Fighting the Eviction Crisis with Emily Benfer

4 December, 2020

Katie Wolf

Katie Wolf


As we continue through the COVID pandemic, an estimated 30 to 40 million people in the U.S. are currently at risk for eviction. Is this preventable? How can legal professionals help, and what larger changes need to happen to stop people from losing their homes?

Here to answer some of those questions is Professor Emily Benfer, a law professor at Wake Forest University where she is the founding director of the Law Health Justice Clinic. Professor Benfer is also chair of the ABA’s COVID-19 Task Force Committee on Eviction and co-creator of the COVID-19 Housing Policy Scoreboard with the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.

Learn why the U.S. faces an enormous wave of evictions after 2020, and how legal professionals everywhere can help those threatened by it.

Full Transcript



Katie Wolf:

This is the Filevine Fireside and I'm Katie Wolf. As we continue through the COVID pandemic, an estimated 30 to 40 million people in the US are currently at risk for eviction. Is this preventable? How can legal professionals help? And what larger changes need to happen to stop people from losing their homes? Here to answer some of those questions is Professor Emily Benfer, a law professor at Wake Forest University, where she's the founding director of the Law Health Justice Clinic at Wake Forest. Professor Benfer is also chair of the ADA's COVID-19 task force committee on eviction and co-creator of the COVID-19 housing policy scoreboard with The Eviction Lab at Princeton University. Thank you so much for the work you do, and thank you for taking the time to talk with us, Emily.

Professor Emily Benfer:

It's my pleasure. Thank you so much.

Katie Wolf:

To set the stage for us, can you tell us about this current eviction crisis we're facing.

Professor Emily Benfer:

Absolutely. The United States is facing the most severe and significant eviction crisis that we have ever seen in our history. Currently, as you mentioned, around 30 to 40 adults and children are at risk of eviction, they are struggling to pay their rent, they are drawing on their futures by incurring debt and credit card fees, and other loans just to make ends meet. They're detracting from their food budget and relying on food pantries so that they can keep a roof over their head during the pandemic.

Katie Wolf:

And when an eviction happens, can you talk a little bit about some of the other effects that happen down the road when people have an eviction on their record, things like that.

Professor Emily Benfer:

The mere fact of an eviction filing is enough to permanently scar a renter households' record. And it precludes them from obtaining safe and decent housing after an eviction occurs. And even if they won their case, they're usually still screened out of safe and decent housing. And so this results in being pushed to the outskirts of the rental market to high crime neighborhoods, to underperforming schools, and to substandard housing that usually has hazardous conditions such as mold, infestations, lead hazards that could pose brain damage for the children who live in that home.

And at the same time it affects nearly every aspect of your life. It breaks down social networks, it creates barriers to accessing social services, it also is a barrier to employment and a cause of unemployment. And the negative health effects of eviction, this is just pre-pandemic. So outside of the COVID-19 crisis, it results in respiratory disease, in increased mortality, suicidal ideation, high blood pressure. It's even linked with heart disease. And for children in particular, it's particularly devastating. It results in academic decline and emotional trauma that can take years, if not a lifetime to recover from. It is now linked in numerous studies to lead poisoning and food insecurity. And for women who are pregnant, when they're evicted, those children usually have adverse birth outcomes, including low birth weight or preterm pregnancy. So all of this is to say that the effects of eviction are severe, long lasting and devastating for every member of the household.

Katie Wolf:

So someone listening to this might say, well, we've got an eviction moratorium right now, so we're safe right now. How would you respond to that?

Professor Emily Benfer:

Hardly. I wish the answer was definitively families across the country are protected, but regrettably the Center for Disease Control and Prevention Moratorium lacked widespread and uniform implementation. It lacked enforcement of any kind. And it also lacked tenant education. In order to trigger rights under the CDC moratorium, a tenant has to produce a declaration verifying that they are unable to pay their rent and that if they were evicted, they would have to double up, or be transient, or seek shelter through homeless services. And most tenants are unaware of their rights under this order. And at the same time, it varies county to county, or judge to magistrate, on whether the moratorium is actually being upheld. So you might be able to receive protection in one zip code, but move to the county over and you'll be facing a sheriff moving your belongings out of your home.

Katie Wolf:

Wow. And this current moratorium such as it is also only exists through the end of the year in its current form. Is that correct?

Professor Emily Benfer:

Yes. And I'm so glad that you mentioned that. So there is a significant risk of the eviction wave that everyone is expecting hitting the United States in tsunami proportions on January 1st, because the CDC moratorium expires on December 31st and the new administration does not take over until 20 days later, millions upon millions of evictions could be filed in those 20 days. And those that have been on hold during the moratorium could be executed during that time. And we know that eviction and COVID-19 transmission are deeply linked. That eviction results in transiency and couch-surfing and crowded residential environments. And all of these are the conditions that lead to the increased infection and transmission of COVID-19 because people are unable to comply with the pandemic health guidelines. It makes it difficult, or impossible, to social distance, to self quarantine, to frequently wash your hands when you're doubled up, or when you're sleeping in your car and have to use public facilities.

Katie Wolf:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). So we already understand the dire health consequences that happen outside of a pandemic due to eviction. Now we have one of the largest waves of eviction we've seen threatening to occur right in the middle of the worst pandemic we've seen. Just what a perfect storm. I want to talk a little bit about some of the bigger policy changes that need to happen in order to address this crisis, but I'm also wondering, are there things that lawyers and legal professionals can be doing to help fight to keep people in their homes right now?

Professor Emily Benfer:

Absolutely. In fact, just yesterday I spoke to an attorney who starting in March when he first learned of the eviction crisis and the increase in eviction filings in his city, jumped in to provide pro bono services. And since that time has prevented 4,000 evictions. And just extraordinary the number of lives he has literally changed. And if the predictive modeling around eviction and COVID-19 mortality is right, literally the lives he has saved. And I think that that is the case for the entire legal profession. So this really demonstrates how attorneys are critical to intervening in the eviction crisis.

Katie Wolf:

That's incredible. That's one attorney, 4,000 households, which just means eight, 12,000 or more people. Wow. That's an incredible story. In terms of the larger issues that you're dealing with, can you tell us about The Eviction Lab and how you came about creating the scorecard?

Professor Emily Benfer:

Yes. Can I back up to the last question for a second?

Katie Wolf:

Please. Yeah.

Professor Emily Benfer:

I can't overstress the importance of attorneys in the eviction system. In the typical eviction court tenants are represented only 10% of the time, and property owners are represented 90% of the time. And almost a hundred percent of evictions result in an order of eviction and the sheriff executing that order. However, numerous studies have demonstrated that where a tenant is represented, 84% of those tenants remain in their homes. So the role of an attorney, especially during a pandemic where we're facing a unprecedented eviction crisis, cannot be overstressed, that they are able to raise defenses that the tenants are likely unaware of and to exercise their rights so that they can stay home and stay healthy and survive this pandemic.

Katie Wolf:

Do you have any recommendations for where lawyers should start if they want to use this as some of their pro bono work?

Professor Emily Benfer:

The American Bar Association just launched a nationwide pro bono network. And they are facilitating this network through the bar associations in each state. So attorneys can start there. They can also reach out to the local legal services offices and offer to provide pro bono assistance. I think that most housing attorneys right now are really in triage mode because the demand is overwhelming. And so this type of response can truly make an enormous difference.

Katie Wolf:

Can you tell us about some of the bigger policy issues you're working with now, and tell us about The Eviction Lab and the scorecard that you've created.

Professor Emily Benfer:

Absolutely. So throughout the pandemic I've been tracking eviction moratoriums at the state and local level, and I partnered with The Eviction Lab to create a COVID-19 housing policy scorecard. And we thought that the scorecard would be useful to states and to local government officials and actors to demonstrate the best practices in moratoria, especially because this is unprecedented. We really are in a stage of political creativity and experimentation. And so we're trying to draw upon those best practices as much as we can. And instead, we had a peak of 43 states with an eviction moratorium. The majority of those have been lifted. And today on a scale of one to five stars, about 37 states have less than one star on our policy scorecard. And so at a time when the pandemic is propelling forward, we are actually lifting protections that are incredibly important to any pandemic mitigation strategy, especially moratoriums.

Katie Wolf:

And what are some of the policies that you track on the scorecard?

Professor Emily Benfer:

So we track the strength of the eviction moratorium. So most of the moratoriums freeze one stage in the eviction process, either the initiation of eviction, the court hearing and process, or the Sheriff's enforcement of an eviction order. And so we assume that it is better to stop eviction at the first stage in the process. So prevent the filing, or the notice to the tenant. And this is based on studies that have shown that the harm attaches at that first stage, that, that's when it's on your record, that's when some of the health harms start to appear, especially stress and anxiety and suicidal ideation. And also that gives tenants the most amount of time to cure, that they're more likely to be able to identify a rent relief program to pull together the rent and to make up for missed payments if they have more time to do it than if you've stopped this just at the execution stage.

It also tracks short-term supports like utility disconnection, freezes, or grace periods to pay rent, prohibiting the reporting to credit bureaus, including a foreclosure moratorium, as well as tenancy preservation measures like housing stabilization supports such as rent relief programs and legal counsel for tenants, because we know that that makes such a difference in a tenant's ability to stay housed.

Katie Wolf:

Yeah. One of the things that most startled me as I was reading about evictions is that when people have an eviction on their record, the places where they can live are still extremely expensive in many cases, just as expensive as the nice apartments. Why is that?

Professor Emily Benfer:

Right. That's absolutely true that it is expensive to be evicted. The cost of moving to the outskirts of the rental market can be just as high as having a decent and safe home, but that you're actually paying for the fact that you have that eviction on your record. One of the reasons why we entered the pandemic on the precipice of this eviction crisis was because we had an affordable housing crisis that was due to stagnant wages, rising rents across the rental market, and a lack of federal intervention to create affordable housing. And so that has remained the case throughout this time and really created the perfect storm where the pandemic just amplified and magnified this problem.

Katie Wolf:

What would you say to people who are thinking, well, landlords are suffering under a moratorium, they also have to pay mortgages and pay for their lives. How would you respond to that?

Professor Emily Benfer:

That's absolutely true. That's why any of these moratoriums must be coupled with rent relief, that we cannot expect the rental market to shoulder the weight of the pandemic and the economic fallout. The housing market is a house of cards. And if you pull out the rent, the whole market starts to crumble with it. If the rent isn't paid, it's not just the income for the property owner, it's also property taxes, which are tied to school budgets, to community resources. It really extends to so much more than just that landlord-tenant relationship. And we need that housing market in order for our communities to thrive.

Katie Wolf:

Right. For people who are struggling to pay their rent, they're also often struggling to pay their utility bills. What's being done around utility shutoffs? Some people might stay in their home, but no longer have heat or water in the middle of a public health crisis.

Professor Emily Benfer:

A number of states did forestall utility disconnection. So they placed a moratorium on that where they could. There's about a little over a dozen states that were able to do that. In other jurisdictions, utilities are privately owned. And so the state did not have the authority to do that. However, most of those voluntarily stopped disconnection recognizing that it would be creating a humanitarian crisis to be going without water, or gas, or electricity at a time when we're being told we need to shelter-in-place to control the pandemic. But in many states, tenants are still accruing debt. So the debt of what would have been a disconnection will still be owed at the end of the pandemic. And so we are at risk of moving from this eviction crisis into a debtor crisis that we will be hard pressed to recover from without more support from the federal government and state governments as well.

Katie Wolf:

In terms of government support, what would you most like to see happening right now?

Professor Emily Benfer:

I think first we have to stop the emergency, we have to respond to the bleeding that's happening by creating the eviction moratoriums nationwide in a way that tenants know their rights and that they're uniformly implemented, and couple that with rental assistance so that we don't create this debtor crisis down the line. And then once we've stopped this initial harm, then we have to start looking at the root causes, and we have to start with structural remediation. So address the impact and the root causes of the crisis and the discrimination and the poverty on the social determinants of health. And this will require legal protections. It will require additional financial support and accommodation so that people can actually comply with the recommendations and access opportunity. Ultimately, I think we need to start engaging historically marginalized communities and empower them as leaders in the response, especially in the development of interventions to the housing crisis and to the eviction crisis.

Katie Wolf:

Can you talk a little bit more about what that historical marginalization has looked like?

Professor Emily Benfer:

Our country has a sorted history of racially discriminatory laws and policies that you can directly trace to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic hardship on communities of color and other historically marginalized groups. For example, the red lining and the segregated neighborhoods that occurred in the early 1930s, they resulted in a lack of wealth accumulation among people of color, as well as a disinvestment in urban environments. And that is directly tied to the fact that 70% of Black and Hispanic renters entered the pandemic lacking reserves to cover three months of emergency expenses compared to less than 46% of Whites. And so this lack of wealth accumulation, this lack of that emergency cushion means that when the pandemic struck people, their fall was immediate, it was precipitous and impossible to recover from.

Katie Wolf:

There's also an issue with households with children being more likely to be hit with these issues.

Professor Emily Benfer:

That's absolutely correct. The presence of a child is the greatest predictor of the risk of eviction across numerous studies, but it is especially disproportionate harm for people of color. Black households are twice as likely to be evicted as other households. And in a study of multiple cities, 80% of people facing eviction were black. And black women are especially at heightened risk, but you're correct. The single greatest predictor of eviction is the presence of a child. And this is particularly troubling, especially in the peak of the pandemic, 43% of renter families with children said that they had slight or no confidence competence in their ability to pay their rent. So when you think about the harms for children associated with eviction and how it's setting them up for lifelong hardship and poor health consequences, we are truly creating an environment where generations will be hard pressed to recover.

Katie Wolf:

Yeah. I'm fascinated by the way that you connect some of these larger social political issues to human health, to the specific ramifications on human bodies. So your work is also in health law. What are some of the big issues that you're following right now in those realms?

Professor Emily Benfer:

Right now, I'm really focused on social determinants of poor health, especially due to systemic discrimination and poverty, and how we can trace all of those to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on people of color, both in COVID-19 infection and mortality rates, in the social issues that are happening like hunger and housing insecurity, just looking at the COVID-19 rates, the hospitalization rates alone, Black and Hispanic adults are 4.7 times more likely than Whites to be hospitalized. They are 2.3 times more likely than Whites to die of COVID-19. And this one's particularly troubling. Black and Hispanic adults are dying at rates of White people a decade or more of older than them. So what we have here, when we look at the eviction crisis, we look at hunger that's happening in these communities because the rent eats needs first, they're shifting their budget to stay housed. This is truly a health equity issue. And if we fail to intervene, we are furthering health inequity by race in our country. And that will create a cavernous divide that if we allow this to continue, we will fail to bridge.

Katie Wolf:

So much of your work connects these facts about larger societal political issues to the human story, demanding that people consider other humans as full people who are deserving of care, and to the point that we're actually willing to redistribute some wealth to keep others alive and well. And it strikes me that whatever the practice area of lawyers is, they all have that task of communicating the humanity of the people that they're working with. What are some tips that you've learned about how to get that message across? How to speak about that with power?

Professor Emily Benfer:

So Kate Marple at the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership, she always says that sympathy leads to charity, empathy leads to change. And I think that you couldn't really say it better than that, that we need to allow people to tell their story in a way that others can hear it, and in a way that they want it told. And that if we can connect to each other on that core humanity level, we will start to recognize ourselves and the people who are experiencing the greatest amount of hardship and understand that if we are to protect our own children, we have to protect all children from harm. If we are to protect ourselves, we have to protect others, that none of us can truly flourish until all of us are.

Katie Wolf:

Do you have hope that that message will grow in strength?

Professor Emily Benfer:

Well, I think I'm seeing it every day in the housing justice advocates who are stepping up, who are standing in the way of injustice, who are ensuring that people stay housed, especially during a pandemic, in this tax attorney who decided that he could do something and prevented 4,000 evictions. I think people are doing what they can, and everyone can do something. It's a matter of reaching out and asking, can I help? And so the more people who do that, the less harm we will see, but ultimately we will need a shift in our country's priorities to truly address this issue, and that has to come from Congress, it has to come from federal and state leadership. And that's up to us to demand. So the more we can do that, the quicker we'll see change. And I don't think change has to take time. It does take a choice and a choice on all of our parts.

Katie Wolf:

So it gives me chills as I hear you talk about the power of empathy, I'm also aware that actually feeling some of these feelings, sharing those emotions of the hardship and the pain that others are going through, can be taxing and can be difficult. Do you find that it's difficult not to get burnt out, or do you have tips for how you stay resilient throughout this?

Professor Emily Benfer:

I think the best thing people can do is do it together. The less we do in isolation, first the more effective we will be. So the more of us working together, the more powerful, the louder our voice is, but also in that solidarity, there is resiliency. And so that enables you to keep going, because you know that you're in it together, including the people you're working on behalf of, that that is part of your team. And that alone can be motivation enough. For me, when I tuck my kids in bed at night, I often reflect on the fact that there are parents across our country, millions of them, who are worried about where their children will lay their head tomorrow night. And that's really the only motivation I need to keep going and to ask, what else can I do? And it's my great hope that all of us will ask that same question until this is done.

Katie Wolf:

So in some ways that radical act of viewing other people as completely your equals rather than you being up here and swooping in to save the day for the masses, or whatever it is, but that mutual aid and solidarity actually can create far more resilience than the other more conventional kind of charity model.

Professor Emily Benfer:

That's such a great way to put it. Absolutely.

Katie Wolf:

That's interesting. Emily, I want to ask, you speak with so much power about these issues, was there some point in your life when you saw that this was going to have to be what you dedicated your life to? Why is it that this is how you have spent your life and your focus?

Professor Emily Benfer:

That's a really good question. I think there've been multiple points in my life where I've recognized the two Americas that exist, and feeling an innate sense of that was unjust, and that there was no reason for that to be the case. However, it was particularly poignant when I started my legal career representing families and children and youth who are homeless in Washington, D.C., and seeing how they were pushed to the outskirts of society, to unlit dark dirt roads, to shelters that were unsafe and unhealthy, and that the majority of people were from marginalized communities and people of color, and this dark difference in access to opportunity and access to health in the ability to realize your human flourishing, so stark. And so that really set me on this path to change that, that I cannot... I think I'm done. I won't recover there.

Professor Emily Benfer:

I'll tell you one more just story from that time. Actually, if there's time, I can tell you two. So I'll start with one. So one of my very first clients was a mother, a young mother with two children under the age of five. And the four year old was a little girl. And every time I met with them she was so excited. And she, mostly because we had crayons and colored paper and toys in the office. And so she would get to play with those and she would draw pictures of rainbows. She would hold my hand. One day she told me I was her best friend, which is really so endearing in the way that young children are everywhere. And then one day she asked me, are you really going to help us? And I couldn't answer that question, because I was already too late.

I had met this family after they had illegally been evicted, after they had been retaliated against for complaining about conditions in their unit. And they were already sleeping on the subway. They were already sick. They were already a year from stability at the shortest amount of time. And I think that I've asked myself that question, are you really going to help us over and over again? And for all of us, the answer must be a resounding yes, because any other answer would be unacceptable. It would be inhumane. It would be unbecoming of America.

Katie Wolf:

You got me, got the waterworks

Professor Emily Benfer:

Do you want to hear the other story?

Katie Wolf:

Yeah. I would, I would love to hear your other story.

Professor Emily Benfer:

So, that same year I was working with a group of residents in a family homeless shelter, and this shelter was particularly horrid place. There was peeling lead paint. There were rodents. The food made people sick. The shelter staff were abusive and the residents were organizing, and they wanted to bring city council to the shelter that no one really ever set foot in to see what their existence was like there, and why it was making it harder for them to stabilize. And so they organized a city council hearing, and the residents gained skills, learning how to testify, how to write their testimony, how to tell their stories. And on the day of the hearing city council asked, who is here to testify? And in unison, every member of that shelter rose, and one by one they told their stories.

And even the children inspired by their parents got up and told their stories about how the shelter made them sick, how people were mean, how they just wanted a home for Christmas. And then I'll never forget this, that was Mr. Belcher's turn. And he went up to the podium and like all people, they asked him to state his name and who he was. And he said, my name is no one. And I am invisible. And he stood silently for his full hearing time and let them recognize in that mirror that he was holding up how society viewed all of the people at risk of homelessness, at risk of eviction, facing this hardship. And I think in that moment, people came to realize the inhumanity of it all, and how in this existence, every human being deserves an opportunity to thrive.

Katie Wolf:

Amen. And what you're talking about is so much deeper than legal service, you're talking about, I guess a community organizer would say you're talking about community organizing, but it's this action that's empowering, were people at the end of it have more skills, have more confidence, and have a full community and solidarity with them.

Professor Emily Benfer:

Absolutely. The people most affected by these issues must be leaders in the development of any intervention, if we're ever to attain housing justice, health justice, racial justice, these efforts can not be led by the communities that have benefited from the very forms of subordination that we need to dismantle ultimately to achieve these things.

Katie Wolf:

Right. Wow. Well, thank you so much, Professor Emily Benfer. Thank you for your resolve and your empathy and your wisdom. And also, thanks so much to everyone who was listening. Please check out the COVID-19 housing policy scorecard, see where your state ranks, and this is the Filevine Fireside. We'll talk to you all next time.