DC Needs Smarter Policy To Fight Evictions

05/22/2017 10:29 am ET Updated May 23, 2017
Eckington neighborhood of Washington, DC.
By Ted Eytan, Washington, DC, USA, via Wikimedia Commons
Eckington neighborhood of Washington, DC.

Ever since Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond released his highly influential book Evicted last year, growing attention has focused on the pain that eviction inflicts on the poor. Rightly so.

Eviction is associated with worsening health and material hardship, although it is not yet clear whether eviction causes these problems or if it is a symptom of bigger issues. But in either case, eviction can be a traumatic experience, especially for children facing disruption both at home and at school.

Enter Washington DC’s plan to fight eviction. A proposed program would offer legal assistance to eligible District residents facing an eviction who cannot afford a lawyer. It is thought that this would facilitate a fairer fight in eviction court. Currently, over 90 percent of landlords are represented by a lawyer compared to less than 10 percent of tenants.

Several District city council members took to the Washington Post on Thursday to voice support for the program. A major selling point was the program’s proven success in reducing evictions:

In a two-year pilot program that provided no-cost representation for District tenants facing eviction, participants were more than six times more likely to secure a favorable outcome (i.e., not being evicted) than those without representation. For a city struggling to fight serious housing challenges, that’s an outcome we desperately need.

Yes, legal assistance would reduce the risk of tenants losing eviction battles in court. It would probably even reduce the number of people threatened with eviction in the first place if landlords think they will have a legal battle on their hands.

But here’s the problem. Making it more costly and difficult to evict tenants who do not pay their rent makes it more expensive for landlords to rent out apartments. That could end up increasing the cost of housing in a city where escalating rents are already straining the budgets of low income families.

But an even more insidious consequence is possible. Landlords could decide that it’s no longer worth renting out apartments to people they believe are at risk of missing rent payments. Spotty employment histories, criminal records, and past evictions could be red flags that disqualify people from housing altogether.

In other words, this well-intentioned program could end up driving out the poorest people from the nation’s capital. The troubling thing about this effect is that it probably wouldn’t register politically.

Consider what happens if poor families simply move out of the District, or if poor families from outside the city can’t move in. If they are replaced by higher income individuals and families, that could increase the tax base and reduce city expenses for social services. All the while evictions would fall even further and the program would likely be deemed a success. Some people may temporarily end up in homeless shelters but in the long run they may leave the city as well.

The solution is not to pretend that evictions are painless or that they are always fair. Evictions cause real people to lose their homes. Landlords do not always play by the rules. But an entitlement to legal assistance in eviction cases threatens the basic ideal that the city should provide opportunity to everyone.

A better solution would be to prevent the need for evictions in the first place. Instead of using city resources to pay for legal fees, funds could be used for emergency assistance for families facing tough times who need a little extra money to pay the rent on time.

This kind of program has been proven to work. High quality studies in both Chicago and New York City have shown that modest payments to families at their time of need lead to major reductions in homelessness.

The advantage of prevention programs over legal assistance is that they don’t increase the cost to landlords of renting to risky tenants. They also provide funds directly to the people we want to help.

Of course, prevention does not solve the problem of landlords who blatantly violate the terms of contracts. But targeted help in these cases would be a better solution than legal assistance for all. Indeed, nonprofit organizations in the city already do some of this work.

Ultimately, moving toward a right to legal assistance for eviction proceedings is a risky proposition. In the short term, evictions would likely be prevented and stability would be preserved for some. But in the long run, this program risks cordoning off the nation’s capital from existing and new low income residents.

Elected officials should consider the potential costs of their actions along with their benefits, even when those costs fall in part on people who don’t yet live in their jurisdiction. In our nation’s capital, we must seek to create a city with opportunity for all.

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