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Evictions Rising:  Are Courts Ready?

by Brian Bankert / February 10, 2023

Evictions are rising across the country. Beginning in March 2020, a patchwork of federal, state, and local eviction moratoriums were enacted as a response to the direct and indirect effects of the COVID pandemic. But the moratoriums were largely lifted between the end of 2021 and mid-2022. Since that time, evictions have not only returned to normal but have surpassed pre-pandemic levels. Let’s take a look at the trend and see whether local courts are ready to handle this.

Types of Eviction Moratoriums 

Eviction moratoriums during the pandemic took three different forms based upon the coverage or level of the policy: nationwide, statewide, and local. National moratoriums were federally enacted, first from a provision in the CARES Act, which was temporary and expired at the end of June 2020 after 120 days, and then shortly thereafter by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). The CDC ban on evictions was extended five times before it was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court at the end of August 2021. Beyond the federal moratoriums, states and individual cities put their own bans in place. The details varied depending upon the state and most states lifted their moratoriums by October 2020 deciding to rely on the federal bans. Individual cities like Washington D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Richmond had moratoriums that lasted into 2022.

The Eviction Process

In most states, evictions are filed in the local District Court but in some states the jurisdiction is Superior Court. Evictions are civil court cases and are sometimes called Summary Process cases, which is a simplified version of an eviction without the formalities of a full trial. The ease or difficulty of the eviction process from the perspective of both landlords and tenants depends upon the policies of the individual jurisdiction and whether there are resources available from third parties and government programs that divert cases from the traditional court to alternatives like mediation and rent assistance.

Evictions Trending Upward

Roughly 3.6 million eviction cases are filed in court by landlords against tenants every year according to 2018 findings by The Eviction Lab at Princeton University. The Eviction Lab also tracks evictions in 9 states and 32 cities across the country. While not exhaustive, the data are representative of a range of locations geographically and reflect the best information that courts can provide reliably and on a timely basis. The majority of states (5 out of 9) and cities (18 out of 32) are seeing higher evictions compared to pre-pandemic levels. Roughly 60% of the states and 33% of the cities that are experiencing higher levels have seen this jump past pre-pandemic levels occur in just the past few months. One state and 7 cities are seeing comparable levels to before the pandemic while 3 states and 7 cities are still below pre-pandemic levels but are off the lows seen in 2020. Hence, about two-thirds of the 9 states and three-fourths of the 32 cities tracked by The Eviction Lab are at or above pre-pandemic levels.

The weekly trends in the Eviction Lab data are also interesting. There appears to be a clear relationship between the end of a moratorium and an increase in evictions, which isn’t surprising. In the majority of states and cities, when a local or federal moratorium ended, evictions rose resulting in numerous spikes in the weekly trend given the patchwork of federal, state, and local bans. Examples of this phenomenon were seen in Virginia, where its capital of Richmond had one of the longest surviving moratoriums. Other examples at the city level included Austin and New York City, where local bans either overlapped or took the place of federal restrictions after August 2021.  

Impacts on Courts and Diversionary Programs

What are the implications for local courts across the country?

  1. Staffing Gaps Could Be Exposed. During the pandemic, many employees - even in courts - worked from home. Many proceedings and trials were conducted online through the use of teleconferencing and videoconferencing platforms like Zoom. And supporting office work from staff like Clerks and Probation Officers was done remotely from home. There was a significant drop in caseload and courthouse activity during this time. While there weren’t outright reductions in staff in many courts to match the reduction in caseload, early retirements did occur and planned staffing increases were suspended. As evictions increase, any staffing gaps resulting from the pandemic could be exposed, especially on the civil side of caseload.
  2. Diversionary Programs Could Be Tested. Third parties and aid programs that assist tenants before, during, and after an eviction could be tested by large increases in eviction cases if they suffered staffing losses and reductions in funding due to eviction moratoriums. These include legal representation from legal aid societies, rent assistance, and mandated or voluntary mediation between landlords and tenants. Will each of these contact points have enough resources if evictions were to substantially rise?

A Look Ahead

Given the historically high rates of inflation across many expense categories like food and transportation, the probability of tenants being unable to pay their rent - usually their largest expense - is quite high. In addition, as interest rate increases start to affect the economy, unemployment could start to rise, cutting off income sources temporarily for many tenants. Moratoriums, while well meaning, may have simply delayed the inevitable, especially if a tenant’s livelihood was permanently changed for the worse due to the pandemic. It’s highly possible we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to evictions and courts should plan accordingly.

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Tags: Courthouse Planning

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Brian Bankert

Brian Bankert

Brian Bankert is a Senior Statistician at Fentress Incorporated with over 20 years of experience supporting the government consulting, health care and financial services industries. He specializes in econometrics and data science and enjoys traveling, visiting art museums, playing trivia and spending time with his daughter.