State and Municipal Legal Barriers May Reduce Serial Eviction Filings

An article in Social Forces, Serial Eviction Filing: Civil Courts, Property Management, and the Threat of Displacement,” finds that serial eviction filings—when a property manager files to evict the same household from the same address multiple times—are regularly used to extract monetary sanctions from tenants. Each eviction filing results in approximately $180 in fines and fees for the average renter household, raising their monthly housing cost by 20%. Serial eviction filings can increase renters’ housing cost burden and limit future housing options, even when the filings do not result in displacement.

The authors collected 8.1 million court records filed between 2010 and 2016 in 958 counties in 28 states, covering one-third of U.S. renter households. Their quantitative analysis focuses primarily on 1.1 million records in 2014. After removing duplicate and commercial eviction cases, the authors identified serial eviction filings as cases that shared the same defendant name and address. In 2014, 30.4% of households who were filed against experienced serial eviction filings.

The authors estimated the costs of fines and fees associated with evictions as the county eviction filing fee, often passed on to tenants, plus an approximation of late fees (10% of the census tract’s median rent). The average cost of “paying to stay” was approximately $180. Because finding new housing is often costlier than paying fees and each eviction filing limits their future housing options, households have an incentive to pay these costs and remain in place.

The authors then calculated a state serial filing rate and a neighborhood serial filing rate for each census tract in 2014. The rate was the share of households in their records who received at least two eviction filings. Delaware had the highest state-level serial filing rate (56.3%), followed by Virginia (50.7%) and South Carolina (46.7%). In Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia, over half of households subject to serial filing were threatened with eviction three or more times.

Serial eviction filings affected mid-range rental markets most. Relative to neighborhoods with median rents between $1,201 and $1,400 per month, neighborhoods with lower rents had significantly lower serial filing rates. The rates were also significantly lower in neighborhoods with median rents above $2,000. The authors speculate that landlords may not be able to regularly collect fines and fees in down-market neighborhoods, discouraging serial filing, while tenants in more expensive neighborhoods are better able to consistently pay their rent on time.

Neighborhoods that gentrified since 2000 had significantly lower serial filing rates. Landlords in gentrifying neighborhoods may prefer to remove tenants and raise rents rather than serially file. Serial filing rates were higher in neighborhoods with larger renter populations, tighter markets, higher percentages of female-headed renter households, and higher percentages of renters with children. Serial filing may be associated with the prevalence of corporate landlords: all else held equal, neighborhoods with a larger percentage of businesses listed as plaintiffs had significantly more serial filings.

Counties with more barriers to eviction had lower serial eviction filing rates. The authors examined six legal characteristics that might discourage serial filings: the cost of filing, the number of courts hearing cases, the required process time, whether parties must hire attorneys, whether the court automatically schedules a hearing, and whether landlords must notify tenants of late rent for a period of time before filing. Taken individually, only the presence of notice requirements was significantly associated with a decrease in serial filings. Using a measure that tallied the number of legal barriers, however, the authors found a consistent decline in the serial filing rate as the number of barriers increased. Where formal evictions are cheap and quick processes, as in Charleston, South Carolina, serial eviction rates were much higher than in places where legal barriers increased the cost, as in Mobile, Alabama.

To understand the dynamics of serial filings, the authors conducted in-depth interviews with 33 property managers, 7 attorneys, 2 judges, and a court clerk in Charleston, South Carolina, and Mobile, Alabama. Property managers reported being constrained by corporate policies from negotiating with tenants. Property managers in Charleston reported using filings as way to get the attention of delinquent tenants. They also claimed they needed to file against all past-due tenants in order to avoid any appearance of discrimination against protected classes. In Mobile, where filing an eviction is a more serious and costly commitment, property managers reported relying on other strategies for rent collection, like making additional visits and calls and negotiating payment arrangements.

The authors argue that municipalities could reduce serial filing rates by raising legal barriers, reduce renters’ financial precarity by regulating late fees, and better accommodate income volatility and varying pay schedules by requiring flexibility on rent payment deadlines.

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