Class Blog Design Research

People’s experiences with eviction prevention

From a team in the Justice By Design: Eviction Class, 2022.

I: Overview of Activities 

  1. Our policy lab interviewed sixteen tenants, navigators, and landlords across the country, learning from their experiences and hearing their ideas. We asked general questions about their experiences with eviction, their experiences with seeking out help, and their ideas for change.
  2. We synthesized interviews by creating personas, user journeys, and visual representations of salient moments gleaned from the interviews. 
  3. Finally, we shared common findings to capture pervasive issues and suggest potential reforms.

II: Problems identified based off interviews with tenants

Informal evictions

Many tenants described falling behind on rent and feeling that they had to move out, even before they had been served with any formal eviction documents. Landlords often don’t follow proper notice procedures for eviction, telling their tenants to pay what they owe or start planning to move out. Considering a pervasive fear of the legal system, as discussed below, it is difficult to imagine tenants being empowered to hold their landlords accountable for breaking the law.

Especially for tenants behind on rent, many lack a feeling of agency to look for resources. They assume that because they are behind on rent, they will not have any recourse to resist displacement. 

The fact that many evictions occur informally presents unique challenges for policy implementation. Eviction reforms centered around courts are common, but legal and court reforms will not affect the experiences of those evicted extralegally. These experiences highlight the need for empowering interventions that occur before the eviction experience; tenants need to know of their rights and resources before a housing scare occurs. Any intervention that does not reach clients pre-eviction may be too late. 

Tenant Story: John 
John was informally evicted from his home in San Francisco. Due to local tenant protections, John very likely could have received legal aid—if he knew where to look. But John was evicted informally; he was told to vacate by his landlord, without being provided any proper legal notice. 
John was recovering from injuries he sustained during an accident, so he did not feel that he had the ability to look for any financial or legal resources. Unable to make up the rent he owed, John and his family had to move out. They were able to live temporarily with friends and family until they found a new place to live.
John’s story is a prime example of how even when robust legal or financial resources exist, these resources provide no recourse to informally evicted tenants who lack awareness of their options. Ensuring that tenants are informed of their rights and resources before crisis occurs is critical.

Complex eviction notices

Receiving a Notice to Quit or an eviction summons could be a potential point of intervention; these notices ideally would tell tenants: (1) why they are receiving the notice; (2) how they can respond to the notice; and (3) resources they can seek if they need assistance.

Formal eviction notices are far from this ideal. To most tenants, they appear to be warnings that they need to leave, rather than indicators that they have options as part of an ongoing process.

Notices tend to be written in confusing English, and are often not served in foreign languages. Some states have attempted to simplify eviction notices. In Massachusetts, for example, an eviction summons gives the tenant a court date. Getting to court can be difficult, but being given a date and location seems easier to comply with than the requirement of making an official legal filing. Greater Boston Legal Services has a free online service that prompts tenants with questions to answer in plain English, then creates a form that tenants can use in Housing Court to help them defend themselves. Instead of forcing people to file an official Answer, giving tenants the option to fill out an online form where they can explain their situation could be much more tenant-friendly.

We also learned that the landlord-tenant relationship is becoming increasingly bureaucratized. Many tenants live not under mom-and-pop landlords, but rather under large, impersonal property management companies. These companies can churn out Notices to Quit summarily after tenants fall behind on rent—even if they fall behind for just a few days. Tenants feel slighted by this impersonal process; they are asked to vacate without anyone checking in on them or trying to work things out informally.

Property management companies provide an interesting wrinkle in how we think about policy implementation. Because their systems are bureaucratized (and may be less personally antagonistic toward non-paying tenants), it may be simpler for them to implement positive changes—like attaching an NAACP Navigator flier whenever they serve a Notice to Quit.

Tenant Story: Linda 
Linda works as a case manager for people affected by COVID, and her work includes assisting people through eviction scares. She is completely knowledgeable of all the resources available to tenants in her home state of Colorado. Because she lives under an impersonal property management company, she received a Notice to Quit after falling behind on rent for three days. 
Having lived in her home for some time without any issues, Linda was shocked and offended that the company would try to kick her out after being behind for just three days. And even though she knows the law, she reported that her ability to comprehend her rights was compromised when she received her notice—she started to second-guess her own knowledge. 
Linda acknowledges that if she did not have her specialized background knowledge, the notice would likely have prompted her to leave.

Fear of court and court inaccessibility

Most tenants we interviewed never really pictured their eviction scare as a legal issue. For most who sought recourse, their emphasis was on finding enough money to pay. Some tenants expressed uncertainty about what, if any, legal resources were available to them. Certain tenants expressed that they did not qualify for legal aid, yet they could not independently afford legal assistance. 

Beyond the problem of access to legal advice, many tenants expressed broad skepticism about court. There is a shared understanding that court is a protracted, exhausting endeavor. Having to balance that experience with a family, a job, and other obligations is challenging, and sometimes impossible. For some, going to court does not feel worth the risk of losing time for their other commitments, potentially having the black mark of a formal eviction on their record, exposing their children to a courthouse, or going against their landlord—who they identify as having more power within the system. 

Any interventions that focus on the legal process of eviction must consider the fact that many tenants are evicted informally, and that even tenants with the opportunity to go to court choose to avoid the process of legal resistance. If interventions are designed to make court more tenant-friendly and more feasible to navigate, these changes need to be communicated to tenants to change a widespread negative perception of the legal system.

Tenant Story: Linda 
As discussed above, Linda works with people being evicted, so she is very aware of tenant resources and legal rights. When she faced her own eviction scare, however, she did not see the court as a viable option, and she instead opted for finding financial assistance. Certainly, going to court could yield a positive result, but the prospect of being formally evicted and having that on her permanent record was too risky. The fact that even someone as knowledgeable as Linda was scared of the courts is highly telling. 

Fear of “fighting,” desire for help

Related to the fear of court, tenants generally had overall apprehension at the thought of “fighting for their rights” or resisting. Due to the high stress of eviction, as well as the numerous obligations many tenants have to balance, the notion of resisting doesn’t always seem feasible or attractive. Most tenants focused not on resisting, but rather on getting some assistance and moving on with their lives.

Many eviction prevention policies place a heavy emphasis on lawyering, and encouraging tenants to resist through the various legal defenses they can raise. But to better meet tenants’ needs and desires, non-legal help (like the Navigators) may be a preferable intervention. Several tenants sought out rental assistance, but not legal assistance, suggesting that tenants may disfavor interventions that are seen as overly combative. There was also a widespread consensus that rental assistance was more accessible than legal services. Because legal interventions seem to be disfavored, policy that focuses on strengthening the legal backbone of eviction defense may fail to affect tenants who are simply seeking to move on as soon as possible and reach a place of stability. A good area for further inquiry would be asking tenants how they feel about lawyers generally as a resource. Would they be comfortable reaching out to a lawyer, or do they feel more comfortable reaching out to non-lawyer advocates?

One organization that focuses on prevention, rather than resistance, is HomeStart in Boston. HomeStart’s first line of defense in eviction prevention is a rental assistance payment program that seeks to help tenants halt the eviction process and pay back rent. HomeStart also has non-lawyer advocates who accompany clients to Housing Court, where they assist in negotiating feasible payment plans with landlords. HomeStart’s focus on holistic services and stability, rather than legal defense, may feel more accessible and comforting to tenants. 

Tenant Story: Ken 
Ken fell behind on rent and was served with an eviction notice after failing to resolve the issue informally with his landlord. Ken decided not to seek out legal aid or resist the eviction. He figured that the legal process would be too expensive. Plus, because he was behind on rent, he believed that he had no chance of asserting a legal defense. 
Ken was more comfortable reaching out to Southwest Behavioral and Health Services, where he was placed with a caseworker. Ken had a great experience seeking out holistic services. He was able to secure financial assistance to find a new home, and his caseworker also assisted him in filling out housing assistance applications. Ken now has Section 8 housing.

High stress

Several tenants communicated that they might have the ability to search for resources if the housing problems were happening to someone else, but that their ability to problem-solve was significantly clouded by their high levels of stress. Tenants have to balance family obligations, work, health, etc., and the emotional turmoil of housing insecurity means that it is often not feasible to seek out proper channels of assistance under these circumstances.

The reality of eviction is that even the most resourceful of tenants are often unable to figure out where to go to get help. Even if tenants know their rights, it may be asking too much for tenants undergoing this traumatizing process to resist. Perhaps interventions should therefore be centered around providing tenants the assistance of a third party, like a Navigator, who can take on the burden of finding resources. In other words, interventions that focus solely on empowerment and self-advocacy may fall short in these situations of heightened vulnerability.

General difficulty in securing resources

  Many tenants had frustrations with the process of attempting to secure resources. One tenant, Darlene, actually sought legal aid, but the offices she contacted were unresponsive due to overwhelming demand. Darlene became frustrated, and ultimately stopped trying to seek out legal aid when the stress of her impending eviction became overwhelming. Another tenant, Linda, was frustrated by the ERAP process. Her ERAP payment would take months to process, but she had very little time to pay the rent she owed. Linda ended up having to borrow from friends and family to stay in her home. Multiple tenants expressed a desire for an easy-to-access, uniform service for rental assistance.

A desire—but no outlet—to help

One of the most unfortunate ironies of eviction is that it is such a widely shared experience in some communities, yet the experience of being evicted is completely isolating. Many tenants who have experienced an eviction scare gain practical knowledge about best practices, but that knowledge is lost if not shared with others. 

Several tenants expressed gratitude that they were able to share their eviction stories, and were hopeful that the information they relayed would help others in similar situations. A surprising number of tenants showed an interest in becoming more formally involved in eviction prevention and attending events to share their experiences. Being evicted is a disempowering experience, and we heard tenants express that talking about their experiences was helpful. People seemed to appreciate having their voices heard, even if just for a brief interview. Eviction is a community problem, not an individual problem, so interventions should seek to integrate larger communities.

Tenant Story: Jen
Jen experienced manipulation and invasions of privacy when she had unofficial housing contracts. After being in two situations in which she was taken advantage of by landlords, she now feels empowered to speak up for others in the Vietnamese community. She knows many people are facing the same issues, and she wants to use her voice to stand up for her community.

III: Experience-Centric Solutions

Key Takeaways

Based on the conversations we had with tenants across the country, we found three key takeaways from the eviction process that are integral to any user-centered, experientially-motivated solutions: 

  1. Communication is key. For each tenant that we spoke to, communication, primarily between tenants and landlords, though also with families, employers, court employees, judges, government officials, and more, seemed to fail. The tight timelines of evictions can jam already busy communications lines, and even a day of unresponsiveness or a misunderstood court order can be the difference between a family staying in their home with their back rent paid, or living in temporary housing while struggling to find a new home. Facilitating clear communication throughout the eviction process will be key to ensuring fair, mutually beneficial outcomes.
  2. Isolation is disastrous. Almost each conversation that we conducted with evicted tenants revealed the overwhelming sense of isolation that endured throughout their eviction processes. With no one to turn to, tenants were consistently forced to adopt short-term, fight-or-flight thinking to best cope with the situation at hand. This often meant accepting unlawful evictions, or not knowing who to call to access the legal aid they were eligible for. When tenants have no support through the eviction process, they must consistently make decisions out of necessity. Supported, connected tenants, on the other hand, are much more likely to fight for their rights and reach mutually beneficial solutions.
  3. Awareness is lacking. Tenants are nearly universally lost when they receive an eviction notice or are made aware of an informal eviction process. Up to the point of eviction, they have received no education on how to manage an eviction process or their rights as a tenant. Generally, once the eviction process has begun, eviction education is almost useless—dealing with a current landlord, in addition to working to find a suitable new home, is stressful enough. Even in cities with robust tenant services and resources, like San Francisco, tenants still do not know who to reach out to when they are served with an eviction notice, and are thus not able to make use of the available services. Tenants must be informed enough to know where to turn, even if this is just knowing an urgent, non-emergency number, like 311.

Key Opportunities

Inspired by current policy solutions and pilots across the US, we used these key takeaways from tenant interviews to determine three potential opportunities for intervention in the current eviction landscape: 

Mandatory Mediation

Currently, almost all jurisdictions see eviction cases go straight to the courtroom. Tenants often choose to forgo their right to a trial out of intimidation. With mandated mediation, tenants have the opportunity to meet the landlord on a more even playing field, where mutual benefit is incentivized for both parties, in addition to offering a better opportunity to maintain the tenant-landlord relationship. Courts benefit, too, from reduced caseloads. This program has worked well during the pandemic in Philadelphia, where the city’s Eviction Diversion program has mandated that landlords go to mediation with their tenants before they are able to evict them. Philadelphia is unique, though, and many municipal and state jurisdictions face political opposition to any measures perceived to be biased toward renters or more costly than conventional courts. The program also fails to address informal evictions. While not a cure-all, and while an eviction notice mandating mediation remains frightening for many, we believe this could be an important step toward empowering both landlords and tenants to achieve an agreeable, workable solution that cuts costs and effort for all involved.

Navigator Programs

Given the discouraging prevalence of isolation during the eviction process, the potential to empower tenants to find their best solution through support and companionship is very important to experience-centric innovation in the eviction landscape. With housing navigator programs, like the NAACP pilot program in Richland County, SC, tenants at any stage of the eviction process can be connected with a community member who has been trained to understand the local eviction landscape and can educate tenants on their options and the available resources. This engages the local community on the issue of eviction, and provides both support and a know-your-rights knowledge base for tenants. Still, this comes with challenges: navigator recruitment and training, maintaining the boundary between advice and UPL, and the organizational overhead. Even when those are addressed, if tenants in need don’t know about the program, it can also be yet another helpful resource that goes unused. Nonetheless, when executed correctly, navigator programs have the potential to guide isolated and uninformed tenants to their best interest outcomes.

Renter Education and Simplified Notices

Most importantly, in our conversations with tenants, we found that eviction is nearly always an emergency. Even when renters expect recourse for nonpayment of rent, or were threatened by their landlord in the past, an eviction is always a moment of stress that no one feels prepared for. The opportunity here is obvious: What if eviction were something that every renter was prepared for? Or, what if every tenant at least knew one website to visit or number to call in case of urgent eviction needs? This is the case in Milwaukee, where the Rent For Success Program has worked hard to ensure that every tenant in the city has access to basic information and education to enable successful renting, beneficial to both tenants and landlords. While this solution may meet the most needs, and serves a clear function to better enable the earlier two, it too has challenges. How does one implement such a program? Is it mandatory for all municipal renters? Despite these questions, education is an exciting opportunity for individual municipalities to develop unique, local programs that can iterate, evolve, and grow to have tangible impacts on both landlords and tenants.