Aashika Nagarajan and Jess Wunsch
Landlords in the U.S. file an estimated 3.6 million evictions each year and 1.5 million of those result in eviction judgments. Evictions are profoundly disruptive events for tenants and their families, and forced evictions can have lasting negative impacts on several health, housing, and economic outcomes. Prior to the expansion of legal assistance in New York City, 90 percent of landlords had legal representation in court proceedings, compared to just 10 percent of tenants. Free legal representation (commonly referred to as a “right to counsel”) for tenants facing eviction has emerged as a key tool for addressing this disparity in legal representation and, ultimately, increasing housing stability by reducing the volume of evictions. As of November 2021, 16 jurisdictions have implemented their own version of right to counsel and many others are considering similar programs. Numerous state and local governments have also allocated resources to fund legal counsel or other eviction diversion activities for tenants even in the absence of a formal right to counsel program. Combined with tools such as rental assistance and tenant-landlord mediation, eviction prevention programs can potentially reduce the number of eviction filings, and improve the outcomes for landlords and tenants. These goals are especially important with the expiration of COVID-19 eviction moratoriums threatening to overwhelm court systems with a backlog of nonpayment cases caused by extreme levels of rent arrears.
Boulder, Colorado, is a city of more than 106,000 residents. Over half of its households are renters, a significantly higher share than the national average. The share of renter households in the city that are moderately or severely cost-burdened has increased slightly from 2014 to 2019. The number of eviction filings has also increased since 2021 and is expected to rise to pre-pandemic levels (around 1000 filings per year) as COVID-19 eviction protections and rental assistance funds run out. To get ahead of this issue, in January 2021, the City of Boulder launched the Eviction Prevention and Rental Assistance Services (EPRAS) program to provide legal and financial assistance to city residents facing potential eviction. EPRAS was implemented soon after the “No Eviction Without Representation” ordinance passed in Boulder’s November 2020 election to fund the provision of legal representation for tenants in cases of eviction. EPRAS is funded through an excise tax for landlords on their long-term rental properties. Through the program, tenants facing eviction have access to free services including tenant-landlord mediation, legal services, and rental assistance. Boulder’s program is unique in that eligibility for EPRAS is not income-restricted. According to the program’s 2021 progress report, EPRAS reached 390 tenants, distributed over $168,000 in rental assistance to 82 households, and prevented evictions in 63 percent of eviction court cases – a 26 percent increase compared to before EPRAS was implemented.
In the fall and winter of 2021, the City of Boulder worked with the Housing Solutions Lab to refine the program’s systems for data collection, management, and reporting. EPRAS’ data collection and management practices spanned two stages: intake (i.e., when the client first interacts with the program) and outcomes (i.e., at the resolution of the case and/or final contact with the client). Tenants primarily get in contact with the program via phone, online request form, or in-person. Because there are multiple ways that renters are able to request services through the EPRAS program, there was no standard intake process at the time and demographic information, such as race, was only collected on the online form and not at other points of entry. In terms of outcomes data, the program did not track information on clients after they received legal representation or rental assistance.
To refine EPRAS’ data system and processes, the Lab supported the program team in reviewing data collection best practices from similar right to counsel and eviction prevention programs across the country. The Lab also engaged with City of Boulder program staff and partners, including members of the Tenant Advisory Committee, to receive feedback on a potential data collection system. The process culminated with recommendations to the EPRAS program team to both standardize and refine data metrics in the client intake form and link data from these forms with data on case outcomes. The former would allow for more uniform data collection on client demographics and housing characteristics and the latter would help track individuals throughout the duration of the program and evaluate outcomes based on these demographics and housing characteristics. Linking the intake and outcome data will allow EPRAS staff to assess the performance of the program and whether they’re reaching communities that have been hit hard by recent evictions – answering questions such as “Of the cases that end in default judgment, what share of clients are Black or Latino?” and “What percentage of households with children avoid eviction?”
Based on these recommendations, Boulder will launch a new streamlined intake form for EPRAS clients as well as a follow-up survey to capture outcomes data on clients three to six months after they receive legal assistance. The City will also publish a data dashboard on its website to track evictions.
Armed with better data on participants’ race and ethnicity, case outcomes, and overall citywide trends, policymakers can continue to refine outreach strategies to ensure equitable access to legal services and rental assistance. And evidence shows that fewer evictions reduce strain on emergency rooms and homeless shelters, prevent job-losses, and have a positive impact on school performance. Is your city working to increase housing stability? Ask the Lab your data and policy questions, or read about the different policies that can increase stability for both renters and owners.