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Data Offers Look Behind Declining Eviction Filings

evictions heat map
(Graphic: The Eviction Lab at Princeton University)

The Eviction Lab at Princeton University unveiled an online tool on Friday that monitors eviction filings in 10 U.S. cities — including Richmond. Updated weekly, it compares the numbers of eviction filings to those from 2016, which data shows has significantly declined since the start of the pandemic. 

Lavar Edmonds is a researcher with Eviction Lab. He said big factors responsible for the drop in filings are state and federal rent moratoriums. 

“In some places there has been a noticeable drop -- Richmond, for sure, especially given Richmond being one of the country leaders, unfortunately, in terms of eviction filings and evictions,” Edmonds said. “In the data that's shown, there is a downward turn in eviction filings except for the Tuckahoe area and some of the Henrico area.”

According to Steve Fischbach, director of litigation with the Virginia Poverty Law Center, Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority’s rent freeze has a lot to do with the local decline. 

“RRHA was one of the largest evictors in the city,” Fischbach said. “Another factor is landlords are probably taking the view that, ‘Well, I can file, but nothing's going to happen for a long time, so why spend the money filing?’”

Erin Barton is the deputy legislative counsel for the Virginia Realtors Association. She said one reason for the decline could be landlords and tenants working out payment arrangements. 

“This is obviously an uncertain time, it's something we've never experienced before and the emphasis needs to be on keeping people in their homes and doing whatever we can do to do that,” Barton said. “They are all working to keep payment plans in place and keep people in their homes, but these landlords don't have the money to float mortgages indefinitely. They need to get this rent income to pay their mortgage, or they're going to end up going into default.”

Barton said another possible reason for the decline in eviction filings is that it’s expensive. 

“There's court expenses, filing fees but there's also sort of indirect costs to evicting somebody: the unit is empty, [landlords] have to pay to turn over the unit, to get a new tenant in there,” Barton said. 

Brian Chase is co-founder of Landmark Property Services, which oversees about 25 properties in Virginia and North Carolina. He said they’ve cancelled late fees through July and have been working to set up payment plans for renters who’ve been financially impacted as a result of the pandemic. 

“We typically do not want to evict anyone. But if somebody has two or three, two or three months, you have to do something at some point,” Chase said. “We have people that still haven't paid us for February and March. So if they're still living there and they haven't paid us or we haven't heard from them, then yeah, we will be filing evictions.”

Advocates are concerned about the volume of eviction cases, and the possible health risks associated with people losing their homes during a pandemic. The state’s Supreme Court issued an order on June 8 extending a Judicial Emergency and eviction freeze until June 28. But Virginia’s highest court reversed the moratorium on Tuesday, allowing courts to resume hearing these cases immediately. When the city’s General District Court opened back up after Memorial Day, more than 1200 eviction cases were scheduled through the end of the month. 

VPLC’s Steve Fischbach said the only way forward will be through “meaningful” rent relief.

“That's what's going to keep people in housing and will also keep landlords solvent, because, you know, not being able to collect rent gives a strain on landlords,” Fischbach said. “As tenant advocates, we realize that, and we are trying to partner with [landlords] to get rent relief enacted because that is what's going to ultimately make the difference, either rent relief or a rent cancellation. That's what’s going to prevent the wave of homelessness that's likely to follow.”

As of right now, the state is working on a rent relief initiative — to help low-income residents negotiate payment plans with their landlords. The program won’t be available until sometime next month. 

Edmonds said Eviction Lab’s goal is to have this new tracker serve as a tool to shed light on the eviction process and help drive policy changes. Lawmakers passed some housing legislation in the years after Eviction Lab and the New York Times published data on Virginia having 5 cities in the top 10 for evictions. But he said the tenant-protection laws, including a statewide eviction diversion pilot, might not be enough to curb evictions. Once eviction moratoriums across the country begin to expire, experts predict an uptick in evictions as a result of COVID-19 and the economic crisis. He added that now is a good time to examine whether policies are working and what more might need to be done. 

Edmonds said to do that, there needs to be an understanding that evictions are brought on by more than just economic factors like income and unemployment rates. It’s an equity issue that disproportionately affects people of color. He said that’s the case across the country, stemming from racist laws created to disenfranchise Black people and other people of color by outlawing their ability to become homeowners. Racial covenants’ impacts can be seen today, in that people of color are more likely to be renters than homeowners. 

“If you look at the research from the RVA Eviction Lab, they are showing that evictions are particularly high in the southern part of the city and in the northeastern and northern and eastern parts of the city, but not so much in the west,” Edmonds said. “Unsurprisingly, when you look at it demographically — as the share of Black renters goes up, as do the eviction rates.”

Edmonds said that applies beyond Richmond, and can be seen across the country. 

“The highest eviction rates aren't necessarily in the poorest neighborhoods. There is an economic component here, but I think we also have to open our minds to the reality of other contributors. And I think that probably needs to be a part of the conversation we think about what kind of policies and solutions we're going to be able to come up with to address this crisis.”

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