On January 15, in the midst of a holiday weekend, New York state let its eviction moratorium expire. While national and state-level COVID-based eviction protections have largely ended, even as the pandemic has continued to surge, New York was one of the few holdouts to have extended those protections again and again. Only New Mexico has kept its program in place for longer.
The fallout could be substantial. According to The New York Times, New York state has received almost 300,000 applications since last summer for its pandemic rent relief program, which is now nearly exhausted of funds. The $46 billion federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program has broadly run dry. Meanwhile, New York City landlords have filed far more evictions than in any other major American city, according to Princeton Universitys Eviction Lab. In the run-up to the coronavirus outbreak in early 2020, evictions were being pursued at a staggering clip, with 140,000 cases filed in 2019 before the pandemic put the entire process on hold. The combination of a huge backlog of recently reinstated 2019 evictions, in tandem with two years of forestalled cases that can now be pursued, should make 2022 a record year for evictions.
Ever since the expiration of the federal eviction moratorium in 2021, which ran some 17 months with multiple extensions across the Trump and Biden presidencies, housing activists, experts, and politicians feared the same eviction tsunami nationwide as what might be headed for New York City, which according to some estimates could put somewhere between 30 million and 40 million people out on the street. When that federal moratorium lapsed, there was still federal funding for rental assistance, one of the most-maligned and slowest-moving pandemic programs, and a bevy of state and local protections in place. But federal census data was long flashing red: Between a quarter and a third of American renters surveyed in 2020 by the Census Bureau indicated a lack of confidence in their ability to pay next months rent.
Most counties dont even report annual statistics on evictions, making it hard to decipher even local trends in the data.
Nearly all of those protections and assistance programs have now fallen by the wayside, and the forecasted crisis of homelessness has seemingly not arrived, leading some to claim that mass eviction was never a threat at all. Crucially, though, no one can say for certain, because the federal government doesnt track evictions, or gather that data on a formal basis at all.
Despite directing substantial federal money toward preventing evictions in the last two years, the United States still does not have a national evictions database of any sort, a lapse made even more alarming by the fact that one-third of U.S. counties dont report eviction data at all. Eviction data consists of a hodgepodge of local court records woven together by independent groups, culling data from the few municipalities that monitor it closely (like New York City) and the many that dont.
Meanwhile, informal (rather than court-ordered) evictions are estimated to be five times more prevalent, but there is no precise data on that phenomenon. This includes various ways in which landlords force out tenants, including refusing to make critical repairs, harassing them with misinformation about rent hikes or late fees, or changing the locks to kick them out.
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The result is a broad blindness about the state of evictions in this country at a moment of fragility. Right now, what we have is 3,000-plus jurisdictions each collecting it in their own way, storing it, reporting it or not, with no federal mandate, said Yuliya Panfil, director of the Future of Land and Housing program at New America, a D.C.-based think tank. Its up to individual counties, and its predictably really disorganized.
In recent years, weve seen some heavy lifting from independent groups like Princeton Universitys Eviction Lab, which serves as the de facto national authority on eviction data, despite only being around since 2017. Eviction Labs records are compiled by scraping county court data, as well as buying information from private companies, which still doesnt reach all the way to counties where those records remain undigitized. Despite operating as by far the most authoritative resource on evictions, the Eviction Lab covers just six states and 31 cities, making it only able to track eviction filings for one-quarter of the nations renters.
Meanwhile, most counties dont even report annual statistics on evictions, making it hard to decipher even local trends in the data. In 2021, according to an annual report put together by the National League of Cities, 38 percent of rural officials and 22 percent of city officials couldnt conclusively tell whether evictions increased or decreased in their communities, despite a surge in federal funding and attention being paid to the status of renters.
The risks and financial hardships associated with eviction are not shared by Americans equally, at least as far as we know. For obvious reasons, renters are more likely to come from lower-income groups, and nonwhite and female renters experience the brunt of evictions. Of the estimated three million Americans evicted annually, Black renters face evictions at much higher rates than white renters, and women face higher rates of eviction than men. Black and Hispanic women, in particular, face a uniquely high risk of being evicted.
Theres asymmetry even in something as simple as access to data. While reliable eviction information remains beyond the reach of legislators and politicians, it remains available elsewhere. When landlords are screening possible tenants, its easy for them to identify evictions on the record of an applicant using various private services, like background checks and credit inquiries. Which means that the information is indeed out there, its just unevenly distributed and put in the service of one particular private interest.
The stunning lack of federal monitoring of evictions is mirrored by the previous housing crisis and the previous recession. Even as the foreclosure crisis swirled through 2008, 2009, and 2010, and despite the fact that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were federal lenders involved deeply in the crisis, the federal government never established a national foreclosure database. At the worst moments of the crisis, the government could only ever guess at its true depths based on private data gathered by for-profit firms like CoreLogic. That profound blindness certainly hindered an already benighted response, which led to (according to a Wall Street Journal estimate) at least 9.3 million Americans losing their homes and the wholesale destruction of Black American wealth in a way that never recovered.
There was an effort to create a national foreclosure database, but it was only ever sparsely populated. There was no mandate or mandate was never enforced, said Panfil. Still, foreclosure data remains stockpiled mostly in private coffers, accessible to those business interests willing to pay handsomely for it.
The gaping hole that is eviction data has been on Congresss radar for some time. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) introduced the Eviction Crisis Act of 2019, which would create a national database to standardize data and track evictions, before the coronavirus even arrived stateside. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced a similar bill in the House a year later. Neither has been passed into law.
The federal government can do little to address a housing crisis that has been going on, in various guises, since at least 2008, without some visibility of what the crisis actually looks like. And it wouldnt be prohibitively challenging to gather that information. A recent report from New America outlined eight ways that the federal government could kick off such a program, much of which comes down to directing resources to state and local governments to facilitate reporting and empowering the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Given the amount of stimulus money directed to states and localities as part of the American Rescue Plan Act, omitting eviction monitoring from that allocation already looks like a colossal error, as we head blindly into a year that will certainly feature more evictions than last, and perhaps more than ever. But the government wont know until its too late, if they ever know at all.