AT NINE O’CLOCK on a recent Friday, some 80 people—mostly black—waited on pew-like benches for the start of their eviction cases at housing court. The few lawyers in attendance—all white—were present to bring the day’s cases on behalf of landlords, often several dozen at a time. The 25 people who did not show up for court received default eviction orders in the span of a few minutes. Those present could choose to mount legal defences. Most did not.
Similar scenes play out almost daily in courtrooms across the country. In 2016 there were an estimated 2.4m eviction cases filed in America and nearly 900,000 completed, according to the Eviction Lab, a research outfit at Princeton University led by Matthew Desmond, a sociologist. His bestselling book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City”, argues that “eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty”. It won the Pulitzer prize in 2017 and has reinvigorated the neglected field of eviction research.
It is rare for a sociology book to be widely read, let alone acted on. Yet since the publication of Mr Desmond’s book, New York City has become the first place to guarantee a right to legal counsel in eviction proceedings. Like several other cities, it has also strengthened its emergency rental-assistance programme. The city’s eviction numbers have plummeted from a high of 28,849 in 2013 to just 18,152 in 2018.
Landlords have the right to enforce tenants’ legal obligation to pay rent. Almost all eviction filings are caused by a tenant failing to meet these obligations. Yet it has become clear that the engine behind evictions is poverty and that they are bad for tenants. The looming question for researchers now is how bad.
Housing instability wrecks credit histories and disrupts work and school. Seeing one’s possessions thrown onto the street can be scarring. But quantifying the effects on tenants—and, consequently, the benefit of forestalling evictions—is difficult. That is because those facing removal from their homes are often already in dire straits.
However, economists have recently found that the financial consequences of eviction look less dismal than might be expected. In a recent working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research entitled “Does eviction cause poverty?”, four economists examined every eviction filing made in Cook County, which includes the city of Chicago. The researchers compared financial outcomes for tenants who were evicted with those who were not. They found that both groups were in remarkably poor financial shape in the years leading up to their eviction cases. They both remained similarly destitute in the years after. Taking advantage of the random assignment of judges—some of whom are more lenient than others—also let the researchers isolate the unique effect of eviction on measures such as credit scores, debt loads, use of payday lenders and neighbourhood poverty levels.
As expected, the authors found negative effects on people who had been evicted. But these were not very large. Credit scores declined somewhat. Yet debt out for collection, use of payday lenders and neighbourhood poverty levels appeared unchanged regardless of whether residents had been evicted or not. “The small causal impacts mean that merely avoiding the eviction itself is unlikely to alleviate a lot of the financial distress that low-income tenants are facing,” says Winnie van Dijk, an economist at the University of Chicago who is also one of the study’s authors. The unfortunate event of an eviction, in their view, is better understood as a culminating indicator of “long, multi-year financial strains”.
Another recent study by Robert Collinson and Davin Reed, two economists, applied a similar methodology to research on evictions in New York. They found very small negative effects on evicted residents’ employment and earnings. At the same time, they did not see markedly higher use of government benefits such as welfare or food stamps. “Overall, these results suggest that formal evictions may have a quantitatively small direct effect on poverty,” they wrote. Still, an eviction seemed to increase the chances of using both homeless shelters and hospitals for mental-health treatment. Uniquely among American cities, New York maintains a “right to shelter” for all homeless residents, including single adults, which may explain some of the findings. It is possible that evictions may not substantially worsen the financial states of those at risk.
Even if eviction does not appear to trigger calamitous financial insecurity—if only because it was pre-existing—that does not mean the newfound attention to the problem is undeserved. Homelessness and hospitalisation present enormous costs to the rest of society. In New York the typical eviction case is filed over back rent of $3,900. This amount pales in comparison with the $41,000 the city spends on each homeless resident each year. The long-run consequences of eviction on poor children have not yet been thoroughly studied, but are unlikely to be good. What the new findings suggest is that intervention should not happen only when a case is filed in housing court. The nascent movement towards providing free legal counsel by right is a good one, because tenants with lawyers are able to negotiate better terms.
But measures such as these can only slow the pace of evictions. They will continue because for a significant share of the population—particularly for black women, whose incomes remain low—housing costs remain high and access to housing subsidies remains sporadic. The second problem might be the most immediately remedied, if there was the will. Approximately one in four Americans who are poor enough to qualify for rental vouchers actually receive them, because housing assistance is not an entitlement.
Instead, it is a literal lottery in which a mere 25% of randomly selected hopefuls receive vouchers. The losers get nothing and the waiting list for a voucher in high-cost areas such as Washington, DC, is more than a decade long. “There’s a hollowing out,” says Daniel Clark, a lawyer at Rising for Justice, a free service which provides advice to tenants facing eviction. “Those people who do qualify have been insulated, but those [who] do not get squeezed out,” he adds. When asked where those people go, Mr Clark gestures to an elderly black man who has just shuffled into the hallway dragging a suitcase. He was a former client who had been evicted but is now homeless. Every few days he comes by to linger outside their office.■
“Does Eviction Cause Poverty? Quasi-Experimental Evidence from Cook County, IL” (John Eric Humphries, Nicholas S. Mader, Daniel I. Tannenbaum, Winnie L. van Dijk; 2019)
“The effects of evictions on low-income households” (Robert Collinson, David Reed; 2018)