Cities, states and local groups are looking at diversion programs to keep millions of families from losing their homes under the financial strain of the pandemic
* 3.6 million households say they are likely to face eviction soon
* Rental aid moving slowly as federal ban expires
* Philadelphia's mandatory diversion program cited as a model
By David Sherfinski
WASHINGTON, July 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Rebecca, a 54-year-old retired nurse from Clearwater, Florida, said she was pressured to sign papers confirming she would pay extra rent - which she could not afford - to stay in her home after her landlord filed for an eviction in March.
She had left her part-time tourism job after facing harassment from customers upset over COVID-19 precautions and had fallen behind on her $1,200 monthly rent and utility bills to owe $9,200.
With the help of the Community Law Program, a local nonprofit, she eventually received rental assistance with federal coronavirus relief money, clearing her ledger and buying her time until at least October, she said over the phone.
"In the end, everything was fine," Rebecca, who asked that her last name not be used for privacy reasons, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"But I've heard from some other people down here that a lot of landlords aren't willing to wait and there have been many evictions - even with the moratorium in place."
With the federal eviction ban set to expire after Saturday, U.S. officials are experimenting with similar diversion programs to help keep millions of people from losing their homes due to the financial pain of the pandemic.
"(The expiration) opens up real fears about a mass displacement crisis and the generational poverty consequences that can ensue," said Sam Gilman, a co-founder of the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project (CEDP) in Colorado.
In Philadelphia, landlords seeking to evict for non-payment of rent must apply for rental assistance, seek mediation and then wait 45 days to file if they cannot come to an agreement with a tenant.
The Philadelphia Municipal Court ordered those new mandates as of April 1. The city had originally launched its diversion program, which required landlords to request mediation before filing for an eviction, in September 2020.
The city estimates that when landlords and tenants are both present, parties reach an agreement in more than 70% of mediations.
Successful diversions constitute a "win-win-win," said Rachel Garland, a managing attorney at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia: tenants avoid eviction, landlords avoid vacancies, and cities get to keep their neighborhoods stable.
"Disruption to business as usual is what gave us the opportunity to come up with another path," said Garland, whose organization provides free legal assistance to low-income residents.
Groups representing landlords, who have challenged the eviction bans in court, say diversion programs can throw up needless obstacles for "mom and pop" building managers who are also struggling through the pandemic.
"You should allow the landlord to file for an eviction at the same time you file for the diversion and the money," Greg Wertman, president of HAPCO Philadelphia, the city's biggest landlord association, said of the latest mandates.
At the moment, if there is no quick agreement, a tenant still has the opportunity to apply for rental assistance, he noted.
"Yet if the landlord, who is owed the money, wants to get it, he needs the tenant's acquiescence - they have to work with him," he said. "I've never heard of anything so stupid in my life."
FAST LANE, SLOW FLOW
In Colorado, Gilman and co-founder Zach Neumann launched the CEDP in April 2020 to leverage data, public records and speedy legwork from volunteers to set up "a fast lane for rental assistance" that can see a turnaround time of days, Gilman said, instead of weeks or months.
"If you get the money there the day before a court date and the landlord accepts it, you're good," he said.
"If you get the money the day after the sheriff arrives, it doesn't matter and that family is out on the street."
Congress authorized more than $46 billion in rental assistance funding as part of previous rounds of coronavirus relief in December 2020 and March 2021, but tenants' groups say it has been a struggle to get those funds into people's hands.
The Treasury Department said a total of $1.5 billion was delivered to more than 290,000 households in June – a dollar amount that was more than the total from the previous five months combined.
Still, government analysis of U.S. census data collected from June 23 to July 5 shows approximately 3.6 million adults living in households behind on rent said eviction in the next two months was somewhat or very likely.
'IT'S THERE FOR YOU'
In Texas's diversion program, courts can put eviction lawsuits on hold to try to get landlords and tenants to participate in mediation.
Using funds from the state's rent relief program, tenants can receive up to 15 months of rental and utility aid.
"I think it's important that folks not panic and that landlords aren't too quick to file for eviction," said Bobby Wilkinson, executive director of the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs.
"I still have a billion and a half (dollars) left. Come get it - it's there for you."
Wilkinson said the approximately $95 million in assistance that has gone out for the diversion program translates to about 11,000 households where an eviction due to non-payment was prevented.
He acknowledged, though, that the program stumbled out of the gate in February amid a lack of direct state assistance and software issues.
In Florida's Pinellas County, the Community Law Program (CLP), the group Rebecca worked with, helped stand up the Pinellas Eviction Diversion Program, which involves voluntary mediation between landlords and tenants.
In addition to virtual mediation proceedings, the new program uses federal coronavirus relief money to assist tenants with back rent and to try to find them other places to live if necessary.
Kimberly Rodgers, CLP's executive director, said the program helped facilitate almost 600 mediations and that nearly every single one resulted in a settlement – which also keeps tenants from having an eviction case on their records.
"Having our program in place – it alleviated a lot of the anxiety about 'Oh my God, what's going to happen when my landlord does file an eviction case?'" she said.
(Reporting by David Sherfinski, editing by Jumana Farouky. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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