American renters need a lot more help to keep a roof over their heads

An eviction in February 2, 2009 in Adams County, Colorado. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

As staffers at the Chicago Department of Housing watched the job loss numbers roll in this March, they realized that many thousands of their fellow residents were going to need some serious help paying rent. 

Almost 20% of America’s third largest city already lived in poverty before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, and most of them received no assistance with housing costs. 

“We were just like, oh, that means when this eviction moratorium is over there's just going to be like tens or hundreds of thousands of people behind on their rent,” says Paul Williams, a policy analyst with Chicago’s Department of Housing. “They’re just going to get evicted. So, the idea was how do we mitigate as much of that as possible? How can we get money out the doors as fast as possible?”

Williams and his colleagues managed to get $2 million together from the city’s affordable housing opportunity fund and teamed up with the Family Independence Initiative, an organisation that helps orchestrate basic income pilot programmes. The nonprofit already had the financial software necessary to move the funds quickly to those who had lost work, and faced an uncertain future in their homes. 

Using the nonprofit’s existing software, Chicago policymakers organised a plan that gives money directly to tenants. The funds can be used for anything: If rent has already been paid, tenants can spend it on food or utilities. 

But the number of city residents who required housing aid massively outpaced the resources available at the municipal level. In the first week, 83,000 applications rolled in. The programme only had sufficient funding to reach 2,000 households.

There are no doubt tens of thousands of additional residents who could have applied beyond that already staggering number. 

 “Obviously, there are plenty of people who didn't hear about the programme and weren't able to apply,” Williams says. “But of those who did hear, the demonstration of need was still huge.”

Chicago is not alone in trying to fill the yawning gap for rental assistance in the midst of the pandemic. Eviction bans are still in place throughout much of the country, although a handful of states have begun to end them. Tenant groups fear that when they phase out, millions of Americans will lose their homes in the absence of government aid. 

But at the federal level, efforts to move housing relief bills through the US Congress have so far been stymied by the Republican Senate. One of President Donald Trump’s economic advisors even questioned the idea of further stimulus efforts, while conservative senators fear that doing more for those in need could promote indolence. 

That leaves cities like Chicago stuck with a bill they cannot possibly afford to pay in full. 

In Dallas, $13.7 million was spent for rent, mortgage and utility relief and demand was so overwhelming that the programme reached its limit within a week of launching. In Minneapolis, an emergency rental assistance policy could only cover a seventh of those who applied before the deadline was up. In Philadelphia, which budgeted for 4,000 recipients, the fund hit its limit in a matter of days after 13,000 applications poured in. If everyone who was actually eligible for these funds had known of their existence, those numbers would be even starker. 

“The amount of money is serious money from the standpoint of a city trying to cobble together a programme, but puny from the standpoint of the need,” says Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress. “All the [rent aid programmes] I've seen are incredibly oversubscribed. Cities like Philadelphia and Chicago are trying to come up with these interim steps. That's really important, but it's only going to help a little bit.”

Even before this crisis the United States did not provide much assistance for renters. Unlike food aid or medical assistance, which have budgets that can expand to meet the number of people who are eligible, the Housing Choice Voucher programme that helps with rental costs is capped. Only about a fifth of Americans who are eligible for help with their housing actually receive any subsidy from the federal government. 

Now the country is confronting something far beyond the usual tragedies of the American housing market. The scope of disaster facing countless families is even greater than what occurred during the Great Recession, which is why cities are stepping up as they haven’t before. 

“The amount of people who are in need of rent assistance and the amount of money that is being diverted and placed into these programmes is at a much higher level than it had been before this,” says Samantha Batko, research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute. “All of this is unprecedented. The magnitude of what we're looking at now is so much larger than it was during the recession.”

In the face of inaction by the federal government, states and cities, like Chicago, are trying to step up and fill the void. Despite the inadequacy of city budgets to meet this moment, this effort marks a serious departure. Before the pandemic, few cities had any form of assistance for renters (unless they were already homeless). Chicago stood out for providing a municipal voucher programme, while Philadelphia only announced such a policy at the beginning of 2020, before the pandemic struck. 

These new efforts are profoundly limited by their budgets, which even in the best of times cannot stretch to cover the great majority of low-income residents. Now as municipalities face a hideous season of austerity, thanks to plummeting local revenues and spiking service costs, their abilities will be hampered even further. (Assistance for states and localities is also held up in Congress, where Republicans have been hesitant to offer help.)

 “Given the way that they're hemorrhaging money, the amount of money that cities and even states can come up with is by definition going to be far too little to address this issue,” says Mallach. 

In Chicago, meanwhile, the Department of Housing has been able to scrounge up more money for its flexible rent assistance programme. In June, the mayor and the Board of Alders – Chicago’s version of City Council – agreed to allocate another $20 million in funding, bolstered by federal dollars this time. The size of the grants will be increased beyond the original $1,000 to cope with the extended number of months that many people will not have been able to pay their rent. The goal this time is to reach at least another 7,000 families.

Tens of thousands more will probably still be left out.  

“If we don't do more, then we run the risk of having either massive evictions or landlords unable to pay their bills and mass property tax foreclosure,” says Mallach. “The whole vicious cycle. If it's going to be solved, it's going to require a federal solution.”

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.