In April, in an effort to understand the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on renter households, the Eviction Lab began collecting newly-filed eviction case records from a set of courts across the United States. As of today, the Eviction Tracking System (ETS) allows us to monitor the number of new eviction filings each week in a set of 17 cities.
In three of the counties we track in the ETS—Hamilton County, OH (Cincinnati), Harris County, TX (Houston), and Maricopa County, AZ (Phoenix)—we are able to collect an important data point associated with these filings: the amount of money, if any, that the landlord or property manager claims is owed by the tenant. While these dollar figures can include property damage, the vast majority of the amount owed is typically unpaid rent or associated late fees. In previous analyses, we have examined the (often quite small) money judgments levied against tenants who are evicted. Here, we look at the amounts claimed at the initiation of the eviction process.
These data allow us to provide critical new information about evictions during the pandemic. In recent months, how far behind on rent are tenants when they face eviction? How much rental assistance would be needed to keep them in their homes?
In Figure 1, we plot the amounts owed in eviction cases filed since April in Cincinnati and Houston. Due to data limitations, we only have Phoenix data for July.
The data show that in Cincinnati, landlords have filed 1,444 cases during this period in which they listed at least some money owed.1 Of those, 120 (8.3%) were for $500 or less. Half of all cases filed were for $1,200 or less.
The story is similar in Houston, though the number of eviction filings is much larger. Here, we see that 612 of the 6,524 cases with a dollar amount claimed (9.4%) were for $500 or less,2 and that half of all cases were for $1,411 or less.
In Phoenix, 1,759 new cases were filed in July. Of these filings, 319 (18.1%) were for $500 or less.3 Half of all cases were for less than $1,643.
In all three cities, a nontrivial share of evictions initiated during the Covid-19 pandemic have been for relatively small sums of money.
Have the amounts being claimed changed over the course of the pandemic? If landlords are letting renters fall further behind on rent before filing for eviction, we would expect to see these numbers increase over the summer.
In both Cincinnati and Houston, the amounts owed in eviction cases increased between April and May. Since then, however, the medians have remained stable, month-to-month variations notwithstanding. It’s striking that, in these two cities, renters threatened with eviction do not appear to be falling further and further behind on rent. This aligns with recent reporting indicating that during the pandemic renters may be taking extraordinary measures to pay the rent—until they can’t.