An eviction can appear on a renter's credit history for up to seven years, hindering their search for safe, affordable housing due to a ripple effect of negative consequences.
But beyond displacement, the impact of an eviction can also cut a renter off from access to quality public transportation, schools and work. The stress of the process, and the upheaval of an abrupt move, can also hurt a tenant’s mental health.
While an eviction itself may only appear on a credit report for a finite time, the existence of an eviction filing is a matter of public court record — even if a renter was never actually evicted — and can be viewed by any landlord evaluating a tenant’s application. Issues that a landlord may view negatively in a tenant’s history include outstanding balances, judgements against the tenant and an individual’s criminal record, according to Kyle Webster, general counsel for ACTION-Housing, a nonprofit offering affordable housing and tenant services.
Webster explains how these records can impact renters beyond immediate displacement. For instance, if housing in a neighborhood is competitive due to access to resources like good public transit, jobs and quality schools, the result can be that applicants who faced past evictions are effectively pushed out of the area.
“A landlord is able to look at it and say, ‘Well, why would I take this person who's been evicted three times in the past five years, when I can take this person who hasn’t?’” Webster said.
If more desirable areas are cut off, tenants could be forced to live in lower-income areas, and in shoddier units. Megan Stanley, the former director of the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations, explained that the speed of an eviction and the dwindling housing options created by its presence on a renter’s record can set off a series of collateral consequences.
“The issues can compound in such a way that a child is moved to a new school district, you're now farther from your job, you have to take public transit, and maybe you have to transfer and it takes longer,” Stanley said. “Your whole life is upended by an eviction and the subsequent move."
The possible loss of possessions, jobs and opportunities for the children can inflict a major blow to the mental and financial well-being of renters who’ve faced eviction.
Transit access can have a particular impact. Pittsburghers for Public Transit, an advocacy group committed to expanding access to public transportation across Pittsburgh, notes that areas such as Pittsburgh's East End have high demand for transit and are at risk for high displacement due to rising rent costs. While not speaking directly to evictions, the group found that 29% of Port Authority riders are transit dependent, and that those in several transit-rich areas are at greater risk of being displaced than those in other areas.
While the search for housing with an eviction record is difficult enough, the pandemic has only placed yet another hurdle for renters, advocates say.
“The pandemic is also why the idea of evictions and homelessness is terrifying because a public health crisis becomes much more of a public health crisis when people can't shelter in place,” Stanley said.
Webster also explained that although the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] order extends the nation’s eviction moratorium through the end of the year, it only prevents housing courts from granting a landlord possession of a unit, Webster said. The order does not prevent landlords from filing for an eviction, which will still show up on a renter’s court record and could be a barrier if they move.
Because of the economic harm of the pandemic, housing advocates fear a wave of evictions once the moratorium is lifted. Though state lawmakers earmarked funding from the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security [CARES] Act to assist struggling families during the pandemic, some advocates note that the process to get aid is burdensome and convoluted.
To address the collateral consequences of evictions, Democratic lawmakers in Harrisburg have proposed legislation to expunge or seal eviction records. If passed, the legislation would seal eviction records in several circumstances, including if a judgement is vacated or satisfied, if both parties agree, or if “expungement is clearly in the interest of justice,” when weighed against the public’s interest in the record. Records that have been unsealed will also automatically be resealed after a period of five years, under the proposed legislation.
The bill’s intent is to keep an eviction from hurting their quality of life by following them for years into the future. As Ronell Guy, managing director of the Landless People’s Alliance, describes, an eviction isn’t just a fleeting moment of housing insecurity. It presents ongoing hardships that some tenants struggle to escape.
“It’s like the scarlet letter,” she said.
James Bell is a PublicSource editorial intern. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This story was fact-checked by Juliette Rihl.