A Wealthy Nation of the Homeless: The United States’ Eviction Crisis

How has COVID-19 contributed to the eviction crisis in the United States? Banner image: Shutterstock/Allen J.M. Smith

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, evictions reached crisis proportions in the United States. In 2016, property owners filed 3.7 million eviction cases. This was not an outlier year; the annual number of cases filed stayed relatively stable from 2000 to 2016. Between 1990 and 2020, rents rose and wages stagnated, with shrinking government support for basic needs. As a result: one in every four American renters spent over half of their income on housing in 2018, and out of the millions of renters who qualify for housing assistance, only one in four received it. Eviction irrevocably scars families and causes families to fall into poverty. The effects of eviction include poor physical and mental health, poor access to food, worse educational outcomes, and difficulty obtaining future stable housing.

The COVID-19 pandemic and greatest United States economic downturn since the Great Depression has encouraged emergency policy measures in the form of eviction moratoria, or eviction bans, and increased emergency rental assistance. These are significant, but insufficient stopgaps. Evidence from 2020 reveals both the importance of ensuring comprehensive tenant supports and rights, and the consequences of failing to do so.

The United States must address economic hardship and racism causing the eviction crisis: via public health care, an increase to the minimum wage, paid family and medical leave and other supports

What We Know

Every day, thousands of Americans are being evicted from their homes. The eviction crisis has become the norm, magnifying United States racial and gender inequality. The Eviction Lab has found that evictions affect Black renters, particularly women, at far greater rates. Black renters experience both eviction and the threat of eviction at nearly twice the rate of white renters nationwide, and these patterns have continued during the pandemic, with Black renters greatly over-represented as a proportion of all renters facing eviction.

Evictions also threaten public health, with greater public health consequences at stake when renters are forced out of their homes. Data collected on eviction filings during the pandemic has found that state-level eviction moratoriums resulted in far fewer cases in 2020 compared to recent years. Minnesota, where the state moratorium has remained in place since 16 March, 2020, has filed only 10% of historical cases. In comparison, neighbouring Wisconsin, where the state-level moratorium ended in May, has seen almost 60% of historical levels of eviction filings during the pandemic. 

Share of all renters and eviction filing defendants, pre-and during-pandemic, by race/ethnicity

Share of renters by race drawn from the American Community Survey. Share of defendants by race from Eviction Lab research. https://evictionlab.org/pandemic-filing-demographics/

Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) eviction moratorium is set to expire on June 30th, 2021. Only 13 of 50 states have additional state eviction moratoria in place, with protections in many of them set to expire at the end of this month.

Based on data collected on evictions during the pandemic, research from the Eviction Lab predicts that there were at least 1.55 million fewer eviction filings nationwide in 2020 than in a typical year.[1] These “missing” evictions are part of the reduction in eviction filings that may be attributed to the protections provided by state, local and federal eviction moratoria. This doesn’t mean that these eviction filings will never happen—rather, they may have been pushed forward to whenever the relevant moratorium ends.

Check out the updated OECD Housing Gateway for a wealth of data and work on housing including our new interactive policy action tool

Check out the updated OECD Housing Gateway for a wealth of data and work on housing including our new interactive policy action tool

The Path Forward

Eviction moratoria only keep renters in their homes during the period of the moratorium—they do not prevent what may be a coming avalanche of evictions when the federal CDC eviction moratorium ends later this month. Rent relief and/or rental debt cancellation is the answer.

As pandemic eviction protections end, far more renters than usual are behind on rent—14% of renter households reported being behind on rent payments in March 2021, compared to 7% in 2017. The combination of greater amounts being owed and larger numbers of households behind on rent mean that we are likely to see a large increase in eviction filings in July.

Renters who are having evictions filed against them in recent months owe far larger amounts of money than is usually claimed in an eviction case; under normal circumstances, tenants are often evicted for about one month of rent. In Cincinnati, New York, Houston and Phoenix, amounts owed by tenants are at 150% of historical amounts, and are rising rapidly. In New York, the median amount owed by tenants was over 300% of historical medians between August and November 2020. Without support, this debt could accrue interest and fees, trapping communities in poverty.

More on the Forum Network: Three Ways to Make Housing More Affordable by Mark Pearson, Deputy Director & Marissa Plouin, Economist Policy Analyst, Directorate for Employment Labour and Social Affairs, OECD

Even as vaccines have been rolled out across the United States, areas with more eviction filings during the pandemic had lower vaccination rates across nine United States cities. This finding further emphasises the need for intervention, both to ensure public health and to prevent the compounding of disadvantage as a result of eviction, which has been associated with COVID-19 infection.

Rent relief is a needed measure to reduce the large number of pandemic-related evictions likely to happen in the coming months. However, this alone is not enough to tackle the underlying eviction crisis in America that began long before COVID-19. The United States must address economic hardship and racism causing the crisis: via public health care, an increase to the minimum wage, paid family and medical leave and other supports. Currently, rental housing, particularly low-income housing, is a cash cow for investors. It doesn’t have to be—the creation of more social housing, perhaps through an effective social housing development authority, could make all the difference. 

Destabilising, life-altering evictions occur thousands of times every day across the United States. Lawmakers must act accordingly to ensure that housing is treated as a human right, and to address the underlying racism and economic hardship that has allowed the United States to become a wealthy nation of the homeless.

Read the new OECD report Brick by Brick: Building Better Housing Policies, bringing together evidence, international experience and policy insights for the design of housing policies

Read the new OECD report Brick by Brick: Building Better Housing Policies, bringing together evidence, international experience and policy insights for the design of housing policies

[1] From working paper, U.S. Eviction Filing Patterns in 2020, Peter Hepburn, Renee Louis, Joe Fish, Emily Lemmerman, and Matthew Desmond

Related Topics

Tackling COVID-19 Housing

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Emily Lemmerman

Research Specialist, The Eviction Lab

Emily Lemmerman is a research specialist with the Eviction Lab. In 2019, she graduated with a degree in Sociology, concentrating in Data Science from Stanford. As an undergrad, she was a research assistant at the Stanford Computational Policy Lab, analyzing the impacts of federal and local pre-trial processes and risk assessment algorithms. Her undergraduate thesis focused on modern-day debtor’s prisons - detention as a punishment for unpaid criminal justice fines and fees - in El Paso, Texas. After some time in the private sector, and on the Bernie Sanders campaign, Emily is excited to return to sociology research. At the Eviction Lab, she is most interested in work that examines how legal aid interventions influence outcomes for tenants facing eviction, and in further exploring relationships between markets, debt, inequality and housing.