Opinion | To Prevent Evictions, End Moratoriums

Halting most evictions during the coronavirus pandemic was a necessary act of emergency medicine. Federal, state and local moratoriums allowed millions of Americans to stay in their homes when they couldn’t afford to pay rent. But that success is now at risk of unraveling.

The eviction moratoriums were always intended as stopgaps. The government’s long-term plan was to distribute billions of dollars in aid so tenants could make up missed payments.

Congress has provided $46.5 billion. But as pressure grows to end the moratoriums, state and local governments are struggling to get the money into the hands of the people who need it. California has awarded less than 10 percent of its share of federal aid. The District of Columbia has collected more than 10,000 applications and given money to 500 people. New York has yet to start its program, although officials insist they will take applications by the end of May. Unused federal funds begin to expire in September.

The problems extend beyond bureaucratic fumbling. Even in places where aid is available, some landlords have refused to accept the federal payments, while many tenants who need help have not submitted applications.

Philadelphia has found an elegant way to address these problems. The city is letting landlords pursue evictions again — but first, they must apply for federal aid on behalf of the tenant.

It’s an exit strategy others should emulate as the coronavirus is beaten back in the United States. Philadelphia’s approach, and similar measures in other areas, including Virginia, inject a necessary dose of urgency while maintaining a focus on what ought to be the clear goal: keeping people in their homes.

Philadelphia isn’t just hitting the restart button on evictions. Eviction is too easy in most cities. The law favors landlords, and tenants often lose even when the law might be on their side. Among other imbalances, landlords usually have lawyers, while tenants usually do not.

To level the playing field, Philadelphia has created a diversion program that provides counselors to negotiate agreements between tenants and landlords, as well as lawyers to help some tenants who do end up in court. Last month, the city began to require landlords to participate in the diversion program.

In most cases, the city also isn’t letting landlords put people on the street just yet. Filing for eviction is merely the start of a long process, and because of public health concerns, Philadelphia is not allowing landlords to force out tenants until at least June 30.

One flaw in the Philadelphia and Virginia models, and in the rules in some other jurisdictions with similar requirements, is that landlords are required to apply for tenant aid only if they are pursuing an eviction for failure to pay rent. It is relatively easy to skirt that requirement by citing a different cause, like maintenance issues or noise complaints. It would also be easy to fix this problem by uniformly requiring aid applications.

Limits on eviction vary across the country. The federal government has prohibited evictions from properties with government-backed mortgages through June 30. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has banned evictions through June 30 involving households that cannot pay rent because of economic hardship caused by the pandemic. Many state and local governments have imposed broader bans, some of which are scheduled to remain in place at least through summer. In New York state, the current expiration date is Aug. 31.

During the pandemic, allowing people to stay in their homes has saved lives, according to a study published in Nature Communications. As the pandemic wanes, however, so does the justification for asking landlords to bear the cost of unpaid rent.

About 47 percent of rental units are owned by individual investors. They have bills to pay, too.

The federal aid is meant to pass through tenants to their landlords. But tenants may be unaware of the aid program, or may struggle to complete the application. So long as moratoriums remain in place, landlords may need the money more urgently than their tenants do. At a hearing in the District of Columbia on Friday, landlords testified that some tenants won’t apply for aid because there are no immediate consequences for failing to pay the rent.

“The fact remains that people in general won’t do something until they absolutely have to, even if it is in their best interest,” said Richard Bianco of the Small Multifamily Owners Association.

Mr. Bianco's observation, however, also applies to landlords. Some states are preparing for a summer wave of evictions by providing tenants with legal assistance. Washington state, whose eviction moratorium is set to expire on June 30, recently became the first state to guarantee a lawyer to low-income tenants facing eviction. But such programs do not go far enough because they don’t require landlords to help.

Across the country, many tenants are trying as hard as they can to pay what they owe and stay where they are. Many landlords have behaved with admirable forbearance. For the minority of cases where good will is not enough, Philadelphia has the right idea.

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