Virginia is for landlords
Matthew Desmond’s 2016 bestseller, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” which told the story of landlords and tenants in Milwaukee, elevated the conversation around the nation’s eviction crisis. Desmond and a team of researchers followed up with the new Eviction Lab, the first effort to create a comprehensive data set of evictions taking place across the United States.
Eviction Lab’s data set will almost certainly lead to groundbreaking insights on the affordable housing crisis, which is made all the more important by Desmond’s compelling thesis that evictions cause poverty, rather than poverty causing evictions.
Even a quick review of the first cut of data shows its immense power. Five of the top 10 cities with the highest eviction rates in the country are in Virginia. In Richmond, 21 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and the eviction rate is more than 11 percent. Two hours up Interstate 95, in Washington, the poverty rate is similar — about 18 percent — but the eviction rate is just 2.6 percent, less than a quarter of the Richmond rate.
Why? Although the data may eventually lead to many conclusions, this disparity in eviction rates points us to one starting place: variable state and local landlord-tenant laws.
Evictions are governed by local laws that vary across jurisdictions. Virginia makes the eviction process fast and appealing to landlords. For instance, once a renter is late to pay and has been served with a written notice, a landlord need give a tenant only five days to pay the outstanding balance before filing for eviction. In the District, a tenant gets 30 days to pay.
Additionally, in the District, a tenant can defend against an eviction by arguing that the landlord has breached his or her obligations by not keeping the unit in good condition. This gives landlords an incentive to better maintain the housing stock and gives tenants some modicum of power, even if they have fallen behind on rent.
In Virginia, this defense is allowed only if the tenant can post all the back-due rent. Where almost half of Americans would have to borrow or take out a loan to cover an unexpected $400 expense, this can be an insurmountable barrier for a tenant who is already behind on rent.
With limited judicial oversight of the condition of the property in Virginia, the landlord can more easily flip the unit to another tenant without fixing the living conditions, which sets up the property for another failed tenancy.
Access to an affordable tenant’s attorney also varies wildly across jurisdictions. The effort to offer a guaranteed right to counsel in civil cases, particularly evictions, has picked up steam in recent years. Initial research shows that tenants with counsel fare significantly better than unrepresented tenants in eviction proceedings. The Eviction Lab may offer additional data on this point as cities begin to implement right-to-counsel programs.
There are years of work to be done from the data gathered by the Eviction Lab. The raw numbers give us a sense of the scope of the eviction crisis but only just scratch the surface of how it came to be and what to do next.
There are parallels to how states learned from the foreclosure crisis. States differ on whether a foreclosure process must go through the courts (a judicial foreclosure) or whether a bank can repossess a home without having to file an action (a nonjudicial foreclosure). Unsurprisingly, the less oversight by the courts, the higher the rates of foreclosure during the crisis. By analyzing the statistics about the differing foreclosure rates, policymakers were able to successfully advocate for the implementation of mediation programs and judicial procedures that act as a check on the power of banks.
Desmond’s research provides us the opportunity to translate data into policy reform in the context of renters. This work is all the more important because it is already far easier to evict renters than to foreclose on a home, yet both events inflict similar harm and trauma. Historic lending patterns systemically stripped homeownership opportunities from communities of color, meaning that the burden of unfair evictions falls on those same communities.
Creating a fair and just eviction process is a necessary step to a more fair and just society. States such as Virginia should give tenants the dignity of a fighting chance.
The writer is a lawyer.