What are the most promising interventions and policies to improve the system of evictions in the US?
What is the current policy and services landscape for eviction innovation: of ideas and programs that intend to improve how the eviction system functions, to be fairer, less harmful, and more navigable?
Rent Cap Law, or Capping the Raising of Rent
This law would limit how much rent a landlord can charge for a property.
Or a law capping the raising of rent would set limits on a landlord’s behavior while they are renting. This could limit the time frame in which a landlord might raise the rent (only one rent increase per 12 months), or the amount that the landlord can raise the rent (only 3.5%, for example).
Cap on Security Deposit Amount
This law would set how much a landlord can ask from a tenant for a security deposit. For example, this could be a limit to maximum 1 month’s rent as security deposit. This would prevent high security deposits (2x or 3x rent) that are prohibitive for many renters, and also are hard to get returned.
Streamlined return of the Security Deposit
This law would increase tenants’ ability to get their security deposit returned. It would address issues many tenants have in getting their deposit back, or having to dispute charges that the landlord makes without sufficient evidence or rationale.
Just Cause Eviction ordinance
This law would limit when landlords can an evict a tenant. They must have a ‘just cause’ to file for an eviction. A just cause may include that the tenant failed to pay rent, or because the rental unit needs major repairs. A Just Cause Eviction Ordinance has been adopted in several cities, including Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston.
Pay to Stay ordinance
This law would force a landlord to withdraw an eviction filing (or not proceed with it), if the tenant can pay what they owe to the landlord.
Emergency Funds from the city
A local government could have a grant program, to provide one-time financial support to tenants who are at risk of eviction because of non-payment of rent. A city could allocate this grant program from its general funds, to allow people or families to get financial assistance to deal with a crisis that threatens their ability to afford their rent one time.
Emergency funds from non-profits
A similar grant-making program could come from private groups, including those funded by apartment associations or other industry groups that are interested in keeping people in homes. This could be before an eviction notice has been issued, after the notice but before the lawsuit, or after the lawsuit has been filed. This could be like the Destination Home project in Silicon Valley, that distributes funds in the Bay Area through local community services agencies.
Eviction Diversion program
Funds for coverage of missed rental payments (from government or non-profits) could be distributed after an eviction lawsuit is filed. Distribution might happen at court or through court, that refers a person to the funds. In addition to funds, the person may be connected with a case worker who can help them navigate social services and housing resources to prevent homelessness. There are pilots running in Michigan, Chicago, and elsewhere.
Right to Counsel ordinance
A local government could grant all people facing eviction the right to an attorney at no charge, to represent them at the hearing and help them navigate the lawsuit. The cost of the attorneys could be paid for from a city’s general funds. It would go to increase the capacity and service coverage of legal aid providers, who do housing law/landlord-tenant/eviction work. It would also allow these legal aid providers to represent all people who need help, regardless of the typical service limitations of lack of funding, people’s financial status, or their demographic or geographic details. Right to Counsel ordinances have been passed in New York and San Francisco.
There is a national coalition, the Right to Counsel Network, that works on this program across the US.
Lawyer for A Day program
Volunteer lawyers or law students come to Housing Court to offer assistance to tenants and landlords who do not have representation. This can include at an Advice and Info Table, or accompanying parties to mediation sessions, or providing full representation at an eviction trial. This takes place in Boston Housing Court, among other locations.
Housing Court navigators
This takes place in New York housing courts, as of February 2014. Volunteers support and assist unrepresented litigants in landlord-tenant and consumer debt cases. They are trained and supervised by lawyers, though they are not lawyers themselves. They provide general information, written materials, and personal assistance to litigants without an attorney. In 2016, the program was evaluated by Professor Rebecca L. Sandefur and Thomas Clarke, and found that they provided meaningful assistance to litigants.
Mediation and Settlement services
Like in the Bay Area, California, programs like Project Sentinel provide in-court services to help tenants and landlords work out their dispute to come to a settlement that can serve both of their interests.
Digital App to Manage Case and Help
JustFix NYC has developed a mobile-friendly web application that can help a tenant at risk of an eviction to document problems with their housing, send official notice to their landlord, and present evidence of these problems to the court. They also allow people to connect with groups who can offer them legal and social services.
Community Advocates and Paralegals
Borrowing from other jurisdictions, there is the possibility to develop a program of community paralegals (who are not fully licensed lawyers, but are trained in giving legal procedural guidance and rights awareness) that can serve tenants and landlords dealing with eviction. The Namati program, for example, has developed large programs of community paralegals and grassroots legal advocates.
Landlord training and mediation support
These would train landlords in how to deal with problems that arise with tenants in ways that are less damaging than filing for evictions.
Measuring Problems with Housing
These are like whether your heating level is falling above or below acceptable levels — like Heat Seek in NYC that provides sensors and measures to determine if a home’s temperature level is out of line with NYC Heath Law.
Systematic Data about properties and landlords
These can show where there is risk of harassment, displacement, speculation, and other possible problems for tenants who need affordable housing. In NYC, the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development has the Displacement Alert Project. JustFix in NYC has Who Owns What in NYC that lists out landlords and what they own.
Support in Pre-Eviction Communication
Tools like Hello Landlord assist people in communicating issues with their property or relationship to the landlord, in a way that hopefully can resolve budding conflicts before they turn into more serious issues. Communication tools like this can also establish documentation of problems that can be useful in later claims or defenses, if the problem does go to court.
Self help solutions propose that through digital or paper guidance would help people get clear on what the eviction lawsuit entails, what their possible responses are, how to gather evidence, and how to respond to the suit. Examples of digital guides to respond to an eviction notice include Eviction Free NYC!, Arizona Eviction Self-Help Guide, MADE Self-Guided Eviction Help in Massachusetts, and the Rentervention bot in Chicago.
Court Document Redesign
This would make the information about the hearing, essential rights and tasks to do, and logistics of the court procedure and legal help to be more actionable and clear.
Text Message Coaching
These would send reminders, key logistical details, and handoffs to more services to people during the key time after filing and before the hearing. Wise Messenger is a Stanford Legal Design Lab project that is sending reminders and coaching messages in eviction and other court processes.
More effective notice
This would require landlords to ensure that tenants know of the possibility of an eviction lawsuit, the lawsuit itself, and how to respond and protect themselves.
Online workshops and Livechat/chatbots
These would help a person understand what is happening to them, formulate a response via an Answer filing or court appearance, and prepare for the negotiations with the other party. This could be in the form of volunteer lawyers or legal professionals who are online to do this preparation with people, or pre-set workshops or chatbots that do this automatically.
Court Hearing and Rule Design
These changes would acknowledge that most tenants are self-represented in the hearing, and would make the requirements, protocols, and interactions in the court process more accessible to them. This could involve how the judge speaks to litigants, how evidence is accepted, and how responses and negotiations occur.
Language access support
These new services and policies would be in the form of services or technology that would give people full understanding of what is happening and ability to respond and participate, no matter what their English proficiency is.
Court Space and Architecture Design
These interventions can affect how lawyers provide advice and support to clients, how tenants can negotiate with landlords, and how people can get quality work and decision-making done at the court building. See the Northeastern law/architecture/design collaboration in Boston housing court for more details: https://morethanbuildings.blogspot.com/
This law would require landlords to store a tenant’s personal property for at least 30 days after an eviction has happened.
Masking of Records
This law would keep a person’s eviction record off of public records, so that others (including credit agencies and future landlords) would not be able to see that someone was evicted. Eviction cases could be sealed at the point of filing — and only be made public if the court makes a finding against the tenant (like at the end of a trial — not a settlement — in which a court issues an order for eviction).
Restrictions on Tax Abatements
This law would limit the tax breaks that landlords could receive for a given property, if people had been evicted from that property within the past two years without ‘just cause’.
How can we understand and evaluate the eviction system?
Data we need to understand to the system
Default Rates and Failure to Appear Rates. How many people who have been sued for eviction actually participate in the court process? How many file answers or make an appearance to respond to the lawsuit formally?
On-the-Ground Outcomes of Different Court Resolutions. When a landlord files an unlawful detainer or eviction lawsuit in the court, to remove a tenant, the recorded resolution in the court proceedings does not always indicate what happens to the tenant or the housing situation. The recorded resolutions might be a Default Judgment, a Settlement, or a finding by the judge at trial. How can researchers understand, though, if a person is still in their home, if they have subsequent housing issues, or what the specific terms of settlements are?
Eviction Outcome Data that preserves Eviction Masking/Protection. What are the protocols that can be used to gather specific, rich data about the outcomes of eviction outcomes — that also preserve the privacy of individuals who have been subject to evictions? How do we not make the research data a risk to people, in which future landlords, creditors, employers, or others might use the data to look up people’s past situations and use it to possibly discriminate against the person?
Demographics of eviction and outcomes. What type of people — race, gender, family situation, neighborhoods, etc — are most likely to face an eviction action? And do different types of people have different kinds of outcomes in court and afterwards?
Legal Aid outcomes. If a person gets limited or full assistance from a legal aid agency, what is their outcome in court?Are they able to represent themselves following the recommendations given? Do they experience a sense of respect, dignity, and procedural justice? And what is their housing situation after the process is over?
Self Help outcomes. If a person gets information or consultation with self-help services in court, what is their outcome in court? Are they able to represent themselves following the recommendations given? Do they experience a sense of respect, dignity, and procedural justice? And what is their housing situation after the process is over?
Eviction to Homelessness connection. If a person goes through a formal eviction, are they using homeless services in the weeks or months afterwards? How often is an eviction action linked to homelessness and housing insecurity?
Eviction to Truancy connection. If a person goes through a formal eviction, are their children more likely to have issues with consistent school attendance, and performance in school?
What is the status quo of the eviction system?
What are the key problems, dynamics, and targets for intervention in the current eviction system?
Key resource: Princeton Eviction Lab’s map and data overview
On the Media radio show, from WNYC: The Scarlet E series on Eviction in America.
How have new interventions — like tenants’ Right to Counsel — affected this system?
NYU Furman Center (2018) ‘Implementing New York City’s Universal Access to Counsel Program: Lessons for Other Jurisdictions’, Policy Brief, (December).
NYC Right to Counsel: First year results and potential for expansion, March 2019, Community Service Society of NY.
NYC Mayor’s Office of Civil Justice and New York City Human Resources Administration (2018) Universal Access to Legal Services A Report on Year One of Implementation in New York City.
McKim, J. (2019) ‘“Someone To Speak For You”: Low-Income Tenants Get Lawyers For Housing Court’, NPR.
American Bar Foundation, National Center for State Courts, and the Public Welfare Foundation. Roles Beyond Lawyers: Evaluation of the New York City Court Navigators Program. March 2017.
Seron, C. et al. (2001) ‘The Impact of Legal Counsel on Outcomes for Poor Tenants in New York City’s Housing Court: Results of a Randomized Experiment’, Law & Society Review, 35(2), p. 419.