averages in 2020 and 2021, but without that level of intervention, filings began to tick back up again last year (Eviction Lab is preparing a full report of eviction trends in 2022 to be published soon). As this unfolded, many feared the lessons of the pandemic – where policy and action were key to saving hundreds of thousands from homelessness – would be forgotten.
But cities like Detroit and New Orleans stepped up mandating free legal help for tenants on a larger scale. Others strengthened source-of-income protections, like in the state of Illinois. Some governments also voted in favor of policies to seal evictions after a certain time frame and to require just cause evictions. Meanwhile, housing advocates continued to pressure governments to do more – with one win announced recently by the Biden Administration.
“Organizers have been raising this issue for years as the housing crisis has grown more acute. But eviction and affordable housing have now become a real central issue on the agenda,” said Matthew Desmond, the lead investigator at the Eviction Lab. “On the ground, around the country, there’s legislation moving and things happening that are very encouraging.”
These advances didn’t happen everywhere in the country: most of them were put in place in larger cities with progressive leadership, while suburban and rural areas are still in need of improvements. But for many tenants in the United States, 2022 was defined by a growing hunger to improve the renting experience across the country, from expanding social safety net programs to fighting for tenants’ bill of rights.
Evidence of the life-altering effect of an eviction has been clear well before the pandemic. An eviction judgment can disrupt tenants’ physical and mental health, derail their credit scores and lead to homelessness – just to name a few of the long-term effects after the initial housing loss. Research shows eviction can also have an impact on landlords, who have to deal with thousands of dollars in costs – cleaning, marketing the apartment and vetting a new tenant – to get a unit back on the market.
One of the solutions that cities have begun to consider more widely in the last couple of years is eviction diversion, which helps establish solutions for both for landlords and tenants. Solutions can include advance notice periods, connecting people to rent assistance and mediation before going into the courtroom.
In Philadelphia, the city’s eviction diversion program became a requirement in 2022 for any landlords looking to file an eviction. While the program was available prior to 2022, last year it received city government funding until 2024.
The White House and many other experts have acclaimed this and other similar programs because they avoid court, saving both landlords and tenants time and money.
“In order to minimize the impact on tenants, pre-filing [intervention] is necessary,” said Rachel Garland, managing attorney for Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, which provides program design and training for the eviction diversion program. “In mediation, the concept is that it’s not necessarily an adversarial process. Both parties can bring issues to the table to discuss.”
During this mediation process, tenant-landlord pairs can discuss payment plans, repairs and more. Philadelphia also includes a 30-day waiting period for landlords that still want to file an eviction, after an unsuccessful mediation process.
Before the pandemic, landlords in Philadelphia filed an average of 20,000 evictions annually. But in the almost three years since March 2020, only about 24,500 evictions have been filed in the city. While the eviction diversion program is not solely responsible for the decrease, the program was able to help participants come to an agreement without court involvement in over 70% of cases during its lifespan, according to city officials.
As of August 2022, 180 jurisdictions in 36 states had developed or improved similar eviction diversion programs thanks to federal emergency rental assistance, according to the White House.
One of the initiatives that has contributed to this was coordinated by the National Center for State Courts, which in Summer of 2022 announced its first cohort of courts across the country using grant money to convert their “eviction courts into problem-solving courts” through diversion measures.
The Las Vegas Justice Court in Nevada is one of those and will use the funds to offer wrap-around services at the courthouse, including job training, housing relocation assistance and more. The 18th Judicial District in Kansas will use funds to establish the first eviction diversion program in the state. And Lawrence Township Small Claims Court in Indiana committed to using some funds to host eviction sealing clinics at the courthouse to “mitigate the harm for community members already evicted.”
Tenants facing eviction are often entering an uneven field. Nationally, 81% of landlords benefit from legal representation while 3% of tenants have the same benefit, according to the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel.
Without help to navigate complicated housing laws, many tenants can miss court dates or deadlines leaving cases to be decided in favor of the landlord by default. And even if the tenant manages to meet deadlines, they tend to face unfavorable outcomes.
By 2017, New York City was the only municipality offering a solution to the problem through housing attorneys. In select zip-codes, the city provided tenants free legal representation for eviction cases. The service was similar to what’s afforded to defendants in criminal cases when they can’t afford a private lawyer.
“The pandemic hit and that kind of acted as a sad accelerant for right to counsel as people were looking for solutions to ridiculously high numbers of tenants who were at risk of eviction,” said John Pollock of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel.
In 2021, the list of right to counsel locations started to grow and in 2022 there was still no loss of momentum, Pollock added, as advocates worked to keep the solution relevant. By mid 2022, three states and fifteen cities had adopted legislation for right to counsel.
Policymakers and advocates in many other localities are still pushing for new legal aid legislation, more funding for lawyers or rolling out pilot programs. Chicago joined the list in 2022 when it announced a 3-year pilot program in hopes of making right to counsel a permanent tool in its approach to eviction.
The city, which saw more than 23,000 evictions filed a year pre-pandemic, already had several tenant protections in place, including a pre-judgement diversion program and “pay and stay” – a measure that gives tenants a one-time chance to pay arrearages and court costs to get a dismissal. But right to counsel is the cherry on top, advocates said.
While it’s too early to track data in Chicago, right to counsel has proven successful in other places in past years. In its first year, New York City saw an 11% decrease in evictions in areas that had access to right to counsel. In Cleveland, the right to counsel program was able to avoid a judgment or involuntary move in 93% of cases. Connecticut’s right to counsel program was able to prevent an involuntary move in 71% of cases.
While the numbers are promising, Pollock said some program rollouts have been gradual as they face hiring barriers.
“That is definitely one of the biggest challenges we face going forward with the right to counsel. It doesn’t matter if all the political will is there. If attorneys are not, it’s not going to matter,” he added.
In January 2022, the White House announced 99 law schools started or expanded clinics to provide legal assistance as the country recognized all hands on deck were necessary to address the housing crisis.
“I certainly hope that we come out of this [economic shock caused by the pandemic] with the recognition that eviction is bad and we should continue to change the culture of eviction court and use rental assistance to keep people housed,” said Michelle Gilbert, the policy director with the Law Center for Better Housing in Chicago helping run the right to counsel pilot.
Meanwhile, some places also explored allowing non-lawyer representation in eviction cases. Typically, legal ethics rules prohibit “unauthorized practice of law by people without an active legal license from the state bar,” according to Stanford University’s Eviction Innovation website. But where housing legal aid lawyers are limited, waiving these prohibitions may be a viable option.
At the beginning of 2022, Delaware became the first state to allow residential tenants in eviction cases to be represented by qualified tenant advocates instead of lawyers. The advocates are trained and supervised by the state’s legal aid agencies.
The American Bar Foundation also urged localities to be more proactive when it comes to eviction with 10 guidelines for local leaders.
Pollock said on the national level, the future looks promising. The National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel hosted a sprint in 2022 with 11 jurisdictions interested in right to counsel for eviction matters.
“There was a concern about coming out of the pandemic and how that would affect us. But it hasn’t slowed any jurisdiction,” he added.
And it wouldn’t have been possible without the advocates who are living with the problems first hand.
“Without tenant organizing or other equivalent groups it’s extremely difficult to get stuff through and what does get through is usually weaker,” Pollock said.
A push for better tenant protections wasn’t just happening in official settings like courtrooms or legislative buildings. It was also happening in apartment hallways, community spaces and living rooms. Close observers of the tenant organizing scene noticed an increase in activity in 2022.
Tenant organizations (often referred to as tenant unions or associations) played a big role in the 1970s and 80s, and last year they saw a resurgence. Groups of tenants gathered across the country to address record high inflation, poor housing conditions and cumbersome legal systems.
“I think we learned more as advocates that the enforcement of our existing protections was very weak,” said Francisco Dueñas, the executive director of Housing NOW!, a tenant-led housing coalition in California.
On the national level, organizations like People’s Action continued to push their “Homes Guarantee” campaign which urges the Biden administration to prioritize more tenant protections like rent control and just cause evictions.
On the local level, grassroot organizations had impressive wins as well. In Kansas City, tenants formed a city-wide union after winning the right to counsel among other tenant protections. In Miami-Dade County, tenants won a bill of rights which included deducting repair costs from rent if the landlord doesn’t respond to requests within a week, landlords can’t require disclosure of eviction history on first application and more. In Maryland, tenants secured funding for right to counsel, the right to use rental assistance when exercising their right to “pay to stay” and the right to petition a pandemic-era eviction case for nonpayment of rent to be sealed.
While tenant unions aim to take a page out of labor unions’ playbook in hopes of bargaining with landlords, they don’t have much leverage yet. In 2022, that changed in San Francisco. The city became the first to require landlords to “confer in good faith” with unions on housing matters, the tenant-landlord relationship, and other issues. In other words, landlords should sit down with unions periodically to discuss their concerns. While landlords are under no obligation to act on requests, they are at least required to listen.
Dueñas said the pandemic led many more homeowners to the realization that evictions and risk of homelessness didn’t just harm tenants but could impact public health, government spending and communities in general.
This growing understanding seemed to open up more pathways to progress across the country and it could just be the start.
“People, and especially young people, are just feeling the acute stress and frustration when it comes to things like eviction, or double digit rent hikes or just the violence and unfairness of what it means to be a renter in America. And they are pushing hard against that,” said Matthew Desmond. “What we can see from the growing tenant movement I think remains to be seen, but it’s very exciting.”
2022 materialized several housing wins championed in years prior and gave us a taste of what to expect as housing justice stays at the forefront of the conversation. If you strengthened renter protections in your jurisdiction in 2022, we want to celebrate with you. This may be shared on our social media handles with your name, location and organization.
This blog post has been updated for clarity to specify that right to counsel programs in some cases expand already existing legal aid services.
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Image credit: "Marching at Tenant Rights Rally - December 2017 Photos by Alex Garland" by Backbone Campaign is licensed under CC BY 2.0 .