For many renters living in southeast Greensboro, N.C., changing addresses is an all-too-familiar endeavor. The mostly low-income residents in these communities of concentrated poverty often can’t afford to pay the monthly rent and are ultimately evicted. “We have economic and racial segregation, a concentration of social issues with bad outcomes, and families that are stretched to the limit who routinely are finding themselves in eviction court,” says Stephen Sills, who directs the Center for Housing and Community Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

More than 1 in 12 of Greensboro’s renter households were subject to eviction judgments in 2016, one of the highest rates of any large U.S. city. The city’s affordability challenges, though, are by no means unique. As seen in other places, stagnant incomes for poorer households haven’t kept up with steadily escalating rents, contributing to high evictions in areas all across the country. To make matters worse, a tornado ripped through the city in April, displacing many residents.

A recently launched Princeton University database compiled from 83 million court records dating back to 2000 provides the first-ever national look at evictions. The Eviction Lab project is led by Matthew Desmond, whose recent Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted sparked a national dialogue on the issue.

Data reveal that high rates of evictions aren’t just confined to expensive housing markets or high-poverty cities. In Hampton, Va., for example, 1 in 10 renters faced a court-ordered eviction. And in Tulsa, Okla., and Killeen, Texas, the rate was 1 in 13. “Before these data, we really didn’t know just how widespread evictions were,” says Megan Hatch, who researches the issue at Cleveland State University.

The highest eviction rates were generally found in jurisdictions throughout the Southeast -- and not just in urban areas. Some rural and exurban places across the U.S. also experience elevated rates of eviction. Areas with high concentrations of African-Americans reported particularly high totals.

 

 

Brett Byerly, who heads the Greensboro Housing Coalition, a group providing housing counseling and support services, says an estimated 80 percent of the organization’s clients are black and most are women, mirroring disparities elsewhere. Governing’s calculations of Eviction Lab’s 2016 data for larger counties suggest eviction rates are strongly correlated with African-American populations, more so than poverty levels and rent burdens. 

Nationally, Eviction Lab estimates suggest 2.3 percent of renters experienced a court-ordered eviction in 2016. But that’s a significant undercount. More than twice as many evictions were filed that never led to a judgment. Other instances when tenants left after receiving notice or were paid to do so also aren’t captured in court records. Desmond’s research has found such informal evictions accounted for nearly half the total in Milwaukee. 

Most of the time, tenants threatened with eviction don’t show up to court hearings. In Guilford County, where Greensboro is located, only about a quarter appeared in court, according to Sills’ research. A big reason for this is that on top of potentially being evicted, Greensboro tenants appearing in court face the possibility of a cash judgment against them.

Ashley Gromis, an Eviction Lab researcher, says she was surprised to see many cases popping up in court systems with the same landlords and tenants at the same addresses. This suggests court filings are being used as a debt collection tool, with tenants likely repeatedly paying for a landlord’s court fee on top of any late fees.

Landlords further hold the upper hand in terms of legal representation. A 2004 study of Phoenix-area courts reported attorneys represented landlords in 87 percent of eviction cases, while not a single tenant had legal counsel. Some nonprofit groups provide free legal assistance, but there aren’t enough of them. There’s just one such legal aid firm serving Greensboro’s low-income renters and the rest of the state.

Byerly of the Greensboro Housing Coalition says it’s particularly difficult to find housing for those with an eviction on their record. That’s because landlords are screening prospective tenants with third-party companies that collect court data. California expanded a state law a few years ago that seals many of these eviction cases from the general public to help protect renters.

As in a lot of cities, Greensboro’s top evictor is the local public housing authority. Part of that’s due to the population such authorities serve and their large housing inventory. Sills says public housing residents are also subject to more inspections and stricter rules than people in private developments. Many worry the problem could worsen with a new federal mandate prohibiting smoking inside public housing and outdoor areas within 25 feet of buildings. 

States’ landlord-tenant laws vary widely. Cleveland State’s Hatch reviewed all policies around rules such as how many days’ notice landlords must give before increasing rent or how long they have to wait before starting eviction proceedings for delinquent renters. Northeastern states, along with California and a few others, maintain the most pro-renter laws. North Carolina and other parts of the South and Midwest tended to favor landlords, according to Hatch’s research.

At the local level, New York last year became the first city to guarantee all low-income residents threatened with eviction the right to legal counsel. Other cities are establishing legal aid funds. A Harvard Law Review study found that renters assigned legal representation were significantly more likely to retain their residences following litigation than those without an attorney.

Another approach that’s gaining momentum is “just cause” provisions. To evict a tenant, landlords must provide a reason specifically permitted by a local ordinance. The requirement could also help avoid, say, large-scale evictions when a new owner acquires an apartment building. Housing advocates also suggest preventing evictions makes financial sense for cities given the high cost of providing services to those without a place to live. Some are pursuing eviction diversion programs, such as a mediation service Denver recently piloted. 

The Eviction Lab’s Desmond contends that an eviction is often a cause, not just a condition, of poverty. About 77 percent of those evicted in the Guilford County housing study, for example, reported experiencing some form of homelessness immediately following eviction. “We can’t nudge this problem away,” Desmond said at a recent event in Washington, D.C. “The solution to the affordable housing crisis is affordable housing.”