Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
France’s “trêve hivernale” policy prevents evictions from November 1 until March 31. The U.S. has only a patchwork of cold-weather renter protections.
In France, the first day of November triggers a five-month respite for renters at risk for eviction. Called “trêve hivernale” (“winter break”), the measure bans evictions until March 31, and is intended to ensure families aren’t put out on cold streets. During this time, gas and electricity cannot be cut off. And this year, under France’s Equality and Citizenship Act, the policy extends beyond traditional homes (“living quarters”) and applies to all “inhabited places,” granting amnesty to those who live in makeshift shelters, too.
Winter evictions are especially cruel—and dangerous—because of the public health hazards posed by cold-weather homelessness. The National Coalition for Homelessness estimates that 700 people experiencing homelessness die annually from the effects of hypothermia in U.S. cities. In Baltimore, for example, temperatures must reach 13 degrees before expanded-service shelters open; in Pittsburgh, 25; and in Des Moines, 20.
Unlike France, however, the U.S. has no such blanket policy to prevent winter evictions. Instead, there are a few municipal-level cold-weather eviction bans, plus a patchwork of state regulations covering winter-time utility shut-offs.
Washington, D.C., is one such city: The District’s sheriff’s office mandates that evictions can’t happen if there is a 50 percent or greater chance of precipitation, or if temperatures of below 32 degrees are forecasted. In Cook County, Illinois, an area that includes Chicago, the temperature threshold for evictions is 15 degree, and the sheriff usually doesn’t evict between Christmas and New Year’s. Midwestern states like Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Minnesota all have “Cold Weather Rules” that protect residential utility customers from having their heat shut off during their harsh winter months. (Evictions are still fair game.)
The disparity between France’s eviction freeze and the U.S. free-for-all is just one reflection of a broader philosophical divide. “As far as housing is concerned, the U.S. has been a laggard,” says Balakrishnan Rajagopal, an MIT urban planning professor and founder of the Displacement Research and Action Network. “Unlike in France, for example, where housing is actually a human right, housing in the United States is seen more as a commodity.”
The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights codified the right to adequate housing in 1948. That right comes with a governmental responsibility to protect it. According to the UN’s Guidelines for Development-Based Evictions and Displacement, “evictions must not take place in inclement weather, at night, during festivals or religious holidays, prior to elections, or during or just prior to school examinations.” The document is non-binding, but the policies of many European countries, including France’s, reflect these guidelines. In the U.S., that’s not the case.
The inconsistency of cold-weather policies and regulations across cities can be confusing for both landlords and tenants. “Is it true you cannot evict a tenant in winter in Chicago?” asked one landlord on an online legal forum.
“Where in the world did you hear that?” an attorney responds. “What incentive would people have to pay their rent during winter months if your statement were true?” (In this instance, the attorney was wrong: The landlord was from Chicago, so even if they had issued an eviction notice, the sheriff would not have executed the eviction if the weather was too cold.)
The confusion reflects the tension at the heart of this debate: Putting someone out on the streets in freezing weather isn’t just dangerous; it feels wrong. But in most jurisdictions, there is nothing stopping landlords from doing so.
Pausing winter evictions can make displacement less damaging, but not less frequent. France’s trêve hivernale has been in effect since 1954, but eviction rates are rising. In Paris, the number of evictions has doubled in the past two decades: In 1995, 627 people were evicted in a year; by 2016, 1218 were. In the whole country last year, 15,222 families were evicted from their homes.
For U.S. housing advocates, expanding state-level moratoriums on utility shut-offs would be a step forward, because it helps people avoid making the dangerous choice between paying for heat or paying for rent. “Especially for folks with kids in the house, elders, or people who rely on electricity for medical equipment, keeping the utilities on may be a more immediately felt need than paying rent,” says Justine Marcus, a research and policy fellow with The Utility Reform Network (TURN) and a researcher with the UC Berkeley Urban Displacement Project. This short-term calculation has long-term ramifications: Evictions can trigger chronic homelessness, depression, poor health in children. Having just one on your credit record could preclude you from qualifying for Section 8 vouchers or getting into affordable housing. If families worry less about winter-time heat, they could avoid a later eviction.
MIT’s Rajagopal proposes a more fundamental solution: Enshrining housing rights into state constitutions.
“You take Portugal, Spain, Germany, France—all of these countries have varying levels of protection of housing as a constitutional right, and that produces its own consequences for policy instruments, including rules against winter evictions,” he says. “[Housing is] never going to be a constitutional right [in the U.S.], but it’s certainly possible to have states change their constitutions or their statutory recognition as housing as a human right. That in turn will provide funded mandates for cities. Once you create a legal framework, it has budgetary implications—and states can respond in a meaningful way.”