The COVID-19 pandemic set off a series of social, economic, and political changes that reshaped life across the United States in 2020. Those changes were felt most acutely by poor people, particularly renters, who were the most likely to have lost wages and jobs as lockdowns rolled across the country. As concern grew that job losses might put a growing number of families at risk of eviction—and recognizing that a spike in evictions would likely increase the spread of COVID-19—policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels introduced policies intended to support residential stability, including temporary eviction moratoria: pauses of eviction court proceedings or lockouts by law enforcement.
In a paper published in the journal Socius, we provide a snapshot of U.S. eviction filing patterns in 2020 and a first description of how effective these policies were. In a year that was unprecedented in many respects, we aim to show how renters fared, and what they may be facing in 2021.
In the paper, we analyzed eviction filings collected through the Eviction Tracking System, as well as data collected by Emily Benfer, Robert Koehler, and colleagues about eviction moratoria at the state, county, and municipal levels. This work builds on a series of preliminary analyses that we published to the Eviction Lab website over the course of 2020.
We present seven main findings:
First, between March 15 and December 31, 2020, eviction filings were 65% below historical average in the sites we tracked. In Figure 1, we plot total weekly eviction filings as a percentage of historical average over the course of the year. For nearly every week since the pandemic began, filings were far below average. This reduction in filings is a result of eviction moratoria at the local, state, and federal levels, as well as CARES Act stimulus payments, supportive measures like rental assistance, expanded unemployment benefits, and court closures created effective halts on all eviction proceedings.
Note: Weekly eviction filings are aggregated across sites tracked by the Eviction Tracking System (ETS) in 2020. Historical averages are calculated for the same seven-day periods in previous years. The vertical red dashed line in mid-March marks the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The bars in orange mark the two weeks between the CARES Act eviction moratorium and the CDC eviction moratorium when no federal moratorium was in effect.
Second, when federal moratoria were not in effect, eviction filings rose dramatically. In Figure 1, we see this in the two bars marked in orange: the two weeks between the end of CARES Act coverage and the start of the CDC eviction moratorium. In no other week since the start of the pandemic did we observe filings above 68% of historical average. For the week of August 30, case filings returned to pre-pandemic levels. This increase suggests that many landlords were acutely aware of moratoria and ready to file for eviction as soon as was permitted.
Third, state and local moratoria also reduced filings. Cities, counties, and states across the country adopted moratoria, but these policies varied in which tenants were protected and what steps of the eviction process were halted, under what conditions, and for how long. In many cities, state or local moratoria temporarily cut eviction filings dramatically. This is especially true of sites that suspended the earliest stages of the eviction process, preventing landlords from issuing notices to quit or filing cases in court. In these cities, new eviction filings were at or below 12.6% of historical average while their moratoria were in place. By contrast, cities that allowed cases to be filed but suspended hearings were less successful in reducing new eviction filings. And in Phoenix, which allowed eviction filings and hearings but froze enforcement of eviction orders, total filings rose to 47.8% of average.
Fourth, interpretation and implementation of the CDC eviction moratorium varied widely across jurisdictions. In Figure 2 we plot eviction filings relative to historical average between when the order went into effect (September 4) and the end of the year—excluding any periods when a state or local eviction moratorium was in place. Filings were below 40% of historical average in Philadelphia, PA, Richmond, VA, and New York, NY, but above 80% of historical average in Columbus, OH and the three sites we monitor in Florida (Gainesville, Tampa, and Jacksonville). Filings increased between the start of the CDC moratorium and the end of the year.
Note: Sites are only included for the portion of the year from 9/4/2020 onwards if no state or local eviction moratorium was in place.
Fifth, we estimate that at least 1.55 million fewer eviction cases were filed nationwide in 2020 than would be filed in a typical year. The ETS only covers one in five renter households in the U.S., but we used historical eviction filing data and information about state-level eviction protections in 2020 to extrapolate across the rest of the country. The scale of the reduction in filings is impressive, but also highlights the scale of the eviction crisis in the U.S. prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sixth, while fewer cases than normal were filed from March 15 onward, the demographic characteristics of those facing eviction did not change. Black and Latinx renters—particularly female renters—are disproportionately at risk of being filed against for eviction and being evicted. Eviction filings after March 15, 2020 targeted the same communities and individuals who were at risk of eviction prior to the pandemic. Notably, Black renters received a disproportionate share of all eviction filings. Black renters made up 22.8% of all renters in ETS sites, but received 35.2% of filings between March 15 and December 31.
Seventh, the amounts that landlords claimed in eviction cases—back rent, late fees, and damages—increased significantly over the course of the year. In Figure 3, we plot monthly median eviction claim amounts as a ratio of median rent over the course of 2020 for the five cities where we can collect these data: Cincinnati, Houston, New York, Philadelphia, and Phoenix.
Note: County-level median rent was taken from the 2015-2019 American Community Survey (ACS) five-year estimates. For New York, median rent was averaged across the five constituent counties.
We observed much higher claim amounts late in 2020 than were typical of early months of the year. We tested several potential explanations for this pattern, and favor the simplest: the pandemic-led economic crisis is causing more renters to fall further behind on rent, and most of those renters live in low-income neighborhoods.
This article offers a first snapshot of eviction filing patterns during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. The reduction in eviction filings that we document is significant and demonstrates the potential of moratoria as an effective mechanism for halting evictions. Still, our analyses suggested several troubling trends. First, the pace at which eviction cases were filed increased over the course of 2020. Second, the populations facing eviction filings remained relatively static, a pattern that put Black and women renters at disproportionate risk of eviction. Third, the amounts claimed in eviction cases rose dramatically in the later months of 2020.
These trends represent cause for concern. As the pandemic wore on, more state and local actors either repealed or limited protections to smaller segments of the renter population. The CDC eviction moratorium is set to expire on June 30, 2021. At that time, renters will have the fewest protections available to them since the start of the pandemic. Many of the eviction cases that were averted in 2020 may be filed, and with significant amounts of back rent due. Congress has appropriated nearly $50 billion in emergency rental assistance, but distribution of those funds remains challenging. This emergency aid also does not address the underlying affordable housing crisis or economic hardships faced by renters, especially low-income Black and Latinx households. One of the major tests for 2021 will be whether policymakers prove willing and able to address long-term needs—including investment in affordable housing—while also instituting effective short-term solutions.