The COVID-19 pandemic continues to adversely and disproportionately affect Black peoples’ financial well-being and health. Federal, state, and local eviction moratoriums can help mitigate racial disparities by supporting Black renters and other tenants of color. But landlords may not always comply with eviction moratoriums or may issue more informal threats of eviction—and renters are often unaware of their legal protections. In the District of Columbia, estimates suggest that around half of Black renters facing financial hardship believe they will be evicted despite the city’s relatively strong eviction moratorium. We explored why perceptions of eviction threat are commonly held by Black renters and other renters of color in Washington, DC, and how the local eviction moratorium has affected their perceptions of housing security. We recommend that local policymakers implement new methods to reach insular communities, extend financial assistance, and expand mediation services, all through a trauma-informed lens.
To understand tenants’ perceptions, we conducted interviews with four DC-area organizations working in tenant advocacy: Bread for the City, Housing Counseling Services, the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, and the Office of the Tenant Advocate. Most of the organizations’ clients were Black and other tenants of color. We supplemented our interviews with sources from the literature.
Informal Eviction Threats Allow Landlords to Circumvent Formal Protections
Nationally and in DC, landlords sometimes respond to renters’ late payments by threatening, but not following through with, eviction proceedings. Some landlords take extreme steps to collect as much rent from their tenants as possible and to avoid vacancies. Interviewees shared stories of landlords using illegal methods of eviction, including harassment or locking people out of their homes. And landlords sometimes stoke fear and confusion and contribute to tenants’ disbelief or distrust in their protections under the moratorium.
Tenants Do Not Trust Legal Protections or the Litigation Process
Many tenants who seek support from our interviewees do not trust the moratorium to protect them from eviction, nor do they trust the court system to uphold their rights. This undercurrent of distrust may be partially related to difficulties accessing clear information about the protections but extend to a broader distrust of the litigation process. The advocates with whom we spoke are also concerned about the lasting impact of DC’s court practices in eviction cases.
Tenants Face Impediments to Accessing Information and Assistance
According to several of our interviewees, many tenants are generally aware of the eviction moratorium, but they are not always knowledgeable about the specific protections. Interviewees repeatedly noted that a lack of internet access likely explains many tenants’ unfamiliarity with the details of the moratorium. Public messaging about the moratorium also might not reach renters who do not speak English. Additionally, tenant advocacy organizations were not always easy to access or equipped to respond to the high volume of demand during the pandemic.
The following recommendations can help local leaders and advocates protect tenants facing the threat of eviction.
- Launch a campaign that helps tenants devise a plan for catching up on rent and securing advocacy resources when they cannot. A campaign of priming messages can give renters behind on rent actionable information to mitigate their financial shortfall and avert an eviction.
- Extend long-term support for financial and rental assistance programs that help renters get back on their feet. As protections for renters end, emergency rental assistance funds will be vital for keeping tenants in their homes.
- Expand programs that require landlords and tenants to meet with a mediator. Requiring a mediation session before hearing an eviction case could avert some eviction filings and shrink court dockets.
- Support comprehensive eviction diversion programs to address the constellation of challenges that tenants face. Policymakers should consider integrating other support mechanisms into eviction diversion programs, including tenants’ automatic enrollment in support programs.
- Use approaches that are not technology-based to promote awareness of resources for eviction mitigation. Policymakers should also find alternative ways to share information about eviction resources, such as disseminating messages to cultural centers and tenants’ association meetings.
- Incorporate trauma-informed protections that address the emotional and social impact of the eviction. Trauma-informed protections, such as using case managers to guide tenants through the evictions process, can help mitigate the emotional, social, and health crisis for tenants facing the eviction process.