The High Cost of Eviction and Low Cost of Filing

The High Cost of Eviction and Low Cost of Filing
Philip ME Garboden and Eva Rosen
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Although it may seem the goal of filing an eviction is to evict the tenant, landlords generally try to avoid forcing tenants to move because of the costs involved. Instead, the goal of filing is often to use the threat of an eviction to pressure tenants to pay back rent and overlook housing quality issues. This study seeks to shed light on how the dynamic between landlord and tenant changes in the face of an eviction filing, particularly how and why landlords use the threat of an eviction and how that threat changes tenant behavior.

The authors completed in-depth interviews with 127 landlords and property managers in three cities (Baltimore, Cleveland, and Dallas). The bulk of interviewees were randomly selected from active listings on common rental listing sites, such as Craigslist. Researchers asked about landlords’ business strategies, including how they screened tenants and how they filed evictions. They augmented a subset of interviews with direct observations of day-to-day business, days spent in housing court, and interviews with city officials and tenant advocates. Based on the responses, the researchers sought to understand how landlords thought about the cost of evictions, why landlords threaten eviction, and how the power dynamic changes with eviction filings.

The authors argue that an eviction should not be seen as a single event—in which the tenant is or is not forced to move—but should instead be seen as an ongoing process that changes the relationship between the two parties. That landlord-tenant relationship morphs to more closely resemble a creditor-debtor relationship because the tenant becomes financially indebted to the landlords. Critically, the landlord now has greater leverage over the tenant. 

Key findings

  • Evicting a tenant is often a worst-case scenario for landlords. In most cases, a tenant paying some rent is better than a vacant unit, even if the tenant is behind on rent. Additionally, forcing a move is financially costly, burdensome, and emotionally trying. Landlords usually decide to follow through on an eviction if they decide the ongoing lost rent is greater than the costs of finding a new tenant.
  • Starting the eviction process, however, is much less costly and starts the legal process of legitimizing government involvement (courts and sheriffs). This legal mechanism can be incredibly powerful for pressuring the tenant to prioritize paying their rent over other expenses. Additionally, it can lead to the tenant completing work on behalf of the landlord.
  • Landlords highly value tenants with vouchers because the voucher guaranteed a steady stream of money to the landlord. Additionally, tenants with vouchers are highly susceptible to the threat of an eviction because an eviction can cause them to lose their voucher.
  • With an eviction filed, landlords can evict for reasons that would not otherwise be allowed. For example, one landlord reported using nonpayment of rent as a cover to evict a mother and daughter who were related to a previous tenant who was convicted of illegal behavior. 

Policy implications

  • Judges often do not have the time in a landlord-tenant hearing to adjudicate eviction cases beyond the issue of late rent and may bypass other concerns, such as maintenance issues. To address this, cities have begun implementing right to counsel laws, which better empower residents to raise issues in eviction cases.
  • Additional financial resources are needed to both provide emergency funding to tenants facing eviction as well as provide permanent subsidies.

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