The apartment was exactly what Chanque Jones needed: four bedrooms and $ 500 less than the dilapidated house she rented in Chicago. It was a new start for his three sons, as well as his mobile nail business.
Then an old case of eviction emerged on a routine background check prepared for its owner. It didn’t matter that she went to court and won. The fact that the case was filed was enough to mark it as a risk: what tenant advocates call a Scarlet E – the E for eviction.
“I didn’t even know the eviction case,” Ms Jones said.
Eviction cases are a stubborn stain on any tenant’s history. They are almost impossible to eliminate, even if the tenant has fulfilled their obligations or if it was just a scare tactic of an aggressive landlord. The pandemic has given the problem a new urgency: Although the Biden administration has announced a new moratorium on evictions for much of the country until October 3, millions of tenants are behind in their payments after more than a year of economic upheaval and could face possible eviction.
Aware of the enormous consequences for tenants who have lost their jobs or working hours due to the pandemic, a handful of states and cities have passed laws to make it easier for tenants to seal their eviction cases – a crucial step that can make the difference between having a roof over their head or not.
In Ms Jones’ case, legal aid attorneys helped prove to her landlord in Warsaw, Indiana that she was not in danger of being evicted so she could enter the apartment.
“I needed to get out of where I was, and that had bothered me,” Ms. Jones said. Lawyers have also worked with her to seal the eviction case under a new Illinois law that automatically seals most eviction cases filed since the start of the pandemic and allows tenants to clear them. older court records if they win in court.
The pandemic prompted similar laws in Nevada and Washington, DC and New Jersey to pass one only on Wednesday. North Carolina is also considering such a measure. But few other places are, and at least one state, Nebraska, has rejected a proposal to help seal deportation cases. The new laws only cover a portion of Americans currently facing eviction: a Census Bureau survey estimates 11 million adults are behind on rent.
Although the federal government has set aside $ 47 billion in rent assistance, only $ 3 billion has been distributed so far, according to the Treasury Department. The Biden administration’s new eviction moratorium aims to buy more time to distribute aid, but problems abound. States have had to create programs to manage the money, and in many cases homeowners have to agree to participate.
Housing advocates fear that new laws and government efforts are not enough to stem a tide of eviction cases that will linger on background checks for years, marking tenants as untouchable – even if their cases are abandoned once help arrives.
“We know this Scarlet E causes all kinds of harm to people, and there is no reason to cause more harm to people,” said Kathryn A. Sabbeth, professor at the University of Law School of Law. North Carolina, which recently wrote a column on how such cases persist. “The use of eviction records exacerbates the inequalities and challenges people face. “
A blunt tool
Tenant screens where such marks appear has become a crucial part of the rental system. Companies that quickly generate automated background checks work with it is estimated that nine out of ten owners Across the country. These companies scour public documents like court records for information, but reports can confuse people with similar names and cause other headaches.
An eviction, even an old one, may be enough for an owner to move on to the next request.
Felisha Nelson said she had struggled to find an apartment in Omaha this year due to a seven-year eviction case that came to light on her background check. After more than two months of searching, she found a landlord ready to rent to her – but only after posting a higher-than-normal security deposit.
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“This thing hangs over your head. It labels you, and it’s not who you are, ”said Nelson, who has three children and works for an insurance brokerage. “People change. The whole process seems really criminal.
For Ms. Nelson, it’s not over yet. The owner of her last residence started eviction proceedings against her in an attempt to sell the house she lived in, but dropped the case when Ms Nelson agreed to leave on a certain date. Still, that could mean two eviction requests on her case that could make it difficult for her to rent in the future, said Caitlin Cedfeldt, a lawyer with Legal Aid in Nebraska, who helped negotiate Ms. Nelson.
If Nebraska had passed the bill proposed in January, both cases could be sealed and put out of the scope of background checks. For now, the two parties must agree on a seal.
Ms Cedfeldt said she asked lawyers for several homeowners to seal eviction cases during the pandemic after making deals, but many refused.
“They say, ‘No, we won’t take it off their case. We want people to know that they are a bad tenant, ”Ms. Cedfeldt said. “It’s kind of punitive.”
Housing advocates said eviction actions were a blunt tool that landlords used in a variety of ways – such as trying to get Ms Nelson off a property in the hope of selling it. Landlords might not even intend to remove the tenant: Some have filed eviction actions during the federal moratorium in an attempt to get tenants to seek rent assistance or other financial relief from the government, the officials said. defenders.
But the effect is the same as an expulsion that goes to judgment. Background checks can contain many errors and often do not reveal whether an eviction case has been resolved in favor of a tenant, said Ariel nelson, lawyer at the National Consumer Law Center.
“It’s a huge problem even though the owner doesn’t think the eviction case is going to go anywhere,” she said.
Loopholes in the new laws
Landlord groups and tenant screening companies have criticized some of the new eviction privacy laws, saying they make it difficult for landlords to properly assess tenants. Tenants who have been evicted for damaging property or breaking the rules of a building complex could use the laws to hide their cases, critics say.
“It’s very difficult to distinguish evictions for non-payment from criminal activity and other evictions for breach of lease,” said Eric Ellman, an official with the Consumer Data Industry Association, which represents several tenant screening companies. “Blinding a landlord to past evictions of an applicant, the latter does not have the opportunity to exclude tenants who could present a risk to other tenants. “
But some tenants say landlords are already finding loopholes that diminish the protection they’re supposed to receive.
Sarah Forbes, a Las Vegas artist who had lived for several years in a weekly residence with her longtime partner, said she got into a bitter dispute with the landlord after she stopped paying her rent during the pandemic because ‘she and her boyfriend were unable to work.
The couple began educating other tenants about their rights under the federal moratorium on evictions, and Ms Forbes complained to local officials that building management was harassing her for providing this assistance, he said. she declared. The owner, Siegel Group, which operates dozens of weekly rentals in Nevada and other states, then filed for eviction, saying he was trying to move her not because of non-payment but to cause other breaches of the lease.
Nevada law allows for eviction requests for non-payment of rent filed during the pandemic to be sealed once cases are resolved. But since Siegel argued Ms Forbes was being evicted for other reasons, the hearing officer who heard her case and found the landlord chose not to seal the case.
Michael Crandall, senior vice president of Siegel, said in a statement that Ms Forbes and her boyfriend “were openly hostile and combative towards staff and management.” One of them, he said, sprayed “one of the managers in the face with bug spray.” When they were evicted “after 15 months without paying any rent,” the couple left damaged and dirty accommodation behind, he said.
Ms Forbes, 34, denied the allegations. She believes her landlord in fact evicted her for non-payment and noted that she had an application for rent assistance pending at the time. She is considering appealing a hearing officer’s denial of her seal request.
“It looks like if I was kicked out during the pandemic, I should be covered,” Ms. Forbes said.