Dec 1, 2022 - News

Iowa's 'Scarlet E' — evictions that never go away

Illustration of an eviction notice getting crumpled up.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Multiple civil rights and family advocacy groups are calling on Iowa to reform policies that would allow the removal of eviction court filings from public records, they tell Axios

Why it matters: Sometimes referenced as the "Scarlet E," the documents can permanently and unjustly prevent people from obtaining housing.

  • Yes, and: People of color are disproportionately affected, groups like the ACLU of Iowa contend.

Catch up fast: Evictions are initiated with notices that are public documents that are searchable through the state's court system.

  • The cases are generally included in permanent records regardless of their outcomes, including situations involving unlawful evictions.

Driving the news: The records contribute to homelessness, Angie Arthur, the director of Homeward — a group that coordinates homeless prevention efforts in Polk County — told the Des Moines City Council last month.

  • Even those filed in error remain in the public record, Arthur said.

Zoom in: State and federal laws prohibit housing discrimination based on things like race or gender. But there are no protections for people named in eviction cases.

  • The legal filing alone — including those that are decades old and never resulted in an eviction — can be used against people in housing applications, Pete McRoberts, the ACLU of Iowa's policy director, told Axios Wednesday. 

What's happening: Iowa lawmakers in 2021 considered a bill that would automatically seal filings that didn't result in an eviction. Many others would be removed after five years.

  • Resurrecting that proposal is one of the ACLU's top priorities in 2023, McRoberts said.

The big picture: There is a national movement to seal eviction records, according to a report last year from the Center for American Progress, an independent nonpartisan policy institute.

  • Illinois and Minnesota are among the Midwest states that already have an eviction expungement process.

Of note: Officials from the Iowa Landlord Association and the Iowa Apartment Association, which previously registered against eviction expungement, did not respond to Axios' requests for comment.

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