A national moratorium on evicting tenants from certain residential rental properties went into effect as part of the federal coronavirus relief package President Donald Trump signed in March. The moratorium protected 28% of U.S. rental units — about 12 million in total, according to a widely cited analysis from the nonprofit Urban Institute — and included properties backed by federal mortgage loans and federal housing programs, such as the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Rental Housing program. Tenants weren’t exempt from paying rent, and rent bills piled up for those who couldn’t pay. Still, evictions dropped considerably and the moratorium has prevented millions of renters from losing their homes during the coronavirus recession, according to a ProPublica analysis of court records collected from more than a dozen states.
The moratorium expired July 25, but a new coronavirus relief package being negotiated between Congress and the White House may extend the eviction moratorium, although it’s not yet clear how long a new moratorium would last.
Eviction — and the threat of eviction — is traumatic for tenants and can be costly for landlords needing to make repairs or upgrades before re-renting a unit. Research shows eviction can take a toll on tenants’ physical and mental health — several of those papers are highlighted below. Though tens of thousands of eviction notices are filed each year in major U.S. cities, eviction affects rural and urban renters alike.
Evictions are legal proceedings. They begin with an eviction notice. Once an eviction notice is served, tenants usually have several days, depending on local laws, to respond to their landlord’s breach of contract allegation. Nonpayment of rent is by far the most common reason landlords file eviction notices. The federal government doesn’t tally evictions, though a Senate bill introduced in late 2019 would establish a national evictions database. The Eviction Lab at Princeton University conservatively estimates that roughly 900,000 renting households are evicted in the U.S. each year.
“For almost a century, there has been broad consensus in America that families should spend no more than 30% of their income on housing, allowing enough money for other necessities, such as food and transportation,” writes Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond, who founded The Eviction Lab, in one of the papers featured here.
If a tenant can make up the back rent or otherwise satisfy the landlord — finding a new home for a pet in a no-pet apartment, for example — then landlord and tenant can avoid litigation. If not, the landlord may decide to proceed to court. If a housing judge grants an eviction order, the landlord can then file with local law enforcement, usually a sheriff’s office, and pay a fee to have law enforcement evict the tenant. In a given jurisdiction, there are likely to be many more eviction notices filed than evictions carried out. Landlords often use eviction threats to pressure tenants into paying past due rent and late fees, research shows.
It’s important to note that for many tenants, housing trouble and conflict with landlords is likely happening well before the formalized bureaucratic process begins — before the law is involved. One tenant in Los Angeles told an academic researcher that she stopped paying rent after living with bedbugs and cockroaches for months, and after asking her landlord numerous times to repair cracks in the kitchen floor where she supposed the pests were getting in. A single mother with four children, she was working 12 hours a day. To her, withholding rent was an appropriate response to the conditions her family was forced to live in. Her landlord sent an eviction notice but she didn’t receive a court date because she didn’t file a response within the required five-day timeframe. She was busy and didn’t know how to navigate the legal process. She lost her eviction case by default. Kyle Nelson, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles, spent 2014 volunteering at a tenants’ rights clinic in Los Angeles, chronicling that story and others in which the complexities of life butt up against the precision of the legal system, in a December 2019 paper published in Social Problems.
Read on to learn what the research says about the state of eviction in America today — with perspectives from landlords and tenants, an analysis of mobile home evictions, a study showing how health insurance can reduce evictions, plus more.
Matthew Desmond. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, January 2018.
Desmond, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, charts how rent has become an increasing burden for households with low incomes in recent decades.
“For almost a century, there has been broad consensus in America that families should spend no more than 30% of their income on housing, allowing enough money for other necessities, such as food and transportation,” he writes.
But 52% of U.S. families that are poor and rent spend more than half of their income on housing, according to Desmond. Households are considered poor if they fall below federal poverty guidelines, which vary based on the number of people in a household. People making between $10,000 and $15,000 each year spent 42% of their income on housing, on average, in 2011, up from 33% in 1991. Desmond notes that evictions are common in urban neighborhoods where residents have less relative income. The New York City housing court system, for instance, processes roughly 350,000 yearly eviction cases, most of them for nonpayment of rent, according to Desmond.
“Most basically, the current affordable-housing crisis is the result of costs rising at a much faster rate than incomes,” he writes.
Philip Garboden and Eva Rosen. City & Community, May 2019.
The authors interviewed 127 randomly sampled landlords and property managers in Baltimore, Dallas and Cleveland to understand how they use evictions — and the threat thereof. Among landlords and property managers in the sample, 40% were Black, 47% were white and 60% were male. About half of the sample held primary rental properties in neighborhoods with high levels of poverty.
“We find that landlords generally try to avoid costly evictions, instead relying on the serial threat of eviction,” Philip Garboden and Eva Rosen write, emphasis theirs. “By redefining renters as debtors, filing assists in rent collection by leveraging the state to materially and symbolically support the landlord’s debt collection.”
In Baltimore, for example, the authors note there are roughly 6,500 evictions executed each year, compared with 150,000 eviction filings — exceeding the number of rental units by some 20,000. The interviews reveal landlords who constantly file for eviction against the same tenants. Eviction should not be viewed as a singular event, but rather, “an ongoing set of relations between landlord and tenant,” according to Garboden, an assistant professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Hawaii, and Rosen, an assistant professor of public policy at Georgetown University. They note their study is intentionally one-sided — its purpose is to capture the perspectives of landlords, not tenants.
Most landlords interviewed said they don’t want to evict tenants, some because they don’t want to put people out, but many because they find the eviction process burdensome. “Rick, the owner of seven rental properties in Cleveland, summed up landlords’ pervasive perspective on eviction succinctly: ‘Dealing with the evictions is a bunch of crap.’ More specifically, landlords believe the eviction process is capricious, incompetently implemented, and unfair,” the authors write.
Another finding: a tenant, even one who doesn’t pay rent in full, is often better than no tenant at all. “Kicking out a tenant means being ready to absorb the costs of turning over the unit,” write Garboden and Rosen. “At best, this entails touching up paint, making repairs, replacing or cleaning the carpet, and forgoing rent until a new tenant is found. Landlords estimate that this may run them anywhere between $500 and $1,500.”
Filing for an eviction without following through, on the other hand, only incurs a small fee for the landlord in most cases, while putting pressure on the tenant to pay past due rent. Some landlords and property managers saw eviction filings coupled with late fees as a legitimate and non-trivial source of revenue.
“The threat of eviction has important consequences on the tenant’s rental experience, providing an omnipresent signifier for poor renters that a house is not home,” the authors conclude.
Hugo Vásquez-Vera, Laia Palència, Ingrid Magna, Carlos Mena, Jaime Neira and Carme Borrell. Social Science & Medicine, February 2017.
The authors review results from 47 peer-reviewed articles that examine how the threat of eviction affects renters’ health. The articles were based on 45 studies, 33 of which focused on the U.S. and three-quarters of which were published after 2009.
Findings from several of those studies showed people over age 50 who fell behind on rent were more likely to experience depression. Other studies found renters living under the threat of eviction experienced poorer self-reported health outcomes, such as high blood pressure. Two articles found people threatened by eviction were more likely to have alcohol dependence, though other studies didn’t associate eviction threats with alcohol consumption. One study found the alcohol-eviction association among men, but not women.
“There is abundant evidence linking stressful life events and psychological, neuroendocrine and immunological changes that can impact mental and physical health, either directly through stress-related physiology or through the adoption of unhealthy behaviors,” the authors write.
Esther Sullivan. American Sociological Review, February 2017.
Esther Sullivan, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Colorado Denver, “examines housing insecurity within manufactured housing — the single largest source of unsubsidized affordable housing in the United States, home to about 18 million low-income residents.”
Many mobile home owners exist somewhere between renters and traditional home owners. A quarter of people living in mobile homes live in poverty, according to Sullivan, and one-third of mobile homeowners have land-lease arrangements. That means they own their mobile home but rent the ground below, making “the risk of eviction inscribed into the very land on which they live,” Sullivan writes.
Over two years, Sullivan interviewed residents in several mobile home parks in Florida and Texas, which have among the highest rates of people living in mobile home parks. Sullivan lived in parks in both states during her research. While Florida and Texas have very different laws regulating mobile home eviction, Florida is widely seen as having stronger laws protecting mobile home residents than Texas.
There were some key demographic differences between the two Florida parks and two Texas parks Sullivan included in her analysis. The Florida parks were primarily made up of people over age 55 who were predominately white. The Texas parks had residents of all ages and many were Central American immigrants. Sullivan offers that those demographic differences may have affected how residents responded to their evictions, but she also finds significant similarities among residents of the four parks, such as living in poverty and numerous past instances of forced relocation.
The mobile park closures “resulted in serious upheaval for residents,” but differences emerged as residents began to manage the “terms and timing of the relocation,” Sullivan writes. In Florida, with its cottage industry of mobile home moving services, public-private partnership arrangements made the terms and timing confusing and stressful for soon-to-be evicted mobile park residents. Owners of the mobile park where Sullivan lived said they would cover relocation costs up to $10,000, on top of a $3,000 voucher from the state for relocation, “because they had put together a relocation package by partnering with two other privately owned companies,” Sullivan writes. Residents in the Florida park received eviction notices in October and had expected to have until the spring to move. But to accommodate the schedule of one of the privately-owned moving companies, that move-out date was suddenly pushed up to January.
“In Florida, residents experienced a stalled and then accelerated notification period as corporate intermediaries restructured the relocation in line with their own terms and timeline,” Sullivan writes. “Within Florida’s system, residents lost their ability to choose their moving dates and contractors, and they were pushed to exit their homes before the date they were legally entitled.”
Texas, with its hands-off approach and no financial aid for relocation, was different. Residents in the mobile parks there quickly pushed to relocate after they received eviction notices in the spring. The forced moves were not without harm, depleting some families’ savings. Others were able to use tax rebate checks that coincided with the eviction to pay for their moves. But Sullivan finds, overall, that residents in the Texas parks experienced less stress and turmoil compared with the Floridians.
“Paradoxically, Florida’s more protective regulatory environment incubated a more prolonged, disorienting and detrimental fallout for residents,” Sullivan writes.
Elora Lee, Raymond Richard Duckworth, Benjamin Miller, Michael Lucas Atlanta and Shiraj Pokharel. Cityscape, November 2018.
The authors explore how corporate ownership of rental properties relates to evictions, based on evictions records from Fulton County, Georgia, which includes Atlanta. They matched eviction filings with tax assessment and deed records. Evictions in the county were geographically concentrated. While more than 20% of all rental households received an eviction notice in 2015, and more than 100 eviction notices were filed daily, in some zip codes 40% of rental households were subject to eviction notices that year.
Properties that were corporate-owned saw much higher rates of eviction. Firms that had more than 15 single-family rental homes were 68% more likely than small landlords to file eviction notices, “even after controlling for past foreclosure status, property characteristics and neighborhood,” the authors write.
One corporate owner, Colony Capital, was 205% more likely to file eviction notices compared with non-corporate entities, on average. Black tenants along with households headed by women were, in general, more likely than other tenants and households to receive an eviction notice.
“One possible reason large corporate landlords backed by institutional investors may have higher eviction filing notices is that they may routinely use eviction notices as a rent collection strategy,” the authors write.
Naomi Zewde, Erica Eliason, Heidi Allen and Tal Gross. American Journal of Public Health, October 2019.
The Affordable Care Act provided new health coverage for about 14 million Americans under Medicaid. Using data from The Eviction Lab, the authors estimate the consequences of expanded government health care coverage on nationwide county-level evictions and eviction filings from 2000 to 2016. They associate Medicaid expansion with yearly eviction filing rates dropping by 1.59 per 1,000 rental units. They also found that higher rates of Black residents in a county were associated with higher eviction filing rates, after controlling for poverty and rent costs.
The authors offer three potential reasons for the association between expanded health coverage and lower overall eviction rates. The first is simply that families with health coverage are better off financially because they’re less likely to incur large medical bills. The second is that having access to medical care “may alleviate poor health as a trigger for housing-related economic hardships,” they write. Finally, better health may mean better employment — less time missing work for health reasons, for example, and less risk of subsequently being fired. And while health coverage can reduce evictions, evictions can worsen health.
“Evicted families are more likely to accept unsafe and inadequate housing conditions because of damaged credit and rental histories and a heightened need to secure immediate shelter, leading to both acute and long-term risk of worsened health outcomes,” the authors write.
John Eric Humphries, Nicholas Mader, Daniel Tannenbaum and Winnie van Dijk. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper, August 2019.
With 30,000 to 40,000 evictions cases filed each year in Cook County, Illinois, which includes Chicago, the authors analyzed nearly every eviction case filed there from 2000 to 2016, linked to credit bureau data on defendants’ credit reports. They find 55% of tenants who had not been evicted had no open line of credit, like a credit card, compared with 61% of evicted tenants, in the 13 to 36 months following an eviction. Tenants in eviction court also have thousands of dollars more in debt — more than $3,000 in the 13 to 36 months after an eviction — compared with about $1,200 for a random sample of people from the same neighborhood.
Still, despite reduced access to credit and higher debt, the authors write that “while we find small causal effects on financial health and larger effects on access to credit, the results are much more moderate than the existing work on evictions. Moreover, both evicted and non-evicted households face increasing financial distress more than two years before the eviction court case is filed.”
The authors also note they “cannot directly speak to the effectiveness of policies targeting populations at risk of eviction, such as emergency relief funds, or assistance programs for recently evicted tenants.”
Ian Lundberg, Sarah Gold, Louis Donnelly, Jeanne Brooks‐Gunn and Sara McLanahan. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, June 2020.
In this paper, “government assistance” means public housing. The authors use data from Princeton and Columbia University’s Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, which followed families of children born from 1998 to 2000 in large U.S. cities and surveyed them when the children were 1, 3, 5, 9 and 15 years old. Their parents were more likely to be unmarried, “producing a large sample of urban families at especially high risk of both housing assistance and eviction.”
The final sample included about 1,300 children. The authors estimate children in the sample who lived in public housing by age 9 were 8 percentage points less likely to have experienced eviction by age 15.
“For policymakers who view eviction as only one of many outcomes of interest, the implications of our results should be taken in the context of research on the effects of public housing on other outcomes,” the authors write. “Expansion of public housing may produce unwanted side effects, such as increases in income segregation or reductions in quality as public housing falls into disrepair.”