The COVID-19 pandemic elevated fears of housing instability for many of America’s renters. Evidence suggests that apartment renters were more at risk for job loss. Fueled by historic unemployment and economic uncertainty, families questioned their continued ability to pay rent. The Census Household Pulse Survey, which began in spring 2020, has routinely showed approximately one-third of respondents have been concerned about their ability to meet their rental obligations.
While jurisdictions at all levels have ramped up various renter relief resources, they also have turned to eviction moratoria to alleviate housing hardships and stem the potential for resident displacement during the public health emergency. While COVID-19 focused new attention on housing insecurity, these concerns were already part of a national conversation on the risk of eviction, sparked to some degree by the release of Matthew Desmond’s book “Evicted.”
While federal policymakers ultimately recognized this risk and provided $46.5 billion for emergency rental assistance, the continuation of eviction moratoriums has renewed focus on broader questions of eviction practices, as well as raised concerns about the disruption in the market once the moratoriums expire.
Our research shows that reliable and complete data on evictions is severely lacking and may not be realistically obtainable due to the disaggregated nature of court records and eviction reporting. This dearth of quality national data speaks to the hazard of one-size-fits-all federal policy solutions. Moreover, even if national data was more readily available, the highly individualized nature of eviction proceedings and laws, along with locality-specific conditions that exacerbate housing instability like affordability and housing supply, calls for state and local solutions.
The National Multifamily Housing Council continues to explore the development of industry resources and policy solutions on evictions. We urge policymakers to proceed with more caution to effectively address the underlying economic distress many renters are facing while acknowledging the precarious financial reality property owners, especially small, independent landlords, encounter when residents cannot honor their rent obligations.
Concerning Oft-Cited Sources
Much media and policy attention centered evictions stemmed from the 2017 release of Desmond’s book “Evicted.” The award-winning book highlights the financial struggles faced by both residents and landlords in Milwaukee. The book paints a picture of residents living in substandard living conditions and frequently facing the prospect of eviction in a judicial system that favors the landlord.
While compelling and certainly true in many cases, the narrative also has failed to make some important distinctions about the diversity of the rental market and property owners. The underlying research neither distinguishes between the different types of rental housing—the book focuses only on single-family rental housing—nor the different management structures that exist, often presenting mom-and-pop landlords that typically serve as their own property managers as the same as professionally managed apartment firms.
The limits of the underlying research are often overlooked or downplayed in public discourse, a trend that is concerning when it comes to shaping the policy and regulatory environment. In addition, false assumptions from two additional sources has also helped fuel misleading discussion in the media and among policymakers on the issue.
The first is the Eviction Lab. In follow up to his book, Desmond worked with a team at Princeton University to create the website, www.evictionlab.org. One of the main issues with the Eviction Lab website is that it presents data on eviction filings and eviction judgments, but not physical evictions.
In addition, differences in public disclosure by jurisdiction mean that there are known data and methodological issues with counts in many states. This is cited on the Eviction Lab’s methodology page, but the data are presented as if they are nationally representative in media reports and by policymakers.
The second is the Private Equity Stakeholder Project. This website was begun by a former union lobbyist to highlight how private equity firms are profiting by monetizing people's living conditions and situations without consideration of the actual human element involved. A variety of businesses from private equity firms are highlighted, and the group has pulled eviction filings from six states. The website lists how many eviction proceedings public equity firms have filed but gives no further information on reason for filing or disposition. In some cases, for example, there may be a legitimate public safety concern for an eviction filing to have occurred.
The Difficulties in Mining Good Data
The data from these sources are increasingly finding their way into media and government or policy reports to highlight eviction filings occurring during the COVID crisis and are causing some degree of confusion about the issue. However, it’s important to acknowledge the difficulty in collecting more accurate data surrounding evictions and eviction practices.
To provide a more accurate picture of the situation, we would want to have additional data points. We would want to know things such as the number of eviction filings versus physical removals; the reasons for eviction filings; the amount of rent due when eviction filings were initiated; and an estimate of how much back rent was owed when eviction filings were initiated.
Besides these quantitative measures, there also are numerous qualitative questions that would be helpful in helping us better evaluate eviction trends and policies. For example, how have eviction practices and policies changed during the COVID-19 crisis? Are evictions still being filed for monetary or non-monetary lease violations? How is notice provided to residents? Are written late notices given? Are rental assistance funds being used?
While some of these may seem relatively basic, there is currently no way to collect accurate evictions data aggregated at a national level. Some limited private data sources are available, including CoreLogic and LexisNexis, but the data sets neither include both filing and physical evictions nor are large enough to fully cover the entire United States.
In terms of publicly available data, the American Housing Survey was the only pre-COVID source of evictions data; however, the dataset is only published every other year and NMHC analysis of evictions data in the dataset has suggested that the data are incomplete. The Census Household Pulse Survey, which was started after the pandemic began, does include some renter survey questions related to eviction, but they are forward-looking (meaning it may or may not happen) and are subjective.
Getting to the point of having some standardized or national data set would require significant reporting changes not only for the industry but also state and local jurisdictions.
On Finding Better Policies and Practices
Evictions continue to be a time-consuming and expensive but necessary business practice—and the only legal remedy to remove a resident who has breached the lease, be that for nonpayment of rent or dangerous or unlawful behavior or a host of non-monetary reasons in between.
However, given the widespread economic hardships many renters are facing, many professionally managed apartment firms are employing a wide variety of mitigation efforts and making concerted attempts to avoid eviction activity. These tactics include setting up individualized payment plans, establishing flexible payment schedules, converting security deposits to payments, waiving fees, connecting renters to local and nonprofit rental assistance resources, and more.
While well intentioned, eviction moratoriums to address COVID-related hardships are unsustainable and ultimately do not address a renter’s underlying financial distress. Moreover, the severe lack of quality eviction data suggests there are few ways to target and measure the efficacy of such policies. The best eviction protection is ensuring that renters have access to resources to meet their financial obligations. We continue to encourage policymakers and industry leaders to focus on connecting renters in distress to programs that can help fill this need.
Moreover, eviction restrictions are unable to address widespread housing affordability challenges. Instead, policymakers should focus on effective ways to improve housing affordability and assist low-income renters. These include things like policies and programs that can greatly increase the supply of housing, increase funding for housing support programs, and deploy broad emergency financial assistance funds through simple and easy-to-access programs.