Monday, October 2, 2023

Rising evictions in rural America during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond

This past summer, while doing eviction defense work for a legal aid in Los Angeles, I often heard the statistic—90% of landlords have legal representation, while only 10% of tenants do. This statistic, however, only accounts for metropolitan areas where the data is collected. In rural areas, where there is a lack of legal access, representation for both tenants and landlords is likely to be much lower. 

The lack of legal access in rural areas stems from a shortage of lawyers and the underfunding of legal aid organizations. These factors coupled with the lack of affordable housing have fueled the rise of rural evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. 

Rural areas face some of the highest eviction rates in the country. According to research by Cornell University, evictions in many rural counties now exceed pre-pandemic rates. During the pandemic, there was an influx of people moving from cities to rural areas as work increasingly became remote and rural living became more appealing. The added pressure on rural housing markets caused the supply of low-income rentals to decrease and the number of evictions to skyrocket. 

Rural tenants have increasingly been unable to keep up with their rent, and as the affordable housing supply decreases, the need for legal representation is becoming more important. Tenants oftentimes are not informed of their rights and the protections in place. Without legal representation, most tenants lose their cases and are evicted. This drives locals to leave for more affordable towns, or often to become housing insecure as evidenced by the increase in rural homelessness in recent years. 

On the other hand, many rural tenants have been reluctant to use eviction protections or fight their evictions. Brett Thompson, executive director for East River Legal Services in South Dakota, said, "We've developed a culture where people don't tend to avail themselves of protections afforded to them. This isn't a new problem. It's a problem that's been magnified by the pandemic and reaching a crisis point because of the pandemic." In South Dakota when there was a national eviction moratorium in place, people tended to move elsewhere when they received an eviction notice rather than fight for their right to stay. 

One key hurdle in providing support for rural tenants is the lack of data collected in rural areas. Most statistics on evictions in states come from data collected from cities and metropolitan areas. State governments therefore overlook the scope of the problem in rural areas and are unable to make fully informed decisions. For instance, California passed eviction protections during the pandemic, however, the only way to use these protections was to assert them as defenses in court in response to an unlawful detainer action. Considering the lack of legal access and low level of legal representation in rural areas, many tenants were not equipped to fight their evictions and use these protections.  

While moving forward, it is necessary to be mindful of rural areas when discussing the lack of affordable housing and the rise in evictions. States need to begin with making more inclusive decisions where data from rural areas is collected and considered. We further need to advocate for greater tenant protections which include rent caps, just-cause eviction protections, and a right to counsel. Lastly, there needs to be a push for increased funding for legal aids operating in rural areas—rural places need lawyers. Maybe then will rural attitudes toward seeking legal assistance begin to shift. 

Read more about the lack of legal access in rural America here and here


Katie Eng said...

Absolutely agree with this post! The disparity in legal representation between tenants and landlords is a tremendous injustice. It is time for policymakers to recognize that access to (and efficacy of) legal support should not depend on geographic factors. The pandemic has exacerbated the problem, and we need comprehensive solutions for rural areas. Efforts to collect accurate rural date to implement tenant protections and fund legal aid services should be a state priority.

Natalie M. said...

Isha, I also agree with your post. Thanks for flagging such an important issue. Your blog post made me think about what we spoke about in class a few weeks ago regarding the discrepancies in rural vs. urban legal education. I recently learned there is not a singular law school in Alaska, a predominantly rural state. Do you agree that lessening the barriers and requirements to attend law school is a solution in creating rural lawyers, which then would go on to provide representation for rural tenants? I think government subsidies would also help. If the federal government gave grant money to rural law firms who practiced property law, perhaps these firms could pay their attorneys more, thereby incentivizing young lawyers to move to rural areas.

Caitlin Durcan said...

Thank you for writing about this, Isha. Prior to starting at King Hall I worked for the Maryland State Bar Association which encompassed the Maryland Access to Justice Commission. I worked there during the “height” of the pandemic and fighting illegal evictions were the primary task. However, we only focused on urban and suburban areas in Baltimore and D.C. I didn’t even think about how the pandemic and illegal evictions would impact those who live in rural Maryland. The statistics you highlight are, unfortunately, not surprising but very worrisome. Hopefully bringing awareness to this issue will (eventually) lead to better outcomes.

Chris Datu said...

Hi Isha, thank you for shedding light on this issue. It makes me wonder what good humanitarian legislation is if the people it’s meant to help have no idea it’s there; at this point it seems like an empty gesture more than a remedy for rural communities. Even imposing some new notice requirement for passed legislation may not help rural communities, given the fact many rural communities lack broadband. Moreover, the lack of lawyers probably widens this gap in information and seems to only entrench many rural residents’ belief that urban centers and legislators continue to leave them behind. On the other hand, in this particular context, I wondered if rural residents’ higher distaste for the legal system applied here, and more informal proceedings or negotiations were struck regarding evictions. I guess my hope is that the statistics don’t show lack of anonymity and person-to-person discussions may have been a barrier to eviction in at least a few cases.