Discovery & Impact

Shedding New Light on Urban Eviction

October 11, 2019
Housing block

Landlords filed 2.3 million residential evictions in 2016 in the U.S. Nearly 1 million tenants lost their homes – a crisis that fuels homelessness, hunger and poor health.

As eviction gains national attention, McCourt assistant professor Eva Rosen’s research is shedding light on the little-known landscape of eviction in Washington, D.C., and the consequences for the millions caught in the process.

“We still know little about eviction, though it’s a common experience for many lower-income families,” says Rosen. “For a long time it was a hidden problem. There’s been a national conversation about it in the past two to three years, since the publication of Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted.”

Serial Evictions

While Desmond looked at those forced out of their homes and apartments, Rosen is investigating “serial eviction” – the widespread but little-known practice of filing eviction notices but not removing renters.

For a June 2019 paper in the journal City & Community, Rosen and colleague Philip ME Garboden of the University of Hawai‘i interviewed 127 landlords and property managers in Baltimore, Dallas and Cleveland.

“In Baltimore alone, landlords filed 150,000 evictions in 2017. There are just 130,000 rental units in the city, so we know some tenants are receiving more than one filing a year,” she says. “Just 7,500 – about two percent – were actually evicted.”

Even if you don’t lose your home, eviction filings still have significant implications. “They’re often public records, similar to a credit report or criminal record,” she says. “A filing can affect your ability to sign a new lease or buy a home. We think it contributes to psychological distress, health issues and a lack of community cohesiveness.”

The new study found that repeat eviction filings netted extra income from penalties and fees on late rents for some landlords and property managers. And by allowing landlords to “easily leverage the police power of the state,” the threat of eviction can discourage tenants from pressing for needed repairs and services.

“If you’re not sure about your rights as a tenant, you may not ask about the lack of hot water or the broken steps or some housing-code violation if you think your landlord could easily evict you,” Rosen says. “Serial eviction and the threat of eviction create a power imbalance.”

Uncovering DC’s Eviction Trends

Rosen and Brian J. McCabe, associate professor of sociology at Georgetown, are building a picture of eviction in Washington, D.C. – piece by piece. In the summer of 2019, a team of 13 students were set to review more than 31,000 eviction notices filed in the district’s housing court in 2018. The goal was to create a database that will show where eviction is most common, the amount of overdue rent triggering filings and the demographics of eviction-notice recipients. Funded with a $25,000 grant from the Meyer Foundation and a matching grant from the Georgetown University Provost’s Office, the project will also look at associations between eviction filings and income, health, school attendance and neighborhood characteristics such as gentrification.

So far, a preliminary review of 2,000 representative filings found that 70 percent took place in just four zip codes in the city’s Southeast and Northeast quadrants. “The staggering problems of eviction are concentrated in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. And they generally involve about one month’s rent,” Rosen says. “That means intervening with emergency rental assistance could make a big difference.”

The researchers have partnered with D.C.’s Fair Budget Coalition (FBC), which advocates for the needs of D.C.’s lower-income residents. Rosen says the group will use the data in an effort to increase the city’s Emergency Renters Assistant Program (ERAP) by $12 million. “ERAP is the primary emergency assistance program for low-income households facing eviction, but it currently serves only a fraction of eligible families. With the results of our research, FBC would be able to make a much more compelling case for why these funds are needed and how many evictions (and associated costs to the city) they would prevent.”