Public housing can be a lifesaver. Because rents are capped at 30% of household income, residents have affordable housing that is otherwise nearly impossible to find. Tenants also benefit from protections set by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that should help prevent residential instability. Yet previous research from the Eviction Lab shows that public housing authorities (PHAs) are responsible for a disproportionate share of eviction cases in many cities across the U.S.
In an article published in Social Service Review we take a closer look at these dynamics. Using the records of hundreds of thousands of eviction court cases filed across the country between 2010 and 2016, we paint a detailed picture of how PHAs rely on the eviction process. We show large variations between PHAs in how often they file cases, likely driven by agency-level policies. In-depth interviews with public housing staff shed light on why some of them turn to the courts in response to their conflicting roles as property managers and social service providers.
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Lillian Leung, Peter Hepburn, James Hendrickson, and Matthew Desmond
We find that public housing residents are filed against for eviction at a similar rate as people living in private-market housing in exactly the same neighborhoods. But among those who face an eviction filing, public housing residents are much more likely to be filed against repeatedly at the same address, a process of serial eviction filing that we described in previous research. Indeed, among public housing residents in our study who were filed against for eviction, nearly half (46.8 percent) were filed against repeatedly, compared to less than one-third (28.4 percent) of those living in private-market homes. These serial filings overload the courts and are stressful and damaging for tenants, increasing housing costs and worsening eviction records.
Like private landlords, PHA managers are more likely to file serial cases when the eviction process is cheap and fast, and they do so even more often. Going state-by-state, we find a strong correlation between serial eviction filing rates in public housing and on the private market (see Figure 1). Overall, serial eviction filing rates from public housing were higher than those in private-market housing in 21 of the 28 states in our sample (all those above the 45-degree line in Figure 1).
With nearly 3,000 different housing authorities across the country, the landscape of public housing is diverse. We show that serial eviction filing was more common in housing authorities with more Black residents. By contrast, it was less common in PHAs with fewer total units and with a larger share of residents were seniors.
Public housing authorities are evaluated by HUD on a set of metrics that reflect their physical upkeep, management practices, and finances. We compare PHAs based on these scores and find that agencies that filed more serial eviction cases did not score better on these metrics, either overall or specifically on the evaluation of their rent collection and finances. In other words, there is no evidence that repeatedly filing evictions against the same tenants actually improves the performance of a public housing authority.
Even among larger housing authorities, serial eviction filing isn’t a universal pattern. In Figure 2, we plot serial eviction filing rates for the 49 PHAs in our sample that have 1,000 units or more.
The Housing Authority of the City of Charleston, South Carolina, had the highest serial eviction filing rate of any large PHA in our sample: over 8 in every 10 households that were filed against were filed against repeatedly. Fourteen PHAs—most in North Carolina, South Carolina, or Virginia—had serial eviction filing rates above 50 percent. By contrast, 13 large PHAs had serial eviction filing rates below 20%. In short, not all housing authorities file repeatedly against their tenants.
We also show that serial eviction filing rates vary more between housing authorities than across buildings within PHAs. This is important, because it shows that eviction practices are related to how an agency manages their portfolio of homes and that solutions should come at this level rather than building-by-building.
To better understand the policies that drove these patterns, we conducted interviews with 42 PHA managers and administrators from two housing authorities in Northeastern Ohio: the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, which serves greater Cleveland, and the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority. Both follow HUD regulations, both operate under the Ohio Landlord Tenant Law, and both serve demographically-similar populations. But in Cleveland over half (51.5%) of all tenants who were filed against received more than one filing, while in Akron this almost never happened. What drove the difference?
In our interviews, managers in both PHAs emphasized the need to meet rent collection metrics, but they responded to these pressures differently. In Cleveland, managers will file eviction cases as soon as permissible, and then continue to work with the tenants, offering payment plans and trying to find ways for them to stay. That strategy, combined with intervention from Cleveland’s unique Housing Court, means that eviction filings often serve more as a rent collection tactic than a tool of displacement. This has led to a management philosophy that turns to the court system more quickly and frequently.
By contrast, property managers in Akron’s housing authority understand eviction filing as a last resort and are more likely to see it through to removal. They have stricter rent collection policies, including a requirement that tenants submit full back rent to settle an eviction filing. In the rare situation when a resident has an eviction filed against them for a second time, they are unlikely to be able to stay. Jonathan Lindsey, a finance manager, explained that, “you might take it to court and settle it once, but you’re not going to take it to court and settle it again. If they make it all the way back to court with all the safety nets, more than once, the likelihood of them being evicted on the second time is going [to] probably [be] very high.”
The end result is that the public housing authority in Cleveland brings far more cases overall than the one in Akron, and more of them repeatedly against the same tenants. They end up evicting tenants slightly more often too, yet when we compare the property management and rent collection evaluation metrics used by HUD, the two housing authorities receive similar scores.
Over the years, large-scale failures and notable instances of mismanagement have fed popular narratives that paint public housing as distressed and decrepit, in turn leading to increased scrutiny. Concerns over cost-effectiveness and the broader turn in federal policies toward market-based solutions have pressured PHAs to downsize programs. As funding is cut back, rent collection is more critical than ever to these agencies, both to shore up budgets and as a signal of efficiency.
PHA staff are left trying to negotiate the tension of being both service providers and landlords. Public housing, by design, serves particularly vulnerable populations. Among tenants, 43 percent are Black and 32 percent of families are female-headed with children. Average annual household income for a family living in public housing is only $16,398. Even with rent capped at 30 percent of household income, families living in public housing struggle to keep up with rent and have little left over to make ends meet.
PHAs often turn to the courts to manage this tension. We find that strong incentives for rent collection push some PHA managers to file often and repeatedly against their tenants, undermining their residential stability. Yet this is not true everywhere: we 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.
What could be done to address this situation? One important step would be for the federal government to factor eviction practices into PHA evaluations. While HUD collects data on rent collection and building inspections, housing authorities are not required to record or report eviction cases. By failing to count these cases, HUD is turning a blind eye to the scale of displacement from public housing and the frequent reliance on eviction. Given the emphasis public housing staff places on these scores, changes to evaluations and reporting standards can play a key role in shaping PHA priorities and approaches to property management.
More broadly, greater funding could allow public housing authorities to focus more on building upkeep and service provision. Long-term disinvestment has undermined the effectiveness of public housing for generations, yet ample evidence shows the benefits that this housing can nonetheless provide to its residents. If we provided the resources these programs need and focused our efforts on keeping the lowest-income Americans housed rather than in collecting rent, we might arrive at a system that works better for everyone.