The expiration two weeks ago of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s pandemic-related moratorium on evictions has caused new uncertainty for the millions of Americans who are behind on rent. And although Congress has approved nearly $47 billion in aid to assist tenants and compensate landlords – particularly small scale family operations – state and local governments are struggling to distribute the funds quickly.
As U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland ’77 recently wrote, the legal profession has an important role to play in helping to address this crisis. And Harvard Law School clinics and programs, which have long been committed to housing and eviction work, have reaffirmed in recent weeks their dedication to helping individuals and families navigate the housing system and their legal options – and to addressing the looming eviction crisis.
For those who live in public housing or who have section eight vouchers, for instance, students at the Tenant Advocacy Project at Harvard Law School, a Student Practice Organization, offer legal advice and representation before local housing authorities.
“We represent people living in public housing or with subsidized housing who are facing eviction or subsidy terminations,” says Lena Melillo ’22, its co-president. “Our advocacy is guided by the experiences, needs, and aspirations of tenants, and we are committed to amplifying the work of Boston area community organizations.”
Inside the Harvard Dispute Systems Design Clinic (HNMCP), Deanna Pantín Parrish, clinical instructor and lecturer on law, and her students have been working to identify effective interventions to the eviction crisis.
This summer, HNMCP and the American Bar Association jointly published a first of its kind report, authored by Parrish, which provides recommendations for designing and implementing effective eviction prevention and diversion programs.
“I, alongside my amazing students, surveyed court-based eviction diversion programs and court-adjacent eviction prevention efforts across the United States to understand the best practices in the field, noting, of course, that any intervention should be tailored to the community in which it sits,” says Parrish.
Parrish and her students solicited feedback from more than 320 diverse stakeholders from across the country while developing their report. They found, perhaps surprisingly, she notes, that many landlords and tenants had overlapping needs, including achieving “housing and financial stability.” Her team also found that 70% of property owners surveyed were open to settling issues of tenant non-payment or late payment outside of court, adding that that willingness may have increased during the past 18 months.
The resulting report was recently distributed by the Biden administration as a resource to policy makers from more than 50 cities participating in the White House Summit on Eviction Prevention. The report offers recommendations on interventions that can be taken before a lawsuit is filed – helping to make landlords whole while also keeping tenants housed. Per the report, these programs should employ a holistic approach to eviction diversion, including some combination of rental or cash assistance, access to legal representation, high quality mediation, and self-help resources.
“We found that not only is intervention at a pre-filing stage universally supported across stakeholder groups, it’s also doable. Diverting cases away from court and connecting people to resources provides a necessary lifeline for families facing eviction and a practical option for courts with overwhelmed dockets,” says Parrish. She adds that her clinic will soon be working with the St. Louis Mediation Project — a project of the Civil Rights, Community Justice & Mediation Clinic at Washington University in St. Louis — to apply the report’s recommendations to a more local scale in St. Louis, Missouri.
At the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB), a student-run legal services program, Esme Caramello ’99, its faculty director, says it’s positive that evictions, and their deleterious impact on many aspects of an individual’s life – mental health, employment, schooling – are finally getting the attention they deserve.
“Eviction has long been seen as something that happened to others, and not a problem that we needed to solve to call ourselves a ‘just society’,” she says, adding that she has been working on evictions issues since she was a first-year law student herself. “But COVID and the economic crisis combined to put a spotlight on evictions in a way that has long been justified but has been lacking.”
Her clinic continues working to tackle evictions from multiple angles. First, says Caramello, taking a cue from the Dispute Systems Design Clinic, her students attempt to reduce the number of cases that are handled in court by diverting them to alternative methods of resolution.
“Early on in the pandemic, Massachusetts had an eviction moratorium that divided evictions into essential versus nonessential,” she says. “Most were considered nonessential. We asked, if so many are not essential, why are we doing something that has such harmful effects on families?”
HLAB helped set up the state’s COVID-19 Eviction Diversion Initiative, which looks to find creative ways – including mediation, rental assistance, legal representation, and other resources – to prevent evictions from going to court in the first place or resolve them before trial if they do end up in court. Accessing federal and state rental assistance programs created during the pandemic is one such example. But Caramello says these resources are sometimes difficult to navigate for those with limited technology access or expertise, certain disabilities, or with limited English proficiency. HLAB members, with support from TAP advocates, have helped dozens of tenants apply for rental assistance, but they have also advocated for changes to the system to make it more accessible to tenants who lack access to legal representation.
Additionally, her clinic, which also plays a policy advocacy role, continues to push for legislation to divert housing problems out of the eviction system. Among other things, HLAB members are working alongside their community partners, including Boston grassroots group City Life Vida Urbana, to pass state legislation, called the COVID-19 Housing Equity Bill, which would pause no-fault evictions and foreclosures, protect the most vulnerable families from displacement during the pandemic, and require parties to use rental assistance programs rather than eviction court to resolve rent payment problems. HLAB has also collaborated with the WilmerHale Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School (LSC) to work directly with landlords to find ways to resolve more tenant problems before going to court.
When low-income tenants do wind up in housing court, HLAB students are also there to represent them, in conjunction with City Life Vida Urbana and the LSC. “Our goal is to create autonomy and housing stability,” says Caramello. “Research shows that eviction is not just a consequence of poverty, but a cause.”
Finally, says Caramello, HLAB is committed to ensuring that those who have gone through the eviction process are not disadvantaged in finding housing in the future. Her team has helped to draft and sponsor a Massachusetts bill called the HOMES (Housng Opportunity and Mobility through Eviction Sealing) Act to seal eviction records where a tenant has won their case or the landlord has been made whole.
“We don’t want the consequences of an eviction to follow people for life,” says Caramello. “The mere fact of an eviction filing can negatively impact a person’s life, compounding the housing discrimination already faced by low-income people and especially women of color.”
At the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School (LSC), students also have a celebrated history of assisting low-income Boston area residents with tax law, predatory lending, family law and domestic violence issues, and eviction defense – all of which, says Daniel Nagin, faculty director, help support overall housing stability.
“For a lot of our clinics, although the word ‘housing’ isn’t in the name, they help people stay housed as well,” says Nagin. “That’s because they help protect people’s income, or they take other steps that preserve financial resources to enable someone to stay in housing, or to access housing. The people we’re helping are low income people who are very much at risk. People who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, disproportionately live in segregated neighborhoods, and are disproportionately deprived of economic and other opportunities.”
As part of its tripartite collaboration with HLAB and City Life Vida Urbana, students in the LSC also represent tenants in housing court.
“Our attorneys and clinical law students are in the trenches. They go to court and fight to keep people in their homes by raising defenses and counterclaims,” says Nagin, who adds that the LSC and HLAB’s advocacy was recognized by an award from the Boston Bar Association a few years ago. “Our collaboration is focused on preventing homelessness and keeping people housed.”
The LSC’s housing clinic also has a specialized project focusing on housing stability for survivors of domestic abuse, the Housing Justice for Survivors Project. “People who have experienced or are experiencing domestic violence or sexual assault have extraordinarily high rates of homelessness,” says Julia Devanthéry, the project’s director. “Gender-based violence causes eviction — landlords file evictions against survivors for reasons ranging from the abuse disturbing neighbors, to the police coming to the home too often, or damage to the property. The shocking and unjust result is that survivors are actually punished by their landlords for experiencing domestic violence. In collaboration with our community partners, our students and attorneys deploy trauma-informed legal defenses to keep survivors and their families housed and prevent homelessness.”
And because education and empowerment are also part of the LSC’s mission, Nagin says that during the pandemic, the clinic has collaborated with Boston Public Library to provide free online workshops about housing rights and resources to members of the community.
“People are desperate for information, they’re confused or overwhelmed, and it’s hard to get clear information about federal and state programs, how and when they can access funding, and what landlords are permitted to do,” he says. “It’s been a great partnership.”
Now that the eviction moratorium has ended, Nagin says that he expects the Legal Services Center’s longstanding work around housing – and other critical services – to become even more imperative.
“This just intensifies the housing crisis that existed before. It’s just a very, very trying time for everyone whose housing is at risk,” he says.
And as HLAB continues to mobilize around the crisis, Caramello adds that she hopes that the lessons learned from the current situation – that, as Massachusetts has recognized in its state moratorium, eviction is often not essential, that it has long-term harmful consequences, and that it can often be avoided if resources are dedicated early and proactively to the resolution of housing problems – are carried into the post-pandemic era.