The problems we face are systemic, and they demand systemic solutions. To prevent a wave of evictions, policymakers have opted for two main approaches: delaying eviction proceedings for tenants behind on rent and giving renters money for rent payments. In the short term, both address an acute need and keep people from being turned out onto the street in the midst of a public health crisis. Rental assistance also keeps money flowing to landlords, some of whom have been struggling mightily. In the long run, though, anything short of keeping tenants current on their rent threatens to create records of nonpayment that will haunt renters for years to come.
And even with funds now flowing from local, state and federal governments, not all renters will receive help. Plus, for many it is already too late. This is why, as much as policymakers are working to prevent an eviction crisis, we also need to figure out how to lessen the impact of an eviction records crisis. After the pandemic, millions more Americans may have records of late rent payment and eviction circulating in data repositories, and what happens then? How much should the current crisis be allowed to shape people’s future opportunities?
Companies may argue they have good reason to use these records. Financial data may help predict who will default on a loan, file an insurance claim or fail to pay rent. Yet for every advantage gained by a landlord, employer, lender or insurer, a person whose financial life fell apart during the pandemic may further pay the price by being denied access to housing, jobs, credit or affordable insurance. The burden of the pandemic has been unequally distributed, and in years to come there will be inequity in who bears the cost of how pandemic-era records are put to use.
That’s why it’s so important to think now about how we might disrupt that cycle. One possible solution is to make it easier for financial records to be expunged from the databases of courts and data brokers, borrowing an approach used by those concerned with the collateral consequences of criminal records. A few states have already taken steps toward making it easier to delete or seal records of eviction.
Expunging records makes it possible for people to move on with their lives after a difficult period without having their financial past hang over their heads forever. In some cases, the past might best be forgotten.
Barbara Kiviat (@BarbaraKiviat) is an assistant professor of sociology at Stanford University; her research focuses on how companies’ use of personal data affects the allocation of economic resources. Sara Sternberg Greene (@SaraJSGreene) is a professor of law at Duke University School of Law; she studies the interrelationship of the law, personal data and economic insecurity.
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