Scarlet E’s Stigma

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The apartment was just what Chanque Jones needed: four bedrooms and $500 cheaper than the ramshackle Chicago house he rented. It was a fresh start for her three sons and mobile manicure business.

Then an old eviction case came to light during a routine background check for the landlord. It didn’t matter if he went to court and won. The fact that the lawsuit was filed was enough to flag it as a risk: what tenant advocates call Scarlet E – E, which stands for eviction.

“I didn’t even know about the eviction record,” said Ms. Jones.

Eviction cases are a stubborn stain in any tenant’s history. Even if the tenant fulfills their obligations or if it’s just a scare tactic by an aggressive landlord, it’s nearly impossible to get rid of them. The pandemic has added a new urgency to the problem: Although the Biden administration has announced a new eviction moratorium for most of the country by October 3, millions of renters are unable to pay and eventually face eviction after more than a year of economic turmoil. .

Aware of the enormous consequences for tenants who have lost their jobs or hours of work due to the pandemic, a handful of states and cities have passed laws to make it easier for tenants to close eviction lawsuits – an important step forward. with or without a roof over their heads.

In Ms. Jones’ case, legal aid lawyers helped the Warsaw, Ind. landlord prove there was no risk of eviction so that he could enter the flat.

“I had to get out of the way, and that was holding me back,” Ms. Jones said. Lawyers have also worked with him to seal the eviction case under a new Illinois law that automatically closes most eviction cases since the start of the pandemic and allows tenants to wipe old ones from court records if they win in court.

The pandemic passed similar laws in Nevada and Washington, DC and New Jersey on Wednesday. North Carolina is also considering such a measure. But there are several other places, and at least one state, Nebraska, has rejected a proposal to facilitate the closing of eviction cases. The new laws only cover a fraction of Americans currently at risk of eviction: A Census Bureau survey estimates 11 million adults are guilty of rent.

Although the federal government set aside $47 billion rental assistanceAccording to the Department of the Treasury, only $3 billion has been distributed so far. The Biden administration’s new eviction moratorium aims to buy more time to distribute aid, but problems abound. States had to create programs to handle the money, and in many cases homeowners had to agree to participate.

Housing advocates fear that new laws and government efforts won’t be enough to stop a flood of eviction lawsuits that will linger on background checks for years and mark tenants untouchable, even if their cases are dropped when help arrives.

“We know this Scarlet E does all kinds of harm to people, and there’s no reason to harm people any more,” said Kathryn A. Sabbeth, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law. wrote a column about how such cases continue. Using eviction records exacerbates inequality and the hardships people face.”

Tenant impressions, from which such signs appeared, became an important component of the rental system. Companies that quickly create automatic background checks work with: an estimated nine out of 10 hosts across the country. These firms search for publicly available documents, such as court records, for information, but reports can pool people with similar names and cause further headaches.

Even an old eviction can be enough for the landlord to move on to the next application.

Felisha Nelson said she struggled to find an apartment in Omaha this year due to a seven-year eviction lawsuit that came up on her background check. After more than two months of research, she found a landlord willing to rent it to her—but only after she made a larger-than-usual security deposit.

“This thing is on your mind. It’s tagging you and that’s not you,” said Ms. Nelson, who has three children and works for an insurance broker. “People change. The whole process feels really guilty.”

There is no end to it for Miss Nelson. The landlord at her last residence filed an eviction lawsuit against her, desiring to sell the house she lived in, but dropped the case when Mrs. Nelson agreed to leave by a specified date. Still, that could mean two eviction applications on his record that could make it harder for him to rent in the future, he said. Caitlin CedfeldtA lawyer with Nebraska Legal Aid helped negotiate Ms. Nelson’s exit.

If Nebraska had passed Bill proposed in January, both states can be sealed and put out of reach of background checks. For now, both parties must accept a seal.

Ms Cedfeldt said she had asked several homeowners to sign eviction records after reaching their settlement during the pandemic, but many refused.

“They say: ‘No, we’re not going to take it off the record. We want people to know that they are a bad tenant’,” said Ms. Cedfeldt. “It’s kind of punishing.”

Housing advocates said evictions are a blunt tool that homeowners use in a variety of ways—for example, trying to get Ms. Nelson out of a property in hopes of selling it. Landlords may not even intend to evict the tenant: Lawyers said they filed some eviction lawsuits during the federal moratorium to encourage tenants to apply for rental assistance or other state financial aid.

But the outcome is the same as an eviction that goes all the way to trial. background checks contains many errors and usually doesn’t disclose whether an eviction case has been resolved in favor of the tenant, he said. Ariel Nelson, an attorney at the National Consumer Law Center.

“Even if the landlord doesn’t think the eviction case is going anywhere, that’s a big deal,” he said.

Landlord groups and tenant screening companies have criticized some of the new eviction privacy laws, saying they make it harder for property owners to properly review tenants. Critics say tenants who have been evicted for damaging property or breaking the rules of a housing complex can use the law to hide their cases.

“It is very difficult to distinguish unpaid evictions from criminal activity and other lease-violation evictions,” said Eric Ellman, a Consumer Data Industry Association official, who represents several tenant screening companies. “A landlord’s blindness to an applicant’s past evictions denies the landlord’s ability to exclude tenants who may pose a risk to other tenants.”

But some tenants say they’ve found loopholes that reduce the protection that landlords should already receive.

Sarah Forbes, a Las Vegas artist who has lived for several years in a weekly residence with her longtime partner, said she had a bitter dispute with the landlord after both she and her boyfriend were unable to pay the rent during the pandemic. to work.

The couple began notifying other tenants of their rights under the federal eviction moratorium, and Ms Forbes said she complained to local officials that the building management harassed her for providing this assistance. Dozens of operating hosts Siegel Group Weekly rental in Nevada and other states later filed for eviction, alleging that she tried to evict him not because he hadn’t been paid, but because of other violations of the lease.

Nevada law allows eviction applications to be sealed after lawsuits are settled due to non-payment of rent brought in during the pandemic. However, since Siegel claimed that Ms. Forbes was evicted for other reasons, the trial clerk, who heard her case and found it for the landlord, chose not to sign the recording.

Michael Crandall, Siegel’s senior vice president, said in a statement that Ms. Forbes and her boyfriend were “openly hostile and belligerent towards staff and management”. He said one of them “sprayed bug spray in the face of one of the executives”. The couple said that when they were evicted “after not paying rent for 15 months”, they left behind a damaged and dirty unit.

Ms. Forbes, 34, denied these allegations. He believes the landlord actually evicted him for not paying, and noted that he had a pending rental application at the time. Objecting to the hearing officer’s refusal to seal the request.

“It looks like I need to be insured if I was evacuated during the pandemic,” Ms Forbes said.

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