Thank you to the Deputy County Executive, Deputy Director of Operations, Budget Director and Deputy Budget Director for the opportunity to provide input regarding potential areas Westchester County could allocate American Rescue Plan Act funds to improve equity for all residents. My name is Rachel Halperin and I am the CEO of Legal Services of the Hudson Valley – the only provider of free comprehensive civil legal services to those who are facing eviction, domestic violence, loss of government benefits and other civil legal issues.
I would like to recommend to the County to use this once-in-a-generation funding opportunity to reimagine eviction prevention in Westchester County. After attending the White House Summit on Eviction Prevention earlier this summer, I was inspired and heartened to hear about states and localities across the country using federal funding to transform eviction prevention. Matthew Desmond – national expert on eviction and Director of Princeton University’s Eviction Lab – highlighted that eviction is an issue of public health and racial justice. Low-income communities of color experience higher rates of eviction than other communities. He also shared that in his research he found that communities with the highest eviction rates also had the lowest rate of vaccination.
The programs that presented during the White House Summit all had three foundational elements to their projects – Advocacy, Assistance, and Alternative to Court (the 3 As). Advocacy was defined as tenants having legal counsel. Assistance included funds for rental arrears as well as wrap-around supportive social services for tenants. And finally, Alternative to Courts included mediation or ADR.
For example, the State of Michigan implemented an Eviction Diversion Program where tenants, represented by counsel, along with landlords represented by counsel could mediate disputes prior to filing eviction cases. This provides benefits to all parties as landlords avoid costly legal fees incurred through litigation and tenants avoid having to take off of work for multiple court appearances and risk having an eviction judgment on their record which can have many long-lasting negative consequences. Through this innovative diversion program, rates of tenant representation went from 40% to 100% statewide.
Westchester is fertile for innovation and creativity in this area. I recommend that the County use the ARPA funds to build a lasting solution to eviction and homelessness – eviction diversion programs are an important component of this solution. As we all know, losing one’s home can have catastrophic economic and psychological effects on individuals and families. As a community, we have an obligation to do what we can to ensure that each and every individual has meaningful and equal access to justice before facing such consequences. I encourage the County to engage with your partners in the non-profit sector and other experts in eviction to use ARPA funding to reimagine the eviction process so that Westchester families are supported, treated with dignity, and remain safely housed.