The Eviction Tsunami That Wasn’t

October 8, 2021   |  
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When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an eviction moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in late August, housing activists, researchers, and politicians warned that an eviction tsunami would be the inevitable result.

"The tragic, consequential, and entirely avoidable outcome of this ruling will be millions of people losing their homes this fall and winter, just as the delta variant ravages communities and lives," said Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in late August.

"The Supreme Court failed to protect 11 million households across our country from violent eviction in the middle of a deadly global pandemic," said Rep. Cori Bush (D–Mo.), citing one estimate of how many renters were behind on rent.

Economic projections of how many evictions could be expected without a national moratorium painted an equally dire picture.

The Aspen Institute in July said that 15 million people were behind on rent and at risk of eviction. The U.S. Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey from the last two weeks in August found 7.6 million people reported behind on rent, and of those, 3.5 million said they were very likely or somewhat likely to be evicted in the next two months.

Nevertheless, a month after the end of the federal eviction moratorium, these millions of evictions have yet to materialize. Indeed, while filings have increased, they remain well below historical averages almost everywhere in the country.

Eviction filings rose 8.75 percent from August to September, according to data tracked by Princeton University's Eviction Lab, which tracks eviction filings in six states and 31 cities (which covers about a quarter of all renters).

"It's going up but it's not going up by a ton," says Peter Hepburn, a sociology professor at Rutgers University and researcher with Eviction Lab. "You look at September relative to historic averages, that leaves eviction filings at 48.5 percent below historic averages…We didn't see a jump up to normal, let alone a jump past normal into a giant wave of eviction filings."

Explanations abound for why this is.

One is that while the federal moratorium is no more, local and state moratoriums remain in place across the country.

Austin, Texas, for instance, still has its own local eviction moratorium in effect. Evictions there were about 20 percent of historic averages in September 2021, which was basically unchanged from August. New York City, which is covered by a state moratorium, is likewise seeing only about 10 percent of the normal rate of evictions.

Evictions have increased more markedly in places that were only covered by the CDC moratorium.

Connecticut, where a state moratorium expired at the end of June, saw a little over 1,000 eviction filings in September alone.

"That's the highest number of evictions filed since March 2020, when the pandemic began. It's almost double the number of evictions filed in August 2021," says Erin Kemple of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center. "While we're not meeting the numbers prior to the pandemic yet, we're getting close."

Even with that sharp increase in evictions and no local moratorium in place, however, filing rates are about 60 percent of historical averages in Connecticut. That's true for most other states and cities for which the federal moratorium was the last protection against eviction.

Another possible explanation is that states and cities are finally starting to get the $46 billion in federally funded rent relief they've been given to landlords and tenants, and thus suppressing evictions.

The early rollout of these programs was disastrous in many states. Applicants reported crashing websites, and demands for documents they didn't have. Even if they did manage to submit applications, it often took months before governments actually paid out checks.

City and state government agencies tasked with administering these programs, for their part, complained that a lack of staff and technical expertise was hamstringing their ability to effectively distribute funds.

But in the past couple of months, the speed at which governments are spending this money is increasing rapidly.

From January to May 2021, jurisdictions managed to spend only $1.5 billion of the first $25 billion in rent relief funds appropriated by Congress, according to U.S. Treasury Department data. In August alone, $2.2 billion went out the door.

Obviously, more money going to landlords and tenants to cover back rent and utilities would have fewer landlords looking to evict tenants. That's particularly true in states where landlords are required to drop eviction proceedings as a condition of accepting rent relief funds.

The increasing efficiency of these programs might also give landlords who have yet to be paid the necessary confidence that funds will come eventually, thus suppressing eviction filings further.

"If you're in a state that is not distributing money or that process is so slow that it is not worth it, maybe you don't have the patience to go through it and you'd rather take the loss and evict someone and try to replace them quickly," says Hepburn. "If you're in a state or city where the local program is moving really efficiently, maybe you'd have more willingness to wait."

Data have shown a pretty tight relationship between eviction filings and rent relief spending.

And yet, even places that are doing a poor job of spending rent relief money are still seeing below-average evictions. Cincinnati, Ohio, has spent only about 15 percent of the first batch of rent relief funds it has received, and yet filings are about 80 percent of the historical average. St. Louis, Missouri, has spent just under 40 percent of its rent relief funds. Nevertheless, eviction filings were down 40 percent from the average in September.

Another explanation is that, contra expectations, evictions were never set to surge during the pandemic-induced recession.

"My guess is if there had been no moratoria whatsoever, evictions would have still fallen very sharply in the spring of last year when landlords had very little shot of getting someone else in, and then bounced around at below normal levels," Salim Furth, a researcher at George Mason University's Mercatus Center, told Reason in June.

During a down economy, he explains, landlords have an incentive to work out deals with tenants who have trouble paying their bills. The alternative is to go through the expense of evicting a tenant only to have a vacancy that might be hard to fill in tough economic times.

There is some evidence that landlords were more willing to cut tenants slack during the pandemic.

According to a report from Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies, 48 percent of surveyed landlords deferred rent in 2020, up from 15 percent in 2019. Some 21 percent of landlords forgave some rent, up from 3 percent in 2019. The number of landlords who waived late fees also doubled.

A slower-than-expected economic recovery during 2021 is conceivably continuing to put downward pressure on eviction filings, even in places with no eviction protections and poorly run rent relief programs.

Below-average evictions still aren't likely to last forever.

"Getting back to normal, evictions, like everything else in the economy, will get back to normal," says Furth. Kemple likewise says that the trend in Connecticut's evictions suggests the state is returning to pre-pandemic levels of evictions.

By all indications, that increase will look more like a normal rising tide, and less like the predicted massive tsunami.

That hasn't stopped policy makers from either extending moratoriums where they still exist or attempt to reimpose them where they've lapsed. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan recently extended that city's eviction moratorium through January 2022.

Progressive lawmakers led by Bush and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) have introduced a bill that would create a nationwide eviction moratorium even more sweeping than the now-invalidated CDC order.

Housing activists are quick to point out that America had a high rate of evictions prior to the pandemic, and that a return to normal is not necessarily something to shoot for. Nevertheless, eviction moratoriums were never intended to be a long-term solution. They also come with serious negative consequences for property rights and property owners.

The rush to reimpose a federal moratorium, even though no sudden surge in evictions is on the horizon, is evidence of just how hard it is for politicians to let go of these emergency regulations.


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