Participants in a White House panel moderated by ABA President Patricia Lee Refo urged government officials to promptly distribute $46 billion in federal eviction-prevention aid, saying the funds will help prevent mass evictions and keep cases out of the courts once the federal eviction moratorium expires July 31.
The panel took place June 30 at the White House Summit on Eviction Prevention, which was aimed at developing strategies to provide the needed assistance to renters and landlords. Refo’s panel, Coordinating Eviction Diversion and Emergency Rental Assistance, focused on court and community-based eviction prevention programs that provide landlords and tenants with access to rental assistance outside of the court system.
One in seven renters in the U.S. report being behind on their rent, while landlords owed rent are trying to keep up their properties and pay their mortgages. A wave of evictions is predicted to begin when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s moratorium on evictions, enacted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic devastation, expires next month. The evictions are expected to disproportionally affect communities of color.
Gene Sperling, coordinator for the American Rescue Plan, which is providing billions for emergency rental assistance, praised Refo as “inspirational to the process” that led to the summit.
“The White House Summit came about because of an overwhelming willingness to work together — from housing advocates, to those running rental assistance programs in communities, to individuals and organizations fighting for racial justice, to legal services groups, to the leadership of the American Bar Association,” Sperling said. “We are in a race against time and must accelerate the work of state and local governments to distribute emergency rental assistance funds and prioritize eviction diversion programs to help deliver deeply needed relief to renters and landlords and keep people in their homes.”
Refo said at the panel discussion that the American Bar Association has been working on the eviction crisis for more than a year and cited a report released June 23 by the ABA and the Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program that identified best practices to divert eviction filings and enhance housing stability. She welcomed the Biden-Harris administration’s leadership on this “deeply important issue.”
“I am simply here to say the lawyers of America are here to do our part,” Refo said. “We stand ready to help.”
The summit also included breakout sessions for local public officials, court officials, legal services organizations, local bar associations, community-based organizations, landlord associations and others representing 46 cities across the country to develop eviction prevention action plans for their local areas.
At Refo’s panel discussion, Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack called eviction-diversion programs “win, win, win, I like to say. They are sort of a unicorn in courts because tenants want to stay in their apartments, landlords need their money to pay their bills and courts have a tremendous backlog, especially after this pandemic.”
Rasheedah Phillips, managing attorney of housing policy at the Community Legal Services of Philadelphia described the development in the city of three interconnected solutions that are “tailored to re-envision how evictions are carried out.” They include right to counsel for tenants, the sealing or limiting access to eviction records to prevent blanket exclusion of tenants with a record by landlords, and eviction diversion to keep the cases out of the courts.
Rene Solis, chief program officer at BakerRipley, a social services organization that administers a successful rental assistance program in Houston, stressed collaboration among all the players involved in the eviction process, while Gilbert Winn, president and CEO of the Winn Companies, the largest operator of affordable housing in the U.S., described the approach taken by his company to minimize evictions and keep the cases out of the courts.
“Payments and collection of rent is critical to rental housing, especially in affordable housing,” he said, adding that “renters deserve a safety net if they fall on hard times through no fault of their own.”