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A small number of landlords are responsible for most evictions
A few bad apples or a rotten industry?
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During the pandemic, this once-per-month newsletter may be split into two issues: one monitoring developments related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and one for other news on housing justice.
Eviction Lab looked back at 10 years of eviction data in Cleveland, OH, Tucson, AZ, and Fayetteville, NC. They found that a small number of landlords are responsible for a shockingly high percentage of evictions. In Cleveland, just 116 buildings are responsible for an astonishing 1 out of every 5 evictions. Landlords often own multiple buildings, so there are fewer than 100 landlords filing a grossly disproportionate number of evictions. Fayetteville was even worse; just 100 buildings were responsible for 2 out of every 5 evictions. And in Tucson, 295 buildings were responsible for 2 out of every 3 evictions.
Eviction Lab points out that “Most landlords evict tenants rarely, if they ever do — even in neighborhoods that have high overall eviction rates.” Rather, “a small set of landlords displace large numbers of tenants, year after year.”
While this pattern probably holds across the country — all three cities showed the same pattern — we don’t know in detail how it plays out in other cities. That’s because evictions are devilishly difficult to study. This is because evictions are done at the local level, making data extremely labor intensive to collect. This leaves us with a totally piecemeal understanding of the phenomenon. Eviction Lab is only able to track evictions in five states and 27 cities, and can only undertake a study like this in a very limited manner since it’s so labor intensive to sift through court records.
Eviction Lab concludes,
[B]ecause just a few landlords account for large numbers of all evictions, nonprofit organizations and local governments can make outsized progress toward addressing the eviction epidemic by targeting the landlords who drive the eviction crisis.
So...do these findings lead us to conclude that the problems of the American rental housing system come down to a few bad actors? Not at all.
First, even though the problem of evictions is indeed concentrated among a few bad actors, many of the problems of the American rental housing system are not. For example, a typical renter household moves every 3 years. Even before the pandemic, half of all renters were paying more than a third of their income on rent. Some renters live in conditions we would rightly not allow our pets to inhabit. Nationwide, rents are rising at astonishing rates. This is not a system one could conclude is working well except a few bad apples.
Second, landlords simply have too much power. Eviction Lab’s data indicate that most landlords don’t sociopathically evict tenants to wring out every penny of profit they can. But the fact that a small number of people — landlords — have such enormous power over a large number of people — renters — is a problem. No one should have so much power over someone’s well-being. A for-profit landlord that works with tenants is better than a for-profit landlord that files evictions simply to collect fees, but no one’s well-being should be so dependent on the good graces of someone else — especially when money is involved. Renters should be treated fairly because of their humanity, not because their landlord decides to spare them of the worst abuses our rental system allows them to perpetrate.
This discussion continues in the next section.
New episode of Housing for Us podcast: Renting with Germany’s forever leases in gentrifying Berlin
Image: a pair of neoclassical apartments in Berlin. Flickr / Helran
In Germany, rental leases for apartments last forever, until the tenant wants to move out. It’s common for people to live for decades in the same rented apartment, and it’s even possible for children to inherit a rental lease when their parents pass on. Apartments are high quality and well-maintained. Germany is one of the best countries in the world to be a renter, and it’s no wonder that many Germans choose to rent when they could afford to buy a home.
We talk to Friederiche, who has been living in the same rented apartment in Berlin for more than 20 years. This was the only home her children knew until they grew up and moved off on their own. She describes her front room (the “salon”) as being a “ballroom.” She and her husband live in a very desirable neoclassical building, which was built in the 1870s. Were her apartment placed on the free market, she estimates the landlord could get double or triple rent.
We wanted to know what it is like to live with a forever lease. When we asked Friederiche if she knew anyone who was forced to move out of their apartment when they didn’t want to, she couldn’t think of anyone. When we asked if there was something she would change about renting in Germany, she couldn’t come up with anything.
Listen to our conversation with Friederiche and it will become clear that the American housing system is not a matter of a few bad apples — it is a rotten system. There may be a few bad actors responsible for the worst excesses allowed by our housing system, but the cruelty we take for granted in our housing system is simply unheard of in Germany.
Actually, Berlin’s rent controls were working really well
For some reason, this Bloomberg piece by Andreas Kluth on Berlin’s rent control has gotten a lot of attention. Anti rent-control think-pieces always recycle the same discredited ideas; here, Kluth is peddling the idea that rent controls prevent new housing from being built. This is false; new housing doesn’t get built because it is too expensive without public subsidy, as we explained in this video. Besides, if rent controls fundamentally can’t work, then why do they work so well in Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden (as we discuss at length in the Housing for All podcast), and many, many other places around the world?
Yet Kluth’s piece stands apart from a typical anti-rent control think-piece in its outright dishonesty. Paul E Williams exposes the many lies in this piece. For example, Kluth claims that the law has triggered a collapse in building construction. However, Williams looks at permitting data, which show that construction in Berlin has actually held steady — incredibly, in spite of the pandemic. Not only is Kluth misrepreseting the data; the data actually undermine his claims.
In sum, all available data argue that Berlin’s experiment in rent controls was a success. Unfortunately, Kluth got the last laugh as Berlin’s rent control was ruled unconstitutional by Germany’s highest court.
Housing vouchers fail to deliver on promises...again
Housing voucher advocates promise that if public housing residents were given vouchers for private rental housing, their lives would markedly improve. This has been put to the test many times and has largely proven false; the theory is again failing in Norfolk, VA. There, residents given vouchers to leave public housing as it is demolished are experiencing extraordinary discrimination and winding up in neighborhoods that are poorer, more segregated, and with fewer job opportunities. Housing vouchers do not live up to their promises (and never did).
Illinois one step closer to eliminating statewide ban on rent control
House Bill 116, which would repeal the state’s prohibition of local governments enacting rent control ordinances, passed out of the Housing Committee of the Illinois House of Representatives in late March. This clears the way for a floor vote in the Illinois House of Representatives.
It’s difficult to overstate just how impressive this success is. In March, for example, a Chicago City Council member was caught voting in favor of developing an apartment property he had just sold, illegally earning him millions of dollars. Politically, the deck is massively stacked in favor of the rent control ban.
Washington became the first state to enact right to counsel (which provides a free attorney to tenants in eviction court). Louisville enacted right-to-counsel (limited to families with children) for a year.
Boston is making fair housing mandatory for all future development: before issuing any permits, developers have to explain how their project will help to reverse racial segregation and prevent neighbors from being displaced.
State Rep. Nicole Clowney (D-Fayetteville) introduced a bill Thursday that would repeal the state’s criminal “failure to vacate” statute. First enacted in 1901, the law allows landlords to seek criminal charges, which can result in jail time, for tenants who fall even a single day behind on rent and do not vacate a property within 10 days. Everywhere else in the U.S., evictions are exclusively a civil matter.
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