On June 23, 2021, a bipartisan group of senators–Michael Bennet (D-CO), Rob Portman (R-OH), Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Todd Young (R-IN)–reintroduced the Eviction Crisis Act, a critical piece of legislation aimed at addressing the nation’s eviction crisis. The legislation contains several promising provisions including the creation of an Emergency Assistance Fund — funded at $3 billion annually — to test, evaluate, and expand proven interventions to help low-income households facing housing instability due to an unexpected economic shock.
The bill’s reintroduction is enthusiastically supported by the Opportunity Starts at Home campaign, which worked closely with the bill’s sponsors to craft the provision establishing the Emergency Assistance Fund. The bill is yet another example of a bipartisan effort to address issues arising from a lack of affordable housing in the United States. Policymakers on both sides of the aisle clearly recognize that substantial policy solutions are required to address this affordability crisis head on. In the case of the Eviction Crisis Act in particular, its bipartisan support can be traced to three key aspects of the bill: a) it represents a straightforward solution to an important problem, b) its short-term costs are outweighed by its long-term benefits, and c) its programmatic features replicate successful programs from across the country.
Specifically, the Eviction Crisis Act of 2021 will:
Improve Data and Analysis on Evictions
- Creates a national database to standardize data and track evictions, in order to better inform policy decisions.
- Establishes a Federal Advisory Committee on Eviction Research to make recommendations related to data collection, as well as policies and practices that can prevent evictions or mitigate their consequences.
- Allocates funding for a comprehensive study to track evictions, analyze landlord-tenant law, and assess varying factors in urban, suburban, and rural areas.
Reduce Preventable Evictions and Mitigate Eviction’s Consequences
Co-invest in state and local government programs:
- Creates a program to fund state and local governments expanding the use of landlord-tenant community courts and increasing the presence of social services representatives for tenants, which help both tenants and landlords avoid the high cost of eviction.
- Establishes an Emergency Assistance Fund at $3 billion annually to provide financial assistance as well as housing stability-related services to eviction-vulnerable tenants.
Support increased legal representation for tenants:
- Expresses support for substantially increasing funding for the Legal Services Corporation, a public-private partnership that provides legal services to low-income Americans.
Improve Information on Tenant Screening Reports
- Requires consumer reporting agencies to provide consumers with tenant screening reports when they are requested as part of a rental application process, so tenants can contest and correct inaccurate or incomplete information.
- When a court rules in favor of a tenant in an eviction proceeding, requires those judgments and eviction filings related to that proceeding to be removed from tenant screening reports.
Clear Problem, Simple Solution
A primary reason that the Eviction Crisis Act has bipartisan support is that it addresses a clear problem with profound consequences, but does so in a simple and direct way. Unlike many complex aspects of public policy, the link between short-term financial shocks and housing instability is relatively straightforward. Simply put, the households with the lowest incomes in the United States often face significant financial precarity because of high rent burdens. This precarity puts them at risk of housing instability from relatively small, if unexpected, financial pressures, often resulting in involuntary moves, additional material hardship, and even catastrophic outcomes like prolonged homelessness.
The Emergency Assistance Fund created by this legislation solves the initial problem of financial insecurity immediately by providing short-term cash assistance, thereby preventing the more severe outcomes that often occur as a result. As Nan Roman, President and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, explains: “Every day, people become homeless who not long ago had a stable home, but whose lives and housing were
disrupted by an economic crisis that a small amount of money could have fixed.”
Because of the affordable housing crisis in the United States, the rent burden for low-income households is often immense. Indeed, nearly 90% of extremely low-income households, over 80% of very low income households, and over half of low income households were rent-burdened (spending more than one-third of income on rent) in 2017 (NLIHC, 2020). As of 2015, rent-burdened households had, on average, less than $10 in the bank (Pew, 2019). With such little margin for error, even small short-term financial pressures can have catastrophic effects. A single unexpected car repair, medical procedure, or temporary loss of employment can mean the difference between paying the rent on time and facing eviction.
To make matters worse, research suggests that evictions disproportionately impact households with children–families that already face the daunting financial burdens associated with raising kids. Communities of color also experience the disproportionate impact of evictions; in fact, Black renters experience the highest rates of eviction filings and judgements nationally, and in a substantial number of communities with Black residents, the Black eviction rate is more than double the white eviction rate (Hepburn et al, 2020). These disproportionate impacts are just the latest examples of a housing system that too often penalizes people for outcomes that result from unfair treatment and discrimination.
And while the immediate cause of housing instability may be temporary, the damage is often prolonged and devastating. Eviction itself is a predictor of additional material hardship in the near term, as a result of factors such as employment instability and worsened credit (Desmond & Kimbro, 2015, Humphr
ies et al, 2019). Relatedly, studies show that–after an involuntary move such as an eviction–even those households that avoid homelessness often move into substandard units and disadvantaged neighborhoods (Desmond & Kimbro, 2015, Desmond and Shollenberger, 2015). Nor is housing instability merely a financial problem. Experiences of housing instability can be traumatic events; research shows that mothers who were evicted in the previous year had higher incidences of stress, depression and poor health than those who were not, even after controlling for income and other demographics. Furthermore, these effects can last for years after an eviction formally occurs (Desmond & Kimbro, 2015).
The Emergency Assistance Fund included in the Eviction Crisis Act is specifically designed to protect households with the lowest incomes–those most at-risk to short-term financial shocks–from the prospect of eviction, housing instability, and homelessness. Specifically, the Emergency Assistance Fund’s eligibility is limited to households below the federal poverty line–$26,500 for a family of four–or below 30% of Area Median Income, an amount under $40,000 even in the most expensive cities such as New York and San Francisco. This income limit ensures finite federal resources are spent on the households that are most in need of support. Furthermore, the Emergency Assistance Fund is time-limited to three months of financial support (while allowing for discretion by the distributing agency). This feature of the program ensures funding goes to precisely the short-term problems the bill is meant to address.
In addition to the Emergency Assistance Fund, other elements of the bill–such as the expansion of landlord-community courts, support for additional legal representation for tenants, and credit reporting protections for tenants–are also crucially important to addressing the clear and preventable danger of housing instability. What is more, the rigorous evaluation and research components of the bill ensure that we generate even more knowledge about the scope of evictions in the United States, knowledge that can be effectively utilized in future programs and legislation.
Short-Term Costs, Large-Term Benefits
Clearly, the Emergency Assistance Fund in the Eviction Crisis Act would benefit financially vulnerable households, often in profound and immeasurable ways. But what about the cost of the program? Another reason for the ECA’s bipartisan support is that the benefits created by the bill’s programs far outweigh its costs. Especially when compared to the alternative–addressing the severe consequences of housing instability through homelessness services and other reactive measures–the programming established by the legislation is extremely cost effective. By addressing families’ short-term financial needs immediately, the Emergency Assistance Fund prevents the much larger costs required to grapple with the wide-ranging consequences that arise when these needs go unmet.
Because it is often a single event that triggers a downward spiral from stable housing to instability and potentially to homelessness, the financial assistance required by participating households is time-limited and often relatively small. Based on pre-pandemic research, rent arrears in eviction cases are frequently less than $1,500. According to an Eviction Lab estimate with data from 22 states, the median eviction money judgment between 2014 and 2016 was $1,253, an amount which included legal fees and other costs. One third of these judgments were for less than one month’s rent in the area (New York Times, 2019). These are simply not prohibitive costs when considering the severity of the consequences associated with inaction.
On the other hand, because of the destructive effects of housing instability and homelessness, resource intensive solutions are often required if short-term financial shocks result in involuntary moves such as evictions. Even the most innovative and efficient policy solutions to homelessness come with a large price tag because of the destabilizing and wide-ranging effects of lacking stable housing. Thus, a small short-term investment in housing stability pays off in dramatically reduced costs over time.
Looking at how similar programs have been implemented over recent years can prove instructive when comparing potential costs and benefits. A short-term rental assistance program in Massachusetts, Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT), cost an average of $3,130 per family to ensure continued housing (Regional Housing Network of Massachusetts, 2019). While this is a substantial sum of money, it pales in comparison to the amount of taxpayer dollars that are spent on services for homeless individuals and families. For example, each household in Massachusetts that enters the state’s family shelter program costs the state $46,450–over ten times the per-household cost of the RAFT program. Nor is this a regional phenomenon–the annual costs associated with supporting homeless households across the United States range from a minimum of $35,000 to over $100,000 (Politifact, 2012).
With this alternative in mind, the short-term costs of a permanent federal program is clearly a wise investment. Even better, this simple cost-benefit analysis does not take into account the established long-term benefits of stable housing–such as enhanced employment opportunities and mental health for adults and increased educational attainment and higher earnings for children. When considering these additional positive outcomes, the short-term financial assistance in the Emergency Assistance Fund becomes an even better investment.
A Proven Track Record
Programs like RAFT are not just (comparatively) cheap–they have also been shown to be extremely effective. The promising results from similar programs that have been implemented in recent years are another reason the bill has support from both sides of the aisle. Indeed, federal, state, and local programs that have incorporated the key provisions of the Emergency Assistance Fund–short-term financial assistance with supplemental supports such as counseling–have demonstrated that this type of program works exactly as intended.
For example, one program implemented in the wake of the Great Recession, known as the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP), served over 500,000 households and successfully secured stable housing for 72% of participants (HUD, 2016). A short-term rental assistance program specifically targeted to veterans (Supportive Services for Veteran Families) had an even higher success rate: 91% of participants found or maintained stable housing. Municipal programs have also demonstrated the efficacy of short-term cash assistance and other supports in averting homelessness. In New York City, the Homebase Community Prevention program in New York reduced the number of nights spent in shelters by an average of 22 nights per household. In Chicago, researchers studying the Homelessness Prevention Call Center program took advantage of the intermittent nature of the program’s funding and compared outcomes for households that called when funds were available and those who called when they were not (Evans et al, 2016). Households were 76% less likely to enter a homeless shelter if they called when funds were available than if they were not–a clear indication of the importance of the direct cash assistance aspect of the Emergency Assistance Fund.
Just as important as its incorporation of proven programmatic features, the Eviction Crisis Act is also set up for continuous improvement over time. By investing in rigorous evaluation of its programs’ effects, the bill ensures that the program will get more and more effective over time. Building in continuous improvement as a programmatic feature, rather than an afterthought–along with the research and data investments also included in the bill–further ensures that the investments required by the legislation are money well spent.
Read the bill overview from Senator Bennet here.
Send a letter to your federal elected officials urging them to support the Eviction Crisis Act here.
Article Written by Samuel Adams, Summer Associate, Opportunity Starts at Home