Benefits of Eviction Diversion Programs
In this article, Melissa Hammer and Sean Martin discuss different eviction diversion programs.
Economic challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have caused an increasing number of renters to fall behind on their rent payments, which raises the potential for widespread evictions. In September 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a temporary eviction moratorium to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus and protect tenants at risk of eviction during the pandemic. Although the eviction moratorium has slowed the spread of COVID-19, it is set to expire at the end of June 2021* with the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions around the nation and the resumption of economic activity at prepandemic levels. To prevent a wave of evictions, states and cities have created eviction diversion programs and expanded existing programs intended to deter formal legal proceedings by offering landlords and tenants opportunities for negotiation and mediation. Eviction diversion programs may also include supports such as legal assistance for tenants and financial compensation to landlords for past-due rent.
Studies from Regional Housing Legal Services and the Urban Institute show that eviction diversion programs succeed when they provide comprehensive supportive services to tenants and are designed to avoid evictions. Best practices include building partnerships with landlords, courts, and social service agencies; offering comprehensive services that include rental assistance, mediation, social services, and legal assistance; and focusing on equity in program design and outreach.
Colorado’s statewide COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project is a comprehensive program in which courts and community organizations collaborate to connect tenants at risk of eviction with legal counsel; the program also gives participants access to a rental assistance fund. It includes prefiling support through an online portal that allows users to execute settlement agreements, reinstate leases, and make payments and postfiling support through legal intake services and mediation opportunities. The Pinellas Eviction Diversion Program in Florida and Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project in Pennsylvania provide similar comprehensive services, including free legal support, mediation opportunities, and rental assistance funding.
Although comprehensive programs offer the greatest benefits, programs more limited in scope that focus on a single intervention, including those that provide only rental assistance or only legal representation to tenants, still benefit tenants, landlords, and courts more than a reliance on formal eviction proceedings would. The Texas Eviction Diversion Program is an interagency rental assistance program that pays landlords for past-due rent, allows tenants to stay in their homes, and dismisses the diverted cases from the courts. A 2017 Eviction Diversion Program Pilot in Michigan offered tenants free legal services in eviction proceedings, which reduced default and formal eviction rates. In a similar initiative, California’s Shriver Housing Pilot Project, 56 percent of tenants facing eviction who participated in the program received full legal representation and 44 percent received more limited legal assistance, such as brief advice or help with preparing forms. Among the program participants receiving full legal representation, 66 percent settled their cases, and only 4 percent went to trial.
Successful eviction diversion programs benefit tenants, landlords, and courts. Tenants can remain in their homes, ensuring their housing security and reducing potential stress on the social safety net that displacement might cause. For example, a Philadelphia Bar Association report found that for every dollar Philadelphia invested in legal representation to prevent eviction, nearly $13 would be saved in costs to city services. These programs benefit landlords who receive payment for past-due rent while avoiding costs associated with eviction proceedings and finding new tenants. Also, programs lead to more balanced power dynamics between landlords as repeat players in eviction proceedings and tenants who are likely to be less experienced with them. Eviction diversion programs can make the process more equitable and foster greater trust in the legal system.
When landlords and tenants use eviction diversion programs to reach agreements outside of the formal adjudication process, court dockets lighten and judges adjudicate more legally weighty cases. When tenants have legal representation, cases are less likely to go to trial and more likely to be settled out of court, landlords bring fewer nonmeritorious cases, and hearings run more smoothly. Comprehensive eviction diversion programs maximize these benefits to tenants, landlords, and courts, although even single-intervention programs can protect all involved parties, improve courthouse efficiency, and help prevent pandemic-era evictions.
*Note: This article was posted on June 21, 2021. On June 24, 2021, the CDC extended the eviction moratorium through July 31, 2021.
See also The High Cost of Eviction: Struggling to Contain a Growing Social Problem, 41 Mitchell Hamline L.J. Pub. Pol'y & Prac. 167 at 192, https://open.mitchellhamline.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1036&context= policypractice ×
A NCSC report found that in 2015 19 percent of civil court cases were between landlords and tenants. For more information, see Lieberman, H.E.M. and Hannaford-Agor P (2016). Trends in State Courts: Special Focus on Family Law and Court Communications. National Center for State Courts. Retrieved from: https://www.ncsc.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0027/25578/meeting-the-challenges.pdf ×
See also Volunteer Lawyer for a Day Project Report: A Test of Unbundled Legal Services in the New York City Housing Court, https://www.nycourts.gov/courts/nyc/housing/pdfs/vlfdreport_0208.pdf ×