The Centers for Disease Control issued an unprecedented moratorium stopping most residential evictions throughout the United State in early September. While necessary to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, the moratorium expires December 31. Unless additional federal action is taken, millions of tenants will face eviction over the winter and landlords will suffer huge economic losses from unpaid rents. The United States faces a staggering eviction crisis in the upcoming year.1
Even before the pandemic, millions of Americans were evicted each year. Sociologists have demonstrated that evictions are as much a cause of poverty as a result of it.2 A family with an eviction record will likely be forced to settle for inferior housing or experience homelessness. If the family is physically set out, they often lose personal possessions from weather, theft, or abandonment. Evictions trigger job losses and a loss of neighborhood childcare options. Children from an evicted household often are forced to transfer to different schools and lose ground academically. Pulling out of this eviction-induced downward spiral can take years or may never happen at all. Evictions are devasting for the families that experience them. Disproportionately and overwhelmingly, those facing evictions are black, women-led households with children.3
As millions more Americans who would not ordinarily face eviction now face this threat because of COVID-19, it is critically important that local government managers understand what evictions mean for our communities. Because of the suburbanization of poverty, more and more ICMA members manage communities with vulnerable populations.4 And because evictions cause poverty and poverty is a growing concern for America’s suburbs, we believe professional local government managers should develop policies that reduce the frequency and impact of evictions.
But what we do must be informed by an understanding of how evictions work, who the parties are in the process, and how big the eviction problem is. City managers need to understand the contours of evictions in order to implement effective policy solutions.
This article presents a case study of evictions between 2014 and 2017 in one municipality, Silverton, Ohio. Silverton (pop. 4,788) is a first suburb of Cincinnati (296,943), and is one of 49 separate political jurisdictions in Hamilton County (802,374). Nearly evenly split between black and white residents since the 1970s, Silverton was inclusive long before it become fashionable to be so. But Silverton also has experienced 50 years of gradual population loss, an increase in the percentage of residents experiencing poverty, and a decline in property valuation since 2008. Silverton is one of the 22 declining Hamilton County inner-ring suburbs out of 33 examined in a recent ICMA report.5
A July article in Public Management showed that eviction filings before the COVID-19 pandemic take place in Hamilton County’s inner-ring with disturbing frequency.6 Evictions, poverty, and first suburban decline are all bundled together in a complex knot that causes harm to communities inside the I-275 beltway. Silverton’s eviction filing rate of 7.61% is in between the national average of 6.3% and the Hamilton County average of 8.7%.7 Silverton is thus an informative case study.
The Contours of Evictions in Silverton
The authors made a public records request seeking access to all documents associated with evictions in Silverton between 2014 and 2017. The Hamilton County Clerk of Courts, Aftab Pureval, was extremely helpful in fulfilling this request. The authors gathered and reviewed data on 325 eviction cases over these four years. This included reading court documents ranging from the initial legal filing by a landlord to the final judgment entry of the court. Data were collected on all eviction cases, coded into a database, and analyzed by the authors. The authors consulted with attorneys to ensure accurate interpretation of procedural and legal matters.8
The analysis showed that 12 corporate landlords were responsible for more than half of all Silverton evictions (51.69%) during the period of analysis, and four corporations filed 29.23% of all evictions. Landlords were represented by an attorney in 253 of the 325 cases, or 77.85% of the time. The average eviction filing cost the landlord $202.40 in court costs not including attorney fees, so merely filing an eviction case is expensive for landlords.
According to court records, the average monthly rent of a Silverton rental unit subject to an eviction case between 2014 and 2017 was a modest $556.90 per month. Tenants in Silverton were represented by legal counsel in only 17 of the 325 eviction filings, or a mere 5.23% of the time. The tenants facing evictions were clearly of modest means.
The amount of back rent expressed in dollars owed was discernable from the court records in 265 of the 325 Silverton eviction cases over the four-year period. In almost half of the cases (49.91%) between 2014 and 2017, the tenant faced eviction for back rent of less than $1,000. Evictions take place over relatively small amounts of owed money—amounts which for the tenant are probably insurmountable but which are modest by middle-class standards.
The amount of back rent expressed in months of rent owed was discernable from the court records in 250 of the 325 Silverton eviction cases. In more than half of the cases (53.28%) between 2014 and 2017, the tenant faced eviction for less than two months of back rent. The courts granted a writ of restitution in 202 of the 325 (62.15%) Silverton eviction cases between 2014 and 2017, but in most of the other cases the landlord simply drops the case because the tenant leaves before the court issues a ruling.9 Physical evictions took place 60 out of 325 cases, or 18.46% of the time in Silverton. A setout is one of the most visible, devastating signs of the eviction process for the community as an entire household’s positions are moved to the curb.
The economic losses of evictions are truly substantial in one small first suburb. Landlords spent more than $65,000 in court costs alone to file and prosecute evictions over four years. Landlords collectively claim more than $400,000 in lost rental income and over $1.3 million in damages to their property over the four-year period of the study.10
More than three out of five tenants facing an eviction filing will face a court order to vacate their home with an enduring stain on their credit record. And almost one in five of the tenants will be forcibly set out of their home. Only one in 20 Silverton tenants are able to face the complex eviction process with the assistance of an attorney.
Even though landlords prevail in almost all the eviction cases, evictions are clearly an expensive solution for landlords. This case study confirms tenants are almost certain to be on the losing side of an eviction case.
What can we as city managers learn from this case study of one first suburb? How can this case study guide new policies and ordinances to reduce the frequency and impact of poverty-inducing evictions? We offer three suggestions. We also welcome additional ideas from ICMA members and hope this article stimulates policy exploration.
Eviction Prevention Grants
Silverton renters are often being evicted for less than $1,000 and for being behind less than two months of rent. If these renters have suffered a financial setback that has made them unable to pay rent but are otherwise financially stable, local governments should consider offering eviction grants to help the renter clear their back rent. Landlords should be willing to accept a municipal grant to pay off some or all of a tenant’s back rent obligation if the tenant has a decent chance to get back on her or his feet. Everyone benefits if a modest grant allows the tenant to clear their obligation and stay in their home.
We propose professionally run local governments start pilot programs by setting aside $2 to $5 per resident per year to fund emergency eviction prevention grants. In Silverton, this would equate to $10,000 to $25,000 annually. Given that the sum of all back rent in Silverton eviction cases averages almost $100,000 per year, these grants would provide enough funding to reduce Silverton evictions by between 10-25% annually. If this public funding were leveraged with investment from nonprofit and philanthropic partnerships, the eviction prevention benefits could be greatly magnified. Creating even a modest ICMA benchmark that local governments should set aside annually holds the promise of reducing the frequency of evictions.
Pay to Stay Ordinances
Few legal contracts are as one-sided as a typical residential lease. In Hamilton County, landlords can use even slightly late rent payments as the pretext to evict tenants for other reasons. Even if a tenant presents slightly late rent plus late fees, a landlord can refuse it, continue forward on an eviction, and prevail.
Pay to stay ordinances would reduce the frequency of evictions in first suburbs. A pay to stay ordinance requires a landlord to stop an eviction process if a tenant presents rent late but in full, including reasonable late fees. Local regulations should be crafted that will allow tenants a reasonable amount of time to cure a late payment without having their financial records stained by an eviction and requiring them to move for being a few days or weeks late.
Municipalities should require all residential rental properties to register with the local government. This is important to developing working relationships with landlords for eviction prevention grants. It also will help jurisdictions gain a better understanding of the rental market in their communities. Increasingly, single-family homes that were once owner-occupied are now owned by out-of-state hedge funds. These corporate landlords bring Wall Street’s efficiency to local rental markets and have a higher rate of evictions.11 Cities may also require registered landlords to notify the municipality about a physical eviction before it takes place.
Reducing the frequency of evictions is not just about stopping a poverty-inducing event from occurring. It is about reducing structural racism through public policy. Sociologist Matthew Desmond compels our attention when he notes the evictions of black women create injustices similar to the over incarceration of black men in the United States. Desmond states, “Poor black men are locked up while poor black women are locked out.”
Simply put, the eviction system is a component of structural racism in the United States. We as leaders in local government have a duty under ICMA’s Code of Ethics to reduce structural racism. One way we can accomplish this is by developing policies that reduce the frequency and impact of evictions in our communities. This is the right thing to do in order to reduce poverty in our communities, and it is the right thing to do to advance racial equity in the United States.
TOM CARROLL is village manager of Silverton, Ohio, and was an ICMA research fellow in 2018–2019. He is the author of Revitalizing First Suburbs: A Manager’s Manual.
DEIRDRE CARROLL was a summer research assistant with Public Sector Performance Metrics and created the database for all the Silverton eviction cases between 2014 and 2017. She is an aspiring student of economics and political science with interests in social justice and climate policy.
1. This article was completed in September. Between its completion and its publication, these comments about the CDC moratorium may be superseded by federal actions. The authors sincerely hope so, but it seems unlikely with a sharply contested presidential election and a Supreme Court justice nomination battle looming.
2. Desmond, Matthew. 2016. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. New York: Crown.
4. Kneebone, Elizabeth and Berube, Alan. 2013. Confronting Suburban Poverty in America. Washington, D.C. The Brookings Institution.
5. Carroll, Tom. 2020, in press. Revitalizing First Suburbs: A Manager's Manual. Washington, D.C.: International City/County Management Association.
6. Wolfe-Johns, Elaina & Carroll, Tom. “Evictions Outside the Central City: Poverty’s Cause and Effect in Suburban and Smaller Communities.” Public Management, July 2020, Volume 102, Number 6.
7. The eviction filing rate is the number of available rental units in a community divided by the number of evictions filed annually.
8. Thanks to Nick DiNardo of The Cincinnati Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati and Virginia Tallent of the City of Cincinnati City Solicitor’s Office for their guidance.
9. A writ of restitution is a court order for the tenant to leave the rental unit and return possession of it to the landlord.
10. The damage claims were rarely pursued by the landlords in court and appear to be so inflated as to be unbelievable. If the amount of landlord-claimed damages were actually occurring in rental units in Silverton, the Village would be able to measure the damages in its building permit filings. This is not the case.
11. Raymond, Elora, Duckworth, Richard; Miller, Ben; Lucas, Michael; and Pokharel, Shiraj. 2016. “Corporate Landlords, Institutional Investors, and Displacement: Eviction Rates in Single-Family Rentals.” Community & Economic Development Discussion Paper No. 04-16.
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