Rebecca Gale is an award-winning journalist with years of experience covering the nexus of politics and people in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Slate, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, and Health Affairs, among other outlets.
Most of the time, a new study finds, landlords file for eviction because it tilts the power dynamic in their favor—not because they want to eject their tenants.
On a Thursday morning last December, Katrina Porter woke up to get dressed earlier than usual. She pulled back her hair, put on black pants, a tie, and a uniform sweater from the local museum where she works as a security guard. She dropped her son off at 7:30 a.m., though she’d still be several hours late for work. First, she had to make it to Baltimore rent court by 8.
Katrina, like thousands of people a year, showed up to Baltimore’s rent court to dispute an eviction filing.
According to newly published research by Philip Garboden, a professor at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, and his co-author Eva Rosen, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University, landlords filing for eviction aren’t necessarily seeking to put the tenant on the street. Instead, filing for eviction has become one of the most effective ways to collect late rent and fines (even small ones), and further skews the power dynamic between landlords and tenants in landlords’ favor.
In Baltimore, as in many cities around the United States, working-class families struggle to afford housing. Families that make below the threshold set by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development can qualify for housing assistance in the form of a Section 8 voucher. A subsidy is paid directly to the landlord by the local public-housing authority on behalf of the voucher-holder. But the vouchers are so limited that, nationwide, only one in five who qualify will receive one.
Porter, a minimum-wage security guard at a museum, qualified. When she went to court, she had received an eviction notice for unpaid rent on her home, although the Housing Authority of Baltimore had withheld its subsidy to the landlord after her unit failed routine inspections.
As Garboden and Rosen found, many landlords filing to evict have no actual intention of kicking their tenants out and some, in fact, can’t even afford to do so, because eviction “comes with a variety of additional costs [for landlords] related to vacancy and property turnover,” they write.
Scholarship in recent years has dived into the discrete causes and effects of eviction. But the specific nature and downstream effects of drawn-out, intentionally unfulfilled evictions has been under-studied. Garboden and Rosen show that the continuing threat of eviction is in itself disruptive to those on the other end of it, a hidden cost of being poor.
In the study, Rosen and Garboden focus on Baltimore, Dallas, and Cleveland. For the 130,000 or so rental households in Baltimore, there were roughly 150,000 eviction filings in a recent year (more than one per renter household), and about 6,500 evictions. Based on interviews with 127 randomly sampled landlords and property managers and analysis of private filings, the researchers find that landlords “serially file for eviction on the same tenants in the same units, with the goal not of removing them, but rather of collecting rent … it can be beneficial for landlords to house tenants in small amounts of arrearage, even beyond what is necessary for legal eviction.”
In Baltimore, rents have risen in the city far more rapidly than renters’ incomes, which have stayed relatively flat since 2000. The annual income of the median renter household in Baltimore is roughly $33,000. At that level, many residents will fall behind on rent. Still, “most landlords don’t want to evict,” Rosen said. And not out of the goodness of their hearts: “It’s not financially profitable for them.”
“There’s only one thing worse than a tenant, and that’s no tenant,” as one landlord told the researchers. Eighty-three percent of the study’s respondents took practical steps to avoid evicting tenants whenever possible.
Landlords, too, have bills to pay. And many tenants do fall behind on payments and will react to an impetus to pay up—such as a court date. Garboden and Rosen found that to gain or maintain control of the landlord-tenant dynamic, landlords will initiate eviction filings for debts as small as $100.
No matter the amount, the legal process that a filing initiates is favorable to landlords. Putting tenants “in small amounts of arrearage aggravates the power imbalance within the landlord–tenant relationship,” the authors write. “It gives landlords the legal pretext to remove a tenant for any reason and prevents tenants from exercising their legal rights regarding code enforcement.”
In Baltimore (as well as in Cleveland and Dallas), filing for eviction turns tenants into chastened debtors, giving landlords additional leverage to deter them from complaining about a code violation or mistreatment. In courts, late rent takes precedence over unmade repairs and other issues. And the bulk of tenants do not show up to rent court, so the judge rules in favor of the landlord.
On that December day in Baltimore, Porter’s was just one of the 200 cases to be heard in rent court. Yet the session wrapped up by noon, with a single judge presiding.
“In Baltimore, they don’t have time to even tell if it’s a legitimate grievance on behalf of the tenant. No matter how fair you are [as a judge], you can’t do anything in seven seconds except approve paperwork,” said Garboden.
When things are particularly hectic, a second judge is often called in to take cases in another courtroom. The tenants who do show up are asked to step into the hall and work with their landlord to come up with a compromise. By the time they appear before a judge, a decision will have been reached.
“They waited for this day. They thought there would be someone to balance out the playing field and give them a chance,” said Zafar Shah, an attorney with the Public Justice Center and a watchdog of Baltimore’s rent court. “Instead, it’s ‘Head to the hallway and strike a deal.’”
People like Katrina Porter can prevail, but at the expense of taking off work, finding childcare, and awaiting a verdict that could put their home and their housing voucher (if they have one) in jeopardy. Once the voucher is gone, it can take years to receive another.
Some housing authorities are finding better ways to meet landlord needs, such as by expediting inspections, to create a stronger incentive for them to rent to families with vouchers. Garboden and Rosen found that landlords filing for hasty evictions are driven more by frustration than maliciousness. But the conflict between landlords and low-income tenants is inevitable, says Garboden, because it’s the result of government entities avoiding responsibility for a housing crisis.
Federal subsidies generous enough to create a safe floor in the housing market would help millions of families. But there are meaningful policy levers within arm’s reach at the local level, too. Baltimore could follow Philadelphia and New York by enacting a right-to-counsel ordinance for tenants facing eviction. Some cities provide emergency funding for tenants who can’t make rent because of a specific, financially burdening crisis. Rosen and Garboden suggest making it costlier for landlords to file for (rather than execute) evictions.
But Porter is one of the success stories. At court, she connected with Karen Wabeke, a public-interest lawyer with the Homeless Persons Representation Project. In the hallway, they negotiated with her landlord, after confirming with a representative from the housing authority that it had stopped paying its subsidy to the landlord several months earlier because the unit failed inspection. By the time they got to Judge Catherine Chen, a compromise had been reached. Porter agreed that she had not paid the most recent month’s rent plus late fees ($678), and consented to judgment in that amount.
Porter was satisfied with her verdict: “I know my truth and I know what I owe.” She was employed, so she’d be able to pay her share of the back rent. In that chaotic hallway of negotiations, she was one of the few who was smiling as she walked out.
Support for this article was provided by Rise Local, a project of the New America National Network.