Lessons of the pandemic: What Pa. can do to reduce future evictions | Opinion

By providing financial help, rental relief programs also reduced food insecurity and mental stress for families

A Pittsburgh resident facing eviction holds up a sign during a rally organized by the Pittsburgh chapter of the United Neighborhood Defense Movement in February 2021 (Image via Pittsburgh City Paper).

By Kehinde Akande

Eviction creates crises for families and individuals. Before the pandemic, most families in need of rental assistance did not receive it. But, during the pandemic, renters got a short reprieve from the possibility of eviction, and short-term emergency rental assistance (ERAP) and, in Philadelphia, eviction diversion programs were put into place to keep people in their homes and safe.

By providing financial help, these programs also reduced food insecurity and mental stress for families.

While many policy analysts feared that the pandemic would lead to an eviction tsunami after the eviction moratorium was lifted, thanks to aggressive but not overly costly programs, those fears were not fully realized. 

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These programs showed how relatively low-cost interventions created stability and safety for families that could have positive effects for them, their communities, and our economy. Pennsylvania should build on these policy innovations to reduce evictions in the future, offering support to families in need and threatened by eviction on a permanent basis. 

From January of 2020 through May of 2022 about 156,155 evictions were filed in the courts in Pennsylvania, placing families in imminent threat of displacement from their homes, jeopardizing their sense of safety and security. Unemployment created by the pandemic made it impossible for many families to pay their rent. During the duration of the moratoria eviction filings were noticeably reduced in the state.

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Eviction moratoria, while not reducing evictions completely, helped provide an opportunity for measures, resources and services which have helped many families remain in their homes.

The graphic above also shows that since the end of the eviction moratoria, evictions have risen but only gradually. One reason evictions have been suppressed is that the emergency rental assistance program ERAP had provided some assistance to roughly 148,847 families in need as of June 2022.

And in Philadelphia an effective eviction diversion program delayed and prevented many evictions. As we have pointed out elsewhere, the ERAP program could have been even more effective if the funds had been distributed to counties on the basis of need rather than on a per-capita basis.

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While the ERAP and eviction diversion programs were instituted to address the crisis created by the pandemic, housing affordability remains a very serious issue in the state. As the costs of buying a home increase, the share of renters has grown over time.

At the same time rents have increased, the rising cost of groceries, gas, and the daily necessities make it more difficult for families to afford housing.

Housing is an especially serious problem for families earning low incomes. Many families who were cost-burdened before the pandemic, already allocated 30% or more of their household income towards rent, and now they face rising costs and are very likely without financial cushions. 

In the short-term, the state should:

  • Pursue solutions via the legal system, including implementation of eviction diversion programs and educating all president judges about COVID-19’s widespread impact on vulnerable renters and available resources. 
  • Improve outreach by helping families and individuals fill out applications and by attaching Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) applications to hearing notices; ensure that all programs are available to all applicants, regardless of immigration status, and ensure that state housing laws ban data-sharing with immigration agencies. 
  • Improve the design and implementation of ERA programs, including use of a more equitable funding formula, reducing administrative barriers, and promoting data transparency.  
  • Request reallocation of unused American Rescue Plan funds for shorted counties and cities to supplement ERA funds and fill in eligibility gaps.  

In the longer term, the state should:

  • Fund a universal “Right to [Legal] Counsel” (RTC) program for renters at risk of eviction. ​
  • Harness the power of data collection and visualization to forecast and track eviction hotspots for mitigation
  • Pursue legislative solutions to end evictions without “good cause” and sealing eviction records to protect tenants from being refused future housing.  
  • Fund a long-term Emergency Rental Assistance program.  
  • Make more funds available for increased affordable housing development. 

Our report, “Housing Affordability in Pennsylvania In and After the COVID-19 Pandemic: Evictions and Recommendations to Help Families,” ​showed that the state could build on the pandemic experience to adopt policies that (1) mitigate evictions due to their disruptive nature for renters, families, and our communities​ and (2) provide a permanent rental assistance program in the state of Pennsylvania.

Kehinde Akande is a policy fellow with the Pennsylvania Budget & Policy Center, a progressive think-tank in Harrisburg.

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.