Reaching Vulnerable Tenants to Enforce State and Local Eviction Moratoriums
Part 1 of our series on how state and local governments can better enforce eviction moratoriums during COVID-19
An essential component of the public health response to the COVID-19 crisis is ensuring that people stay home. For low-income individuals and families, however, staying home may pose a challenge in the face of job loss or a significant reduction in income. Even without a public health crisis, low-wage workers struggle to afford rental housing. Now, the economic fallout of the pandemic threatens the housing stability of many tenants, including those who were not at high risk of housing instability before this crisis. Over half of low-income workers estimated that they would be unable to pay rent by May.
Many state and local governments have taken important steps to prevent homelessness and overcrowding by placing a moratorium on evictions. In other jurisdictions, courts are essentially closed, which makes formal eviction proceedings an impossibility, at least for the time being. Some jurisdictions have both a moratorium and court closures. An eviction moratorium on paper, however, is not enough to protect vulnerable tenants. It must be enforced. Through media reports, tenant interviews, and connections to community-based organizations, Public Rights Project has learned of many landlords attempting to evade the moratoriums.
Without targeted outreach, localities may miss informal evictions and other unlawful conduct that undermine the moratoriums. Landlords have a long history of using “constructive” evictions instead of formally commencing an eviction action. These evictions can take a variety of forms including removing key amenities like refrigerators, refusing to perform critical maintenance, and threats of retaliation. A Milwaukee study based on data from 2009–2011 (during another economic downturn) estimated that informal evictions outside of the court system occur at double the rate of formal evictions. These evictions have the same harmful impacts on tenants and their families, and exacerbate the public health crisis.
Landlords also have used a variety of other tactics to continue to evict, harass, and coerce their tenants. Advocates have reported that landlords have continued to issue misleading notices to “pay rent or quit” despite moratoriums; to make misleading statements about rent repayment plans; to seek private financial information in excess of moratorium requirements; and to seek written waivers of tenants’ legal rights.
State and local governments have the authority to enforce eviction moratoriums and other laws that protect tenants. In the middle of a pandemic, where keeping tenants in their homes is and will remain essential, even as certain other business and social distancing restrictions are loosened (and, likely, tightened again) several important questions about enforcement arise:
- How do state and local governments identify bad actors and practices when non-essential in-person contact is curtailed and informal evictions may be harder to identify?
- How do state and local governments make sure they are hearing from their most vulnerable residents? What potentially unlawful practices have impacted their most vulnerable tenants?
- What criteria should state and local governments use to prioritize their enforcement efforts?
- What additional laws and regulations can state and local governments use to protect tenants during the COVID-19 outbreak?
Strategies to Reach Vulnerable Tenants
In this first post of the series, we share a few strategies that can be used to identify landlords attempting to evade the moratoriums and to support tenants vulnerable to displacement. In particular, targeted outreach to vulnerable tenants can supplement formal complaints.
1. Reach Out to Legal Services Providers, Community-Based Organizations, and New Groups That May Have Formed in Response to the Crisis
Outreach to community-based groups and legal service providers can identify abusive landlords and connect enforcers with vulnerable tenants. Many legal service providers continue to field complaints from tenants and to provide assistance to tenants in navigating the moratorium, and may be able to inform your office of repeat bad actors or particularly egregious complaints. Moreover, generally community-based organizations have built trust with vulnerable communities through sustained organizing over time. By building a relationship with these groups, enforcers can gain insight into where to devote resources and what types of matters to investigate; these groups can also serve as intermediaries for tenants fearful of interacting with immigration or law enforcement. In the midst of this crisis, many local and neighborhood mutual aid organizations have sprung up to help vulnerable community members, and these organizations may also be a good opportunity for outreach.
2. Use Digital Outreach Tools to Reach Vulnerable Communities Where They Are
Mobile-friendly digital outreach can drive low income and housing unsecure tenants to complaint portals and hotlines. These tenants often access the Internet via their cell phones; and digital outreach can provide a low-cost, language accessible method to quickly adjust outreach depending on tenant response and feedback. The City of Oakland for example worked with the Oakland Unified School District to send a text message to all parents of public school children providing key information about the city’s eviction moratorium. Tenant organizing and coverage of problematic landlords has also continued over mobile-friendly social media platforms such as Twitter, Reddit, and Instagram.
Government offices should be mindful of accessibility of their website content and forms. While a substantial majority of low income- people have internet access, many access it through their smartphones, making PDFs and many government websites difficult to navigate. In addition, information about new policies to protect tenants or ways to file housing complaints must be communicated out in the languages that vulnerable residents read and at an accessible literacy level.
3. Assess and Develop Your Office’s Language Capacity
Offices can build their capacity to connect with vulnerable tenants in their own native languages. Engaging with ethnic media — produced by and for immigrants, racial, ethnic and linguistic groups as well as indigenous populations — can provide information about the moratorium directly to vulnerable tenants. Understanding an outlet’s purpose, content needs, and audience can boost public engagement efforts. Building long-term relationships with trusted media sources can also result in a partnership to promote government services. Finally, by assessing your office’s language capacity, your office can also begin to fill gaps through community partnerships or resourcing of other staff within your office. An office’s bilingual employees, when trained for translation and interpretation and tested for language proficiency, can provide immediate feedback on public outreach to tenants.
In forthcoming posts in this series, we will share some key learnings from our tenant surveys in three communities; delve deeper into how to develop a public health-informed equitable enforcement strategy that prioritizes the impact of harms on vulnerable communities; and shed light on some of the tools available for state and local offices to use.