Study of 900,000 eviction judgments shows national problem

RICHMOND, Va. — Before the first hearings on the morning docket, the line starts to clog the lobby of the John Marshall Courthouse. No cellphones are allowed inside, but many of the people who have been summoned do not learn that until they arrive. “Put it in your car,” the sheriff’s deputies suggest at the metal detector. That advice is no help to renters who have come by bus. To make it inside, some tuck their phones in the bushes nearby.

This courthouse handles every eviction in Richmond, Virginia, a city with one of the highest eviction rates in the country, according to new data covering dozens of states and compiled by a team led by the Princeton University sociologist Matthew Desmond.

Two years ago, Desmond turned eviction into a national topic of conversation with “Evicted,” a book that chronicled how poor families who lost their homes in Milwaukee sank ever deeper into poverty. It became a favorite among civic groups and on college campuses, some here in Richmond. Bill Gates and former President Barack Obama named it among the best books they had read in 2017.

But for all the attention the problem began to draw, even Desmond could not say how widespread it was. Surveys of renters have tried to gauge displacement, but there is no government data tracking all eviction cases in America. Now that Desmond has been mining court records to build such a database, it is clear even in his incomplete national picture that evictions are more rampant in many places than what he saw in Milwaukee.

Desmond’s team found records for nearly 900,000 eviction judgments in 2016, meaning landlords were given the legal right to remove at least 1 in 50 renter households in the communities covered by this data. That figure was 1 in 25 in Milwaukee and 1 in 9 in Richmond. One in five renter households in Richmond was threatened with eviction in 2016. Their landlords began legal proceedings, even if those cases did not end with a lasting mark on a tenant’s record.

For landlords, these numbers represent a financial drain of unpaid rent; for tenants, a looming risk of losing their homes.

Evicted people not in court

In Richmond, most of those evicted never made it to a courtroom. They did not appear because the process seemed inscrutable, or because they did not have lawyers to navigate it, or because they believed there was not much to say when they simply did not have the money. The median amount owed was $686.

Inside the courtroom, cases sometimes brought in bulk by property managers are settled in minutes when defendants are not present.

“The whole system works on default judgments and people not showing up,” said Martin Wegbreit, director of litigation at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society. “Imagine if every person asked for a trial. The system would bog down in a couple of months.”

The consequences of what happens in court then spread across the city. The Richmond public school system reroutes buses to follow children from apartments to homeless shelters to pay-by-the-week motels. City social workers coach residents on how to fill out job applications when they have no answer for the address line. Families lose their food stamps when they lose the permanent addresses where renewal notices are sent.

“An eviction isn’t one problem,” said Amy Woolard, the policy coordinator at the Legal Aid Justice Center in town. “It’s like 12 problems.”

'Quite intentional'

The new data, assembled from about 83 million court records going back to 2000, suggests that the most pervasive problems are not necessarily in the most expensive regions. Evictions are accumulating across Michigan and Indiana. And several factors build on one another in Richmond: It is in the Southeast, where the poverty rates are high and the minimum wage low; it is in Virginia, which lacks some tenant rights available in other states; and it is a city where many poor African-Americans live in low-quality housing with limited means of escaping it.

“This isn’t by happenstance — this is quite intentional,” said Levar Stoney, Richmond’s mayor. A quarter of the households in the city are poor, leaving many residents a car repair or a hospital visit away from missing the rent check. But that poverty collides with a legal structure that responds to such moments swiftly.

This is a state, Stoney and others say, that favors property owners, as it has since plantation days. And aid to the poor has been limited.

Desmond’s eviction calculations are probably conservative: They include only households that touched the legal process, not those in which people moved with an informal warning. The data undercounts places where eviction records can be sealed or are harder to collect. In his eviction rates, Desmond counts the moment when a court delivers a judgment, not when the sheriff shows up. Tenants have often left by that point.

Landlords' only recourse

In Richmond, property managers say that filing an eviction is their only recourse when tenants have not paid, and that they allow many to stay even after court judgments if they pay in full before the sheriff arrives. That means the court process also functions as a cumbersome rent-collection system, one that attaches lawyers’ fees and court costs to rent checks and one that saddles even tenants who do not lose their homes with lasting eviction records.

Candace Williams experienced the threat, the judgment and the sheriff’s visit when she fell behind on her rent in 2016. She was making $178 a week at a convenience store, some of which went to the space heaters and foam insulation she needed for the holes in her walls.

She brought photos of the neglected repairs on her phone to court. When she learned she could not bring in the phone, she hid it under a trash can outside. When she arrived, late, to the courtroom, a default judgment had already been entered against her.

“I definitely understand my fault in it,” Williams, 43, said. “But they don’t allow you any opportunity to make a mistake.”

The process is meant to be efficient, said Chip Dicks, a lawyer in Richmond who works on property management issues and has written provisions in the state’s landlord-tenant law. Efficiency is good public policy, he argues: Neither the landlord nor the tenant benefits from a drawn-out process that would burden renters with even more unpaid rent, late fees and lawyer costs.

“The landlords are the victims because they’re the ones not being paid when they’re supposed to be paid,” Dicks said. “What happens when you don’t pay your car payment? They come and take your car. What happens when you don’t pay your mortgage payment? They come and foreclose on your house.”

Tenants lack defenses

Poor tenants here, however, are not ensured access to legal aid or shielded from steep rent increases, as in some cities. And they have no right, as tenants in some states do, to deduct their own repair costs from the rent.

Laura Lafayette, the chief executive of the regional Realtors’ association, fears that this system can become a “churning machine” that fails to distinguish between the tenant who made one mistake and the tenant who habitually flouts the lease.

After Whitney Gulley was evicted in 2014, she and her three children passed through many of the places people go when they carry an eviction on their record: They stayed with relatives, in a long-term motel, in a homeless shelter. They finally found an apartment willing to risk an evicted family — with a two-month deposit up front.

Gulley was evicted over $569, her share of the rent on a home that was subsidized by a housing voucher. Her landlord said she had not received the check, and Gulley did not go to court because she said she believed she could not bring her children with her.

In that home she remembers happily, Gulley was in recovery from an addiction to pain pills. After the eviction, she said, she relapsed.

“I felt stripped down,” she said. In the eviction, she lost the writing journals she used as therapy. “It was like the only power and inspiration, and the motivation had been taken out of me.”

The high costs

This part of the process — what happens after the eviction — is not efficient for anyone. Landlords, too, have to turn over vacant apartments. And they face a rental pool full of potentially disqualified tenants.

The Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, which was responsible for about 9 percent of the eviction judgments citywide in 2016, spends on average 50 days turning over apartments, costing the agency more in lost rent than unpaid rent cases are often worth. The median amount owed on a public housing eviction in Richmond was $328.

The agency provides housing of last resort. But it is also a property manager. “I don’t think you ever eliminate that tension,” said Orlando Artze, the housing authority’s interim chief executive.

That tension is built into public housing, just as it is embedded in a school system that struggles to serve transient children while producing well-educated ones, or in a court system that tries to offer due process but in mass quantity.

“A lot of people get caught up in: ‘Oh, is it the tenant’s fault? Oh, is it the landlord’s fault?'” said Elora Raymond, an assistant professor at Clemson University who has studied eviction in Atlanta. “I think it really doesn’t matter,” she said. “Because this doesn’t work. As a societal way of renting housing, this doesn’t work.”