A new report from Princeton’s Eviction Lab finds that public housing authorities are not only just as likely to evict tenants as landlords in the private market, they’re also more likely to make multiple eviction filings against the same tenant.The report, published in the University of Chicago’s Social Service Review, looked at hundreds of thousands of eviction filings from 2010 to 2016 in 29 states and notes that PHAs “account for a disproportionately large share of eviction cases.” The authors found PHA eviction filings are intended to recoup unpaid rent from tenants rather than displace them, writing, “Just as private market landlords routinely wield the threat of removal as a means of disciplining tenants and collecting rent, eviction filings remain a common event in public housing, especially among a subset of residents who experience regular difficulty making rent.” But the authors stress “doing so does not necessarily result in better outcomes.”
Researchers found a spectrum of eviction practices among public housing authorities, with some evicting more frequently and some less frequently than the private market. They also found rates of eviction filings were higher in public housing authorities with a larger share of Black residents and lower in PHAs with a higher share of senior residents. But in one area, public housing authorities fare worse than private rentals: 46.8 percent of tenants who faced eviction in public housing had multiple eviction filings against them at the same address, compared to 28.4 percent in the private market, a sign that evictions are being used as a rent collection tool.Public housing in the United States has been routinely defunded for decades, leading to dilapidated conditions and leading authorities to be more dependent on rental income. While tenants in public housing pay only 30 percent of income toward rent, they are by and large extremely low-income; annual household income is $16,398, according to Eviction Lab. This means many still struggle to pay rent along with other household expenses. Some public housing authorities have nevertheless taken a heavy-handed approach, filing eviction after eviction against the same tenants to induce them to pay.The researchers compared outcomes from this strategy, focusing on two public housing authorities in Ohio and found that not only was it harmful to tenants, it did not improve the authorities’ finances.
“We find that strong incentives for rent collection push some PHA managers to file often and repeatedly against their tenants, undermining their residential stability,” researchers wrote. Yet, they “found many housing authorities, even very large ones, with low serial eviction filing rates—and those PHAs aren’t doing worse because of it. There’s no evidence that the strategy of filing repeatedly pays off for housing authorities that employ it,” the report says.The authors spoke to managers of the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, which includes public housing in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority, also in Ohio. The Cuyahoga authority’s practice was to file evictions and then offer tenants payment plans or negotiate with tenants through the court. “They see serial eviction filings as an example of how they are open to working with tenants,” according to the report. The Akron authority was less likely to file eviction filings, but when it did, the only way to settle up was to pay back rent in full. While it ostensibly seemed like a harsher strategy, it meant overall there were fewer evictions, as they were not being used as a tool to force tenants to pay up.While the researchers didn’t have access to rent rolls for these two PHAs, they reviewed HUD’s evaluations of both authorities, which includes an assessment of finances, and found that Cuyahoga’s “reliance on repeated eviction filings does not result in better performance.”The result of the serial eviction filings was that they “increase rental cost burden by imposing fines and fees and restrict tenants’ future housing options by leaving them with extensive eviction records,” the researchers wrote. There was wide variety in the rate of evictions among the country’s nearly 3,000 public housing authorities; in New York State, for example, the rate of eviction filings was actually higher in public housing than in the private sector. And a study of housing authorities in Pennsylvania found that they were less likely to file evictions against tenants than in the private sector. And in some public housing authorities, serial eviction was exceptionally high—in Charleston, 8-in-10 public housing residents faced with eviction have received multiple filings. Yet the housing authority in El Paso, Texas, did not have any repeat filings of evictions.As a remedy, the researchers recommend that the federal government factor in eviction filings in their regular assessments of public housing authorities. According to the authors, “While HUD collects data on rent collection and building inspections, housing authorities are not required to record or report eviction cases.”