Keeping People in Their Homes: Best Practices for Eviction Moratoria and Emergency Rental Assistance
by Fay Walker
A publication of the Local Data for Equitable Recovery Resource Hub
According to the Institute for Urban Policy Research (IUPR) and the Texas Tenants’ Union (TTU), from 2019 to 2020, Dallas saw a more than 50 percent drop in eviction filings. Their report, A Review of Eviction Protections in Dallas, Texas, released in May, examined the relationship between local, state, and federal eviction prevention programs and eviction patterns in Dallas to better understand how eviction prevention programs can better keep people in their homes, in Dallas and across the country.
Overall eviction trends in Dallas County
The IUPR and TTU analyzed daily trends in eviction filings in the Dallas County Justice of the Peace Courts, coupled with systemic case file review of 190 cases from November 2020, and qualitative interviews with nonprofit service providers. They found that across Dallas County from 2019 to 2020, some municipalities saw decreases in eviction filings of up to 100 percent, with a decrease of 56 percent countywide.
How did different interventions affect evictions?
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act eviction moratorium went into effect in late March 2020 and lasted through late July 2020. The moratorium applied to tenants in properties receiving federally backed financing or participating in federal assistance programs and meant that tenants with missed rent payments could not be charged fees or penalties during the period. This moratorium covered an estimated 28–46 percent of all occupied rental units nationally. In addition, the Dallas County Justices of the Peace and the Texas Supreme Court issued moratoria covering nonpayment of rent eviction cases in March for two months, with some justices of the peace in the county extending the moratoria into summer 2020.
In addition to the moratoria, the City of Dallas passed an ordinance that took effect in April 2020 and requires that before any landlord sends a tenant a notice to vacate, they must first send a COVID-19 notice of possible eviction and request a response within 21 days with proof that the tenant is unable to pay rent because of a pandemic-related impact. The landlord in turn must provide repayment options. Tenants and landlords then have 60 days to work out a payment plan, apply for rental assistance, or make other plans.
In September 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a new eviction moratorium. The CDC moratorium was unevenly enforced across Texas and was fully halted by the Supreme Court in August 2021. However, even after the CDC moratorium ended, so long as there is a state of emergency due to COVID-19 in Texas, the Dallas Ordinance remains in effect.
Dallas saw its steepest drop in eviction filings in March 2020 at the onset of the pandemic and the CARES Act moratorium and state and local moratoria. Following the end of the CARES Act moratorium in July 2020, Dallas saw a steady increase in eviction filings. Under the CDC moratorium, evictions steadily increased, though the number of eviction filings never came close to pre-pandemic levels. In February 2021, there was another steep drop in filings, likely attributable to Texas’s Winter Storm Uri. The relationship between these distinct moratoria and diversion efforts and evictions filings in Dallas County is complex. It is impossible to attribute evictions dropping solely to one intervention or another. It is fair to say that over time, these strategies did lead to more people remaining in their homes during the pandemic.
How can other eviction prevention and diversion programs keep people in their homes?
As of September 2021, more than half of the $2 billion in federal emergency rental assistance to Texas was unused, despite nearly half a million renters being behind on rent. The experience in Dallas provides key takeaways for other eviction prevention and diversion programs:
1. Simplify application requirements and support tenants in applying: Create standardized and streamlined application systems for fund distribution, no matter the grant recipient intermediary or the funding source, and allow for eligibility self-attestation. In many cities, including Dallas, local housing advocates played a key role in ensuring tenants knew about assistance by distributing flyers, posting on social media, hosting pop-up events to help tenants with navigation, and advocating for phone application processes, and the eventual creation of service navigators in eviction courts helped tenants and landlords with rental assistance applications. These processes and supports ensured those eligible could easily apply for funds and limited the amount of onerous paperwork.
2. Provide clear policy guidance for courts: The Texas Justice Court Training Center at Texas State University, which provides training for justices of the peace, found a variety of interpretations of the CDC moratorium, ranging from the position that the CDC moratorium was binding and precluded eviction filings to the belief that it was unconstitutional to the belief that it was only valid because of Texas’s state of emergency declaration. Though the eviction moratoria were intended to provide more housing security and ensure that people were not forced out of their homes, they also led to confusion. There was little legal guidance provided to those working in the courts on how to manage the moratoria.
3. Require landlords to opt-in for assistance before filing evictions: Assistance-based programs provide landlords with a guarantee of some income and incentivize participation in eviction prevention programs in a way that moratoriums do not. One challenge with the Dallas ordinance was landlords’ unwillingness to participate, and, as a result, hardship documentation provided by tenants was often rejected by landlords. Philadelphia’s rental assistance program, which requires landlords to apply for assistance before filing for an eviction, has been hailed as a national model and has been effective in allocating federal funds to vulnerable tenants.
High housing costs, coupled with the economic impacts of the pandemic, have left millions of people across the country in unstable housing situations. Federal, state, and local eviction prevention programs provided families with some avenues for them to stay in their homes. However, even some of the most effective eviction prevention programs often had confusing applications, diverging legal interpretations, and requirements for landlord compliance. As housing advocates look to the future of rental assistance, Dallas’s experience can provide insight on adapting programs to keep families in their homes.
We thank the Texas Tenants’ Union for their contributions to this blog post. They are one of the grantees of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Using Data to Inform Local Decisions on COVID-19 Response & Recovery program.