by Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta
A housing and evictions crisis is looming. As federal and local eviction moratoria expire in the coming days, eviction filings are expected to spike. Women and people of color will be disproportionately impacted as they comprise an outsized share of the over 6 million renter households that are behind on rent. Historical and structural inequities will deepen unless we act.
Last month I wrote to State Court Chief Justices and Court Administrators encouraging the use of eviction diversion strategies to help families avoid the disruption and damage of evictions and assist landlords in collecting rent. My letter highlighted the $46.5 billion in Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) that Congress has made available to tenants and landlords. This assistance can be used to help courts navigate the eviction crisis.
I also recommended that courts consider requiring landlords to apply for rental assistance in advance of filing for eviction or amending summonses and court notices to alert litigants to the availability of rental assistance.
Even the simple act of giving families more time to apply for rental assistance can make a critical difference. For pending evictions, I urged courts to put cases on a slower track – perhaps a temporary postponement of 30 to 60 days – to allow rental assistance applications to be filed, processed, and paid out.
Over the longer term, we know that eviction diversion programs are most successful when they are comprehensive. Admittedly, the process of securing rental assistance and other forms of relief can be daunting and confusing for underrepresented parties. That is why, consistent with guidance recently offered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), my letter recommended that jurisdictions combine access to rental assistance with access to legal representation, mediation, and social services. Comprehensive eviction diversion programs not only prevent evictions, but they also reduce the large caseloads that are currently overwhelming court dockets.
Robust eviction diversion programs will require robust financial support. This is why the Treasury Department has made clear that COVID-relief funds – both the $350 billion in state and local relief allocated by President Biden’s American Rescue Plan as well as the $46.5 billion in ERA funds – can be used for court-supported diversion programs.
I applaud the work that state courts have already done on eviction diversion. Courts in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Texas, to name a few, have used eviction diversion strategies in their court systems to ensure that tenants and landlords are aware of the rental assistance that is available and have the time to receive it.
This past Monday, I spoke to the Conference of Chief Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators and expressed the Justice Department’s appreciation for state courts’ work on these issues and others. In my speech, I also noted the leadership that Chief Justice Nathan Hecht of Texas and others have shown to raise awareness about the evictions crisis and rental assistance. And I highlighted the eviction diversion diagnostic tool that the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) launched about a month ago. This tool is an invaluable resource that allows state courts to design eviction diversion programs that are the right fit for their jurisdictions.
Since my letter was issued more than two dozen court leaders have reached out to the NCSC to discuss how they might address the crisis, and many have posted PSAs on the availability of rental assistance. The NCSC, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and HUD have begun to provide educational resources to help state court judges detect evictions that may be the result of discriminatory actions prohibited by the Fair Housing Act (FHA). Such actions include discrimination based on race, color, sex (including sexual orientation and gender identity), national origin (including limited English proficiency), religion, familial status (having children under 18), or disability. The Justice Department’s partnership with state and local organizations ensures that tenants and landlords alike are aware of their rights and responsibilities under the FHA.
Given the importance of housing to one’s economic and psychological well-being, the Justice Department takes the prospect of eviction filings seriously. Though much progress has been made, we know that many families still need support. We will continue to work with state courts nationwide to protect the housing rights of all parties. For more information, please visit the links listed below: