Last weekend, the Eviction Lab at Princeton University unveiled a new dataset compiled from court eviction filings and judgments across the US, dating back to 2000. While this first version of the dataset has coverage gaps, the researchers counted nearly 900,000 eviction judgments in 2016. At least one of 50 renter households were evicted in communities covered by the data.
This release provides another push forward for conversations about how to improve the landlord-tenant system to ensure it functions fairly and adequately for both parties.
State and local governments are debating and adopting new landlord-tenant laws and pilot programs, such as expanded legal representation and just-cause eviction requirements. Yet, few housing experts understand evictions well enough to channel the demand for change into clarity about specific eviction problems and potential solutions.
Now is the time for policymakers and advocates to get smart. Here are five strategies for policymakers to consider as they address America’s eviction crisis.
1. Encourage and build more affordable housing
America is experiencing an affordable housing crisis. Over a quarter of renters, or 11.1 million renter households, are severely cost burdened, meaning they spend more than half their income on rent. And there is little housing supply to meet demand: only 35 affordable and available rental homes exist for every 100 extremely low–income renter households.
Renters across the country need more affordable housing options to reduce the risk of being evicted, which naturally accompanies households with severe housing cost burdens.
Eviction is part of a cycle that can include a vulnerable housing situation and losing a job. Legal representation can reduce the number of evictions, but renters also need an effective safety net to weather the unexpected financial crises that give landlords cause to evict.
2. Ensure evicted people have a safe place to live
Millions of households—disproportionately black female–headed households with children—have been touched by either a court eviction filing or a forced move. But eviction should not move renters into housing that is unfit for human habitation or force people into homelessness.
Housing assistance falls short of the need: only one in five renter households who qualify for renter assistance receives help. Policies that address this vulnerability and enable people to rebuild a positive rental history while addressing landlords’ legitimate concerns about future eviction risks are badly needed.
3. Understand that different localities might need different solutions
The localized nature of landlord-tenant laws means that states, counties, and independent jurisdictions have different eviction processes and legal defenses for withholding rent. These variations affect the most viable policy solutions, and they may have deeper implications for comparing eviction risks and rates from place to place.
For example, withholding rent and waiting for the landlord to sue can be a valid way to force a landlord to make repairs in some states, but it is not permissible in others.
In states with a right to redemption, a renter can pay any past-due rent and stay in the property, regardless of whether the landlord had already filed for eviction. The right of redemption could extend a few days after filing, up until the court date, or beyond. Other states do not grant any such right. In those areas, if the rent was later than the end of the grace period, the renter may not have any recourse.
4. Rely on a clear definition of eviction
Unlike many housing terms, the word eviction lacks a standardized definition. Evictions can be formal (i.e., court ordered) or informal (i.e., by the landlord, not the court). The Eviction Lab’s data include only court actions and exclude the most devastating unplanned moves (i.e., illegal lockouts) but may include cases in which no renters were removed from the property.
Whether building on these new data or other eviction estimates, conversations about solutions should clarify whether the eviction estimate includes
- every unwanted move (including court-ordered removals, illegal lockouts, nonrenewed leases, and displacement because of building renovation),
- all court actions that can lead to a tenant’s removal (including filings that went nowhere),
- all court-authorized removals of people and possessions, and
- other possible variations.
Talking about preventing eviction without clearly defining the term impedes the policy debate and may lead to solutions designed to address a different problem. For example, just-cause eviction laws might reduce tenant displacement related to nonrenewal of leases but would not change court eviction cases for cause. Legal aid, short-term emergency assistance, housing subsidies, or a right to counsel in landlord-tenant proceedings are among the solutions to debate when considering court evictions.
5. Build evaluation into policymaking
Unless an eviction is the only way to raise the rent or sell the property for more profitable use, landlords often face financial losses when proceeding with evictions.
Smart eviction prevention policies might attract unlikely allies, but protections that focus on just one area can inadvertently cause harm in another. Policymakers should tread carefully at first, even when the need for change is urgent. If the evidence is not clear about a policy’s likely effects, policymakers should build evaluation into the process to ensure housing policies are inclusive and effective.