Expert: Attorneys are families’ best defense in coming eviction storm

While still unknown how many families will lose their place to live once the moratoria on evictions are lifted in Indiana and other states, a leading housing expert says the best treatment is providing attorneys to represent those families in court.

Matthew Desmond, professor of sociology at Princeton University and author of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” offered some insight into the impact on evictions during an online forum, “Evictions and the COVID-19 Pandemic,” hosted Monday by the Legal Services Corp. Drawing upon his research for the book and his continued work compiling information for the online database, The Eviction Lab, he is anticipating an increase in renters being put onto the street.

“It’s hard to think that evictions aren’t going to spike after the moratoria are lifted,” Desmond said. “So the question is where and how much.”

The COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard on The Eviction Lab website reviewed and scored the state policies enacted to protect renters during the coronavirus outbreak. Indiana, which the website lists as having 1.9 million renters, was given a score of 0.65 out of 5.

Gov. Eric Holcomb has suspended the evictions until July 1, but Indiana courts have been accepting eviction filings. The exact number of eviction petitions that have been filed is difficult to discern because there is not special court code for evictions, but the Eviction Law website noted the Hoosier state could see a surge in evictions once the moratorium is ended.

Even before the pandemic, many families across the United States were struggling to maintain rent on an apartment or home, Desmond said. For the past 20 years, wages have remained flat while rent and utilities have soared. Half of all renting families whose income places them below the national poverty guideline spend 50% of their income on rent and utilities and about a quarter of those families spend more than 70% on shelter costs.

As Desmond pointed out, any financial misstep or loss of income can quickly translate into an eviction notice for these families.

The Eviction Lab’s analysis of data found that 3.7 million eviction petitions were filed across the country in 2016. Desmond said that works out to one filed every seven minutes.

Based on 2016 data, the Eviction Lab ranked Indianapolis 14th highest in the U.S. for evictions. There were 11,570 evictions in Indianapolis in 2016, which amounts to 31.70 households evicted every day. South Bend was ranked 18th with 1,142 evictions or 3.13 households evicted every day.

Desmond said studies have shown the best help for families facing evictions is having legal counsel. He cited research done in the South Bronx that found that regardless of the merits of the case, families were able to stay in their homes 80% of the time when they were represented by an attorney.

However, he said the families must be completely represented by individual attorneys.

“If we try to go cheap on the intervention, it doesn’t work,” Desmond said. “So bundled legal services, a kind of a legal aid table at court, on a case-by-case basis, I’m sure those things can really matter, but statistical studies show if you really want to make a difference and lower the eviction rate, you really need to have a full lawyer.”

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