Research Identifies Challenges in Comparing Evictions across Jurisdictions

An article in Housing Policy Debate, Evictions: The Comparative Analysis Problem,” identifies ways in which contextual details matter when comparing eviction rates across jurisdictions. Drawing on extensive fieldwork, interviews, and study of administrative data, the authors identify institutional features that impact the eviction process and that should be taken into account when comparing filing rates or eviction rates across the country.

The study is based on the authors’ fieldwork and ethnographic study of local eviction laws, procedures, and records. The authors conducted interviews with 188 landlords, tenants, and attorneys across Baltimore, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC. They examined available eviction records in all cities but Dallas.

Differences in the rules and procedures can change the significance of filing rates, which need to be accounted for when comparing data from one city to another. For example, the high volume of eviction cases in Baltimore is partly due to a city requirement that landlords file with the court as soon as the tenant is in arrears. In other jurisdictions, the landlord serves a tenant with a prefiling notice, and the tenant has a certain number of days to pay or vacate. Since courts are involved as soon as renters become delinquent, though, fewer than 5% of initial filings in Baltimore result in a family being evicted.

The authors identify several ways in which state laws, local ordinances, and court regulations can affect the number of eviction filings and evictions in a jurisdiction. Higher filing fees are associated with lower filing rates across the U.S. The filing fee was $15 in Washington, DC, but $385 in Los Angeles. Longer waiting times between steps in the eviction process may encourage landlords to preemptively file evictions, but longer timelines also give tenants more time to pay their rent and avoid the execution of an eviction. “Just cause” eviction ordinances can inflate eviction filing rates, to the extent that lease non-renewals are counted as evictions. In jurisdictions without such protections, some landlords may choose to wait out a soon-to-expire lease rather than file. Informal courtroom procedures not documented by administrative records can shape outcomes. For example, in Los Angeles judges begin by suggesting that litigants settle cases, which may lead to a higher rate of negotiated settlements. The geographic location of the court can also influence outcomes: when eviction cases are held in a building far from the neighborhoods where tenants are evicted, tenants will struggle to attend, and defaults may rise. 

The authors offer suggestions for making thoughtful comparisons of evictions across jurisdictions. Gathering data on tenant demographics, housing market dynamics, and landlord characteristics can help explain differences across jurisdictions. They recommend looking to tools that summarize eviction regulations in cities across the country, like the one created by the Center for Public Health Law Research (see Memo, 2/20/18), to better understand variation in policies. Finally, they recommend looking to how administrative data are created—when data points are created, how serial evictions are treated, or which data are sealed—to understand why eviction filings or rates may vary from one jurisdiction to another.

The paper can be accessed at: