What happened to the eviction tsunami?

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Since the start of the pandemic, housing experts (including one of the authors of this article) have predicted that the economic fallout from the pandemic would produce a “tsunami” of eviction that could evict up to 40 million people from their homes. at her’s.

Experts are still waiting.

When the pandemic first erupted in the United States, dire predictions prompted federal, state and municipal governments to adopt emergency policies to temporarily ban evictions. Two national moratoriums on evictions lasted almost continuously for about 17 months, until August 2021, and some states and cities still have protections in place against evictions and other tenants today.

When the national moratorium was lifted, housing experts, tenant advocates and policymakers braced for a wave of evictions. Now, four months later, evictions have increased, but data suggests a tsunami has yet to materialize. Some still believe there’s one coming, as courts start to deal with a backlog of deportation cases, but according to Eviction Lab, the country’s most comprehensive deportation data tracking system, deportations in most places are almost 40%. below the historical average.

Theories abound as to why we haven’t seen a cascade of evictions. Some observers believe that social policies, like the moratorium on evictions, stimulus payments, the extension of unemployment insurance and rent assistance have averted disaster. Others believe that “family owners” who tend to deal with low-income tenants have been more accommodating or reluctant to lose tenants than expected. A few commentators have pointed to problems with the data underlying predictions of an eviction tsunami and the existence of conflicting data. Another view is that a tsunami of evictions is happening, only we cannot see it: even as the courts halted formal evictions, millions of tenants have faced “evictions.” informal ”during the pandemic, with homeowners refusing to make necessary repairs or change locks without notice or use other means of harassment.

The reality is undoubtedly a combination of the above, and given the paucity of national-level eviction data, it is probably impossible to analyze the relative contributions of these factors. The United States does not have a national eviction database, and as of April 2021, a third of U.S. counties do not report annual eviction data. Informal evictions, which by some estimates may be five times more common than court-ordered evictions, are not tracked at all.

But no matter how we got to the unexpected place to have less formal evictions than before the pandemic, what can be said with hindsight is that a figure of 40 million evictions was probably far too high. That’s because the data used for this estimate and several other early predictions was a poor barometer of likely evictions.

Each week, starting in April 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey asked tens of thousands of Americans how confident they were in their ability to pay rent the following month. The responses were shocking. Week after week, between about a quarter and a third of national renters reported a lack of confidence in their ability to pay their rent for the following month.

Those numbers led to an August 2020 prediction from a consortium of researchers and organizations, led by the Aspen Institute and the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, that 30 to 40 million tenants (in 12.6 million to 17.3 million households) could be at risk of eviction.

The prediction sparked a wave of headlines that repeatedly cited the 40 million estimate. Housing advocates seized the prediction to push President Trump to extend the moratorium on evictions, and members of Congress leaned on it to demand additional resources, ultimately securing the passage of nearly $ 50 billion from rent assistance.

The story of the “tsunami” helped the machinery of our country kick in and probably ended up saving many Americans from being deported. But the consensus was that it was based on an overestimation – one that has since fueled unnecessary debate over whether a tsunami was already in the cards.

Aspen’s estimate for August 2020 has so far been found to be too high, possibly due to a few factors.

First, people may not be the best predictors of rent. The stress people feel in other parts of their lives – data from the start of the pandemic showed high levels of food insecurity, anxiety and depression – could lead to stress on the way they are doing. afford housing, even though they are in fact able to afford rent. It wouldn’t be the first time that a measure of confidence in housing stability has inadvertently increased widespread people’s anxiety: During the development of Prindex, a global survey of property rights, researchers became skeptical about it. at the idea of ​​asking people for their “confidence” to stay housed. because the question seemed to capture general concerns unrelated to the safety of the respondents’ housing.

Second, by producing the Aspen estimate for August 2020, the researchers decided who to count. To get to the lower end of their range, they chose to count not only households that reported “no” confidence in their ability to pay rent, but also households that had “low” confidence. And to get to the top of the range, they chose to include a portion of households declaring “moderate” confidence in paying rent.

Third, Aspen’s estimate was based on the confidence levels of not only those who are in arrears with rent, but also those who are currently renting. It is safe to assume that tenants who were in the process of paying their rent would be at less risk of eviction than those who did not yet have rent, regardless of their confidence in paying it. Thus, while 32.5% of all Tenants in the Aspen dataset expressed low confidence (ie. both low confidence and already behind on rents risked being evicted. Based on around 43 million tenant-occupied households, this would translate to around 6 million households and 14 million people at risk of eviction, less than half the bottom of Aspen’s estimate of d ‘August 2020.

The Aspen Institute wasn’t the only think tank making big eviction predictions based on the Household Pulse Survey. In January 2021, the Urban Institute focused only on survey respondents who were already late on rent to produce an estimate of 10 million tenants threatened with eviction. But the estimate did not take into account that of those 10 million renters, only 1.68 million said they were “very likely” to be evicted in the next two months (and nearly 2 million said that they were not at all likely to be deported).

Around the same time these estimates were released, data from the National Multifamily Housing Council, which tracks actual rent payments in about 11 million rental units, and survey data from Avail, a platform Online at the Independent Landlord Service, reported that rent payments weren’t not dropping much. Although these sources cover only a subset of tenants, they arguably support the hypothesis that more conservative estimates would have been more appropriate.

Now, as the numbers for post-moratorium evictions become clearer, outsized predictions are turning into easy fodder for conservative publications. The absence of an eviction tsunami was not greeted with a celebration or recognition of the preventive effects of proactive social policy, but with a debate over the likelihood of a tsunami.

Today, the Eviction Lab Eviction Tracking System is the best tool we have for tracking evictions in the United States. It covers six states and 31 major cities, but it is only capable of tracking eviction requests for a quarter of the country’s tenants and does not follow actual eviction judgments. Even with the eviction tracking system, most local governments do not report annual statistics on evictions, let alone where evictions are concentrated or the amount of rent arrears that lead to evictions. Despite unprecedented attention to evictions over the past year, 38% of rural officials and 22% of city officials recently told the National League of Cities that they were unsure whether evictions had increased or decreased compared to to last year.

To truly understand evictions and make informed decisions to prevent them, states and counties need the resources to track and share their own eviction data, and that data needs to be aggregated into a national government database. With such a system, researchers will be in a better position to provide decision makers with the precise estimates they need.


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