Friday, December 17, 2021

Public Housing Evictions: Why?

The story in yesterday's Star Tribune carried this headline: St. Paul housing agency acts to evict 32.

The basics of the front-page story in the local section are that my city's Public Housing Authority (PHA) is filing eviction notices against 32 renters, now that the COVID eviction moratorium is ending, even though there's federal rental aid available to help people pay their rent. PHA has tried an average of 10 times per renter to reach each household to tell them about the rental aid, with no response. The renters have to be involved in filing for the aid — it can't be done for them. And it takes an average of 6 hours of PHA staff time per household to do the paperwork. Which seems ridiculous! What kind of process is that?

The various renter households owe between $145 and $14,000. It seems incredibly silly to evict someone about $145 (though not as silly as spending 6 hours of staff time to get $145).

According to the story, the eviction notice has finally gotten through to at least some of the 32, so they will be making the payment. Other than one particular person quoted, though, it's not clear how many of the 32 fall into this camp.

I wanted to understand how this could happen in the first place, and put it in perspective.

First of all, PHA administers 4,200 housing units in the city of St. Paul. They sent 1,200 notices about delinquent rent since mid-October (28.5% of all units). Of the 1,200 renters initially delinquent, only 32, or 2.7%, have not responded to take advantage of the rental assistance or pay in another way.

That 2.7% doesn't even make up 1% of the 4,200 units in public housing. Not that the people in those 32 homes aren't important, but just to get a sense of scale in the overall picture.

Now try to imagine how someone could fail to respond to 10 notices about not paying your rent when that notice also includes an offer to help pay the rent. At first that seems unimaginable, but there have to be reasons. What could be the some of them?

  • I'm thinking of language barriers, though I hope that's not the case — that the notices are translated as needed. There could be literacy barriers, though.
  • Domestic violence or other internal dynamics in the household, where notices are not getting to the person who could do something with the information.
  • Mental illness, especially depression, where a person just isn't able to deal with the situation.
  • Other mental disabilities. Which makes me wonder, if there are folks with known mental disabilities (who have case workers, I hope?) among the 32, how much does PHA connect with the case workers?

Laura Jelinek from Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services is quoted at the end of the story:

"It's devastating to lose housing that comes with subsidies, support systems and the right for a good-cause eviction," Jelinek said. People could be forced to find a new home in a tough rental market with an eviction on their record, which she said makes their housing choice "about half of what it would be or even less."

People on the brink of eviction in the public housing units "must be in a really bad place," she said, noting that she is encountering a lot of people with disabilities and mental health challenges who are struggling at this point in the pandemic. However, unlike privately owned apartment complexes, there are many workers providing support services in public housing, she said, and she questioned how the agency could better use those services to prevent evictions.

"What can the public housing agency do?" Jelinek asked. "What is their duty?"

Finally, according to the story, the 32 renter households have been living in their homes for an average of 6 years. What do their neighbors know about their situations? How can they be connected to save their homes at the beginning of another COVID winter?

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