New GAO Report Highlights Challenges in Collecting Federal Data on Evictions

A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), “Evictions: National Data Are Limited and Challenging to Collect,” explores the complexities and obstacles underlying the creation of a national resource for eviction data, a proposal that has gained traction in Congress over the last five years. The report builds on a 2021 study conducted by HUD at the request of Congress exploring the viability of a national evictions database. The new report finds that despite considerable advances over the past decade, attempts to generate national estimates of eviction prevalence by compiling eviction case records from civil courts or conducting surveys have fallen short. The report offers recommendations for policymakers to consider before pursuing plans for a federal eviction data collection effort.

As part of the report, the GAO completed a literature review to learn more about existing sources of quantitative data on evictions and the characteristics of tenants and landlords involved in the eviction process. It also interviewed staff from federal agencies like HUD and the U.S. Census Bureau, state and local court officials, public housing authority staff, and members of research and housing advocacy organizations involved in eviction-related work, including NLIHC. A recurring theme throughout the report is the difficulty of capturing information on both formal evictions, which follow a legal process within the civil court system, and informal evictions, which occur outside of the court system and include both legal and illegal activities resulting in forced displacement of tenants.

At the time of publication, there were three main public sources for national data on evictions collected from civil court records: Eviction Lab, Legal Services Corporation (LSC), and the Court Statistics Project. While each of these initiatives uses somewhat different approaches to collect, standardize, analyze, and report on eviction court data, staff interviews with the GAO reveal that each shares the same barriers to producing robust and reliable eviction statistics. Most importantly, formal eviction is a highly localized process that operates within a network of overlapping state, county, and local laws, as well as court rules. Not only does the eviction process itself vary from one court to another, but the content, quality, and organization of information documented in case records also varies widely from court to court. Indeed, many courts systems use antiquated electronic court records systems that do not facilitate web-based data sharing, and some courts do not use digital case management systems at all. Furthermore, by definition, these initiatives are unable to capture information on informal evictions, which occur outside of the civil court system from which data are derived. Civil court records rarely contain demographic information on the landlords and tenants involved in cases, complicating efforts to learn more about the characteristics of households impacted by eviction. Moreover, the vast and complex nature of the U.S. civil court system makes data collection and management at the national level expensive, time-consuming, and labor-intensive.

The report explains that national surveys can be used to efficiently produce more comprehensive eviction prevalence estimates but are limited in other ways. The Census Bureau’s American Housing Survey (AHS) and Household Pulse Survey (Pulse) recently began to include questions on respondents’ experiences with eviction and other forced moves. Unlike record-based efforts conducted by eviction courts, these surveys allow for the collection of demographic information on households affected by eviction, as well as data on informal evictions. However, the report acknowledges that the phrasing and structure of survey questions – particularly the manner in which eviction or other forms of displacement are defined – can limit their utility in contributing to national estimates of eviction prevalence. In addition, although estimates gleaned from these surveys have been validated in certain locations (e.g., New York City) using local surveys, some officials have expressed concerns that the surveys may be undercounting evictions due to their relatively small sample size and the difficulty in accessing populations at greatest risk for eviction, such as extremely low-income renters, renters with limited English proficiency, and undocumented or mixed-status households.

Interviewees provided GAO with recommendations to consider when planning for a federal eviction data collection effort. First and foremost, they emphasized that any such effort should be goal-oriented and maintain clear objectives, such as generating data to target eviction-related resources to the areas of greatest need, measuring the impact of eviction-related policies, supporting the enforcement of “Fair Housing Act” provisions, and facilitating the linking of eviction data to other datasets from agencies like HUD. The interviewees also noted that establishing standardized definitions and terminology is critical to ensure that any estimates produced are reliable and generalizable. Many interviewees admitted that creating a national database of eviction court records would be challenging and highlighted the need for additional funding and technical training for state and local civil court staff to improve their electronic court systems before a national effort would be feasible. They noted that investing in enhancements to existing national surveys could be a more cost-efficient way to improve data quality.

In concluding the report, GAO explains that both approaches to data collection are vital for producing useful information on eviction. “[A] court record database could provide more authoritative reporting of formal eviction filings to target eviction-related resources,” writes the agency, “while an enhanced survey could help improve understanding of the national eviction landscape and tenant demographics.”

Read the article at: