The feared eviction 'tsunami' has not yet happened. Experts are conflicted on why.

Eviction notice on door of house with brass door knob. Fictitious address, ID, signature and 555 phone number for fictional usage.
·11 min read

WASHINGTON - When the Supreme Court decided to strike down a federal ban on evictions in August, lawmakers and housing experts mentioned a slew of devastating metaphors - cliff, tsunami, tidal wave - to describe the national eviction crisis they saw coming. One month later, however, many of those same authorities find themselves wondering: Where is the cliff?

In major metropolitan areas, the number of eviction filings has dropped or remained flat since the Supreme Court struck down the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moratorium on Aug. 26, according to experts and data collected by the Eviction Lab at Princeton University. In cities around the country, including Cleveland, Memphis, Charleston and Indianapolis, eviction filings are well below their pre-pandemic levels.

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Housing and eviction experts offered a mix of guesses about why an expected onslaught of evictions has not yet materialized, including that the wave could still be coming. The pace at which courts handle cases varies widely across the country, and some courts may be severely backlogged. In some regions of the country, the federal eviction moratorium did little to slow filings amid the pandemic and, in other areas, protections are in place. Some tenants may have also moved on their own to avoid an eviction.

Housing experts don't believe the country has solved its eviction issues, and there are still places where evictions have risen since the ban ended. Filings have surpassed their pre-pandemic levels in Gainesville, Fla., and have come close in Cincinnati and Jacksonville, Fla.

Still, the overall picture has confused experts who had grim warnings for the looming crisis once the federal ban was no longer in place. Those same experts are hesitant to say the wave won't come. After all, recent Pulse Survey data by the Census Bureau suggests that some 3 million households have reported concerns of imminent eviction.

"I think it's too early to declare decisively that this isn't happening," said Peter Hepburn, a research fellow at the Eviction Lab, which tracks cases in 31 cities and six states around the country. "This may not take the form of a sudden spike in eviction cases all at once. It may be something that's much more delayed and diffuse."

The White House was under intense pressure by progressive lawmakers and housing advocates to extend the eviction moratorium when it expired July 31, in large part to allow more time for rental assistance to get out. The administration and the CDC hastily crafted a new ban a few days later, but the president warned it would likely face legal challenges and had called on Congress to push out another law. That temporary August ban took aim at preventing a new wave of "mass evictions," especially as the delta variant spread, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at the time.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment regarding the eviction data, instead referring to efforts made by the administration to speed up rental aid and encourage state and local governments to institute their own protections and counsel programs. "We will continue these coordinated efforts to ensure vulnerable renters and landlords have the resources they need," said White House spokeswoman Emilie Simons.

There is no comprehensive, national database of evictions, making it difficult to capture the true level of need. In more dire estimates, researchers at the Urban Institute wrote in January that 10 million renters were behind on their rent and at risk of being evicted. Experts at the Aspen Institute estimated in July that it could be as high as 15 million. Further, recent figures from Moody's showed that some 6 million renters were behind on their payments.

Thus far, however, there does not appear to be concrete evidence that the predicted surge of evictions has materialized over the past month since the ban ended, according to several interviews with housing experts, academic researchers tracking local filings, and administration officials.

One reason offered by tenant advocates and legal experts is that many people who fall behind on payments, particularly low income or immigrant renters who have no legal representation available, choose to "self evict." That means they leave when their landlord tells them to or once a notice is posted on their door, rather than try to fight the eviction in court.

There is also variation across states and towns in terms of how cases are handled in court, and where people are more vulnerable to eviction. Local housing markets and courts have a huge say in the process, said Kathryn Reynolds, a senior policy program manager at the Urban Institute. That could be creating a disparate effect that may take time to materialize.

For instance, 47 percent of renters live in places that still have some type of protection or policy in place, Reynolds said, which could also drag out the process and allow government aid time to reach those who need it. "It's certain, very specific neighborhoods, and sometimes owners, that are most likely to evict, so this is a highly localized phenomenon," she added.

Indeed, judges in some parts of the United States - including Ohio, Texas and Tennessee - ignored or barely enforced the eviction moratorium while it remained in place. Enforcement varied as judges gave lax interpretations of the federal ban or found ways to work around it and allow evictions to proceed.

Faculty at the Georgia State University law school studied how more than 900 courts handled evictions during the pandemic. Many renters said they were unaware that the CDC ban existed, the researchers found, and had no idea they could have prevented their case from moving forward with legal paperwork. Other judges allowed tenants who had invoked the federal protections to be evicted for reasons not covered by the ban, according to Lauren Sudeall and Daniel Pasciuti of Georgia State University.

"As you go outside of Atlanta, and not even very far outside of Atlanta, the ban's effect dropped pretty quickly," Pasciuti said. Still, the Atlanta region appeared prime for a fallout as it has a booming rental market. Of the five counties that make up the Atlanta metropolitan area, only one - DeKalb - still has a moratorium in place, through the end of the month.

Yet detailed data compiled by the Atlanta Regional Commission, a planning agency, shows that in the first three weeks following the Supreme Court ruling - Aug. 29 to Sept. 18 - landlords in Atlanta made far fewer eviction filings then they did during the same period in 2019, when the economy was strong. This year, landlords made fewer than 6,490 eviction filings during those three recent weeks, which is 41 percent lower than the more than 11,100 eviction filings for the same period in 2019.

"My hunch is that the moratorium did not have an effect on the total number of filings," said Erik Woodworth, a data scientist at the Atlanta Regional Commission, of the eviction figures, noting, "It certainly hasn't suppressed filing activity to the degree you would expect."

Last year, the CDC instituted a federal eviction moratorium amid a deadly pandemic and the recession that gutted millions of jobs from the economy. In December, Congress appropriated $25 billion in rental aid to help those suffering from loss of income due to the pandemic. A stimulus package passed in March provided over $21.5 billion in additional aid.

The moratorium did not wipe away bills that were due, and the rental assistance was supposed to help make landlords whole. But for much of this year, the money was painfully slow to get out the door, as local programs struggled to prop themselves up in an emergency. In fact, a major reason the Biden administration announced a new eviction moratorium in August was to allow more time for the aid to reach tenants and landlords.

Only $7.7 billion in emergency rental aid was distributed between January and the end of August, according to data released Friday by the Treasury Department. No one is satisfied with the topline number, but there are signs of improvement. Roughly $2.3 billion in assistance was spent on rent, utilities and missed payments in August, compared to $1.7 billion in July. Meanwhile, around 420,000 households were helped in August, up from 340,000 in July.

Gene Sperling, who leads the American Rescue Plan rollout at the White House, said that while "countless" state and local programs need to significantly speed up their aid programs, the fact that payments "are on track to reach near 3 million by the end of 2021 is clearly playing a significant role in at least preventing a major eviction surge and so far keeping filings below pre-pandemic levels."

Biden administration officials said they fear that a spike in eviction filings could still be coming. And they have noted that the rental assistance programs will be more meaningful if they can respond to a slower flow of applications rather than a sudden surge that can overwhelm the systems.

So far, the federal aid hasn't reached Vichelle Sanders, 58, who said that she is about $2,500 behind on rent, and that her landlord filed an eviction against her over the summer. Sanders applied for rental assistance in the Las Vegas area in June, but she said she hasn't gotten confirmation about whether her documents have been approved or not.

Sanders thinks her apartment's management company has been more patient with her because she has been a reliable, longtime tenant. But she asked herself, "If I'm turned down, then what?" Sanders added, "It's humiliating to constantly go on this website, and it says the exact same words, and every time my stomach sinks because I don't know if I'm approved. It feels dehumanizing. I feel powerless. It feels like punishment."

Some housing experts suggest that instead of a sudden cliff, eviction cases could gradually build up over time, because some landlords didn't rush to file evictions as soon as the moratorium was stripped away.

Greg Brown, senior vice president of government affairs for the National Apartment Association, said that housing providers "continue to show unprecedented flexibility despite months of lost rent and the government's painfully slow emergency rental assistance distribution."

"Eviction proceedings take time and have guardrails to protect against abuse and allow both parties to resolve the underlying issue," said Patrick Newton, spokesman for the National Association of Realtors, said of how the process works. "They are always a last resort."

Regardless of what has happened in the past month, housing advocates and experts say America is far from solving its housing challenges. Before the coronavirus, landlords filed around 3.6 million evictions in courts every year. About 1.5 million of those ended with a tenant removed from his or her home, according to Reynolds of the Urban Institute.

Top Democrats joined tenants and advocates on Capitol Hill to push for federal legislation that would further prevent evictions and protect renters. Lawmakers led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., announced a new bill that would grant permanent authority to the Department of Health and Human Services to implement a moratorium in response to the pandemic or other health emergencies.

Those lawmakers continued to suggest the worst is yet to come. Last week, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., warned of a "national tent city" and an "eviction tsunami" should Congress take no action. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said the country would face a "historic and devastating wave of evictions in every corner of the country." Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., compared the number of renters of "being evicted overnight" with the entire population of New York City, or nearly 9 million people.

Advocates and tenants from the group People's Action, including Sanders of Las Vegas, also traveled from a half dozen states to push for stronger tenant protections on Capitol Hill and with administration officials.

Vivian Smith, 47, a single mother in Miami, recounted how she was evicted in 2019 and forced to live in her car with her three living children (a fourth is deceased) after temporarily leaving her job at an Amazon warehouse as coronavirus infections spread. "After the beginning of the pandemic, the warehouse was invested with viruses, and I wasn't able to keep working. I didn't want to risk my health, or my kids' health. I fell behind on my rent," Smith said. "When I did come up with the money, the landlord didn't want it. He didn't want to take it. They took me to eviction court."

Bush and other lawmakers at the event wept as Smith explained how she then struggled to house and feed her children. "I've been forced to choose between food and rent too many times," Smith said.

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