When the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, many housing experts predicted a wave of pandemic-related evictions from our nation’s apartments. There were predictions that as many as 40 million people would be put out of their homes. The wait continues – because evictions have not been nearly as high as predicted.
The early dire predictions prompted federal, state, and local governments to enact emergency policies to temporarily ban evictions. Two national eviction moratoriums lasted nearly uninterrupted for 17 months, until August 2021, and some states and cities still have eviction and other tenant protections in place today.
When the national moratorium ended, housing experts, renter groups, and elected officials expected a surge of evictions. Now, five months later, evictions have increased, but nowhere near the level expected. Does that mean the crisis has passed? Not necessarily. Courts are now working their way through a backlog of eviction filings, but according to Eviction Lab, the nation’s most comprehensive tracker of eviction data, evictions in most places are nearly 40 percent below the historical average.
The question is, after all the “expert” predictions, why did the flood of evictions not occur? One possibility is that the predictions caught the attention of policymakers. This led to the eviction moratorium, stimulus payments, extended unemployment insurance, and rental assistance. Another reason is that smaller landlords – the “mom and pops” – have been more accommodating with tenants, since losing a tenant would not guarantee a replacement household. Of course, it is always possible that the flood of evictions is actually taking place, and we just can’t see it. Even though courts prohibited formal evictions, millions of tenants face “informal evictions,” with landlords refusing to make necessary repairs or changing the locks without notice.
It is likely that all of these factors play a role in there being fewer evictions than predicted. It is also true that despite the outstanding efforts of the Eviction Lab, there is no national eviction database. More than 30% of U.S. counties do not even report eviction data. And informal evictions – which are not tracked at all – occur 500% more than court-ordered evictions.
It is clear that the doomsayers who predicted 40 million evictions were wrong. That is because the data that was used in coming up with that number was a poor barometer of likely evictions. Beginning in April 2020, a survey by the U.S. Census Bureau asked thousands of renters how confident they were in their ability to pay rent the following month. Week after week, a quarter to a third of all renters interviewed said that they were not confident in their ability to pay rent for the upcoming month.
The weakness in this data is obvious. People are scared in times of crisis and are not likely to be the best predictors of whether they will be able to pay their rent. Early in the pandemic, there was a great deal of stress about food insecurity, anxiety, and depression. This automatically led to stress about the ability to pay rent. General anxiety leads to housing anxiety.
Based on these surveys, a consortium of researchers and organizations projected that up to 40 million renters were at risk of eviction. This led to the headlines citing the 40 million figure. Housing advocates used this to their advantage in pushing the federal government to extend the eviction moratorium and securing almost $50 billion in rental assistance.
There is no question that the dire predictions saved many Americans from eviction. The number of evictions was clearly over-estimated, but perhaps that is better than an underestimation. Had the government not been terrified of a flood of evictions, it is unlikely they would have acted in the aggressive manner they did to prevent those evictions.
Ultimately, however, accurate surveys relating to potential evictions during national emergencies – of which there will be more – will be needed. Public policy relies on sound information. Today, the Eviction Tracking System established by the Eviction Lab is the best tool we have for tracking evictions in the United States. It covers six states and 31 major cities, but it is only able to track eviction filings for one-quarter of the nation’s renters and does not track actual eviction judgments. Most local governments do not report annual eviction statistics, much less where evictions are concentrated or the amount of back rent that is prompting evictions. 38% of rural officials and 22% of city officials told the National League of Cities that they did not know whether evictions have increased or decreased from last year.
To truly understand evictions and make informed decisions to prevent them, states and counties need the resources to track and share their own eviction data, and that data needs to be part of a government database. With such a system, researchers will be better positioned to provide legislators with accurate estimates.