Housing instability is closely linked to race and geography in the District. Here’s how researchers at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University advise tackling this longstanding systemic injustice.
The covid-19 pandemic has brought poverty and financial insecurity to the forefront of public awareness, with millions of Americans lining up outside of food pantries, filing for unemployment benefits, and relying on eviction moratoriums to stay in their homes when they can’t make rent payments.
But when it comes to housing in particular, the safety net is fraying, especially for people of color. By late September, 23 percent of Black renters in the U.S. had fallen behind on rent, compared to 10 percent of white renters. Tens of thousands of evictions have occurred nationwide since the pandemic began, despite legislation meant to prevent as much. And in states where eviction moratoriums remain in place, time is running out. Struggling tenants across the country could soon lose their homes, including at least 131,000 renters in Washington, D.C. come May.
“We’re just holding back the dam. It’s important to realize that the worst has not yet happened when it comes to the effect of covid on eviction,” said Eva Rosen, an assistant professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, who together with Brian McCabe, a Georgetown associate professor of sociology affiliated with the McCourt School, has been using data from the court system to track both eviction filings and formal evictions in D.C..
An eviction-filing epidemic in the District
In their fall 2020 report “Eviction in Washington, DC: Racial and Geographic Disparities In Housing Instability,” Rosen and McCabe describe how a handful of D.C. landlords have the eviction process. By repeatedly filing against the same tenants at the same address — known as “serial eviction filing” — landlords effectively use the legal system to put pressure on tenants.
“Landlords are often using the legal eviction process, not with the intent to actually evict the tenant, but to put pressure on them,” Rosen said. “They’re assuming a tenant will pay. They just think it will work faster and more efficiently if they put legal pressure on.”
Those filings alone, even when they don’t result in actual eviction, can have devastating effects on renters, according to Rosen. On top of creating financial uncertainty, filings can cause tenants to miss work or struggle to find childcare in order to attend court hearings. Studies have also linked eviction filings to depression and high blood pressure. What’s more, filings are seen by landlords as stains on tenants’ records that “can make it really hard for tenants to find housing in the future,” Rosen said.
And eviction filings are far more pervasive in the District than in other cities. D.C. has the lowest fee to file an eviction in the nation, an average of $15, compared to an average of $106 in the largest U.S. cities. According to Rosen, in places where the filing fees are higher, “landlords tend to file much less frequently because there’s a barrier to doing so.” Overall, the eviction process affects one in nine renter households in D.C., mostly in majority Black and low-income communities east of the Anacostia River.
Most tenants owe modest amounts (an average of $1,207) and 12 percent of tenants owe $600 or less. But responding to an eviction notice means tenants have to show up in court, which can be far away from where they live; residents of Wards 7 and 8, for example, must travel several miles to the downtown courtroom in Judiciary Square. And for renters facing serial eviction filings — an estimated 60 percent of all households that are filed against — traveling to court could cause them to miss multiple days of work.
Housing as a racial justice issue
Many of those tenants facing eviction are people of color, according to Rosen and McCabe’s research. They found significantly higher rates of executed evictions (when people are actually removed from their homes) in communities with a large share of Black residents compared to communities with a smaller share of Black residents. In Ward 2, which has among the lowest poverty rates and smallest shares of Black residents in D.C., fewer than 3 out of every 100 renter households received an eviction filing in 2018. By contrast, 25 out of every 100 renter households received one in Wards 7 and 8.
“Due to racism that has been endemic in our national housing policy, but also enacted throughout history and in private practices, housing is not evenly distributed or accessible by race,” Rosen said.
In 2018, eviction rates were higher in U.S. neighborhoods where more people of color lived, and people of color also disproportionately experienced homelessness. That same year, nearly 40 percent of people experiencing homelessness were Black and 22 percent were Latinx. The pandemic is expected to make racial disparities in housing even worse. There are signs that the number of cost-burdened renters (who put more than 30 percent of their income toward rent) is growing, especially in communities of color. Unemployment rates and eviction risk have also been higher among people of color during the covid-19 crisis.
“We’ve seen widely disparate impacts of the virus on communities of color. And so keeping people in their homes, especially vulnerable populations during this time, is really crucial,” Rosen said.
Pushing for a commitment to fairer, more affordable housing
D.C. leaders are taking steps to stem the tide of evictions related to the pandemic, often drawing on findings from Rosen and McCabe’s research. D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said the professors’ report “heavily influenced” the thinking behind his decision to co-sponsor emergency legislation that blocks landlords from evicting tenants for less than $600 in unpaid rent and urges the court to raise the eviction filing fee to $100.
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton is also pushing for a higher eviction filing fee, a recommendation that comes directly from the Georgetown McCourt report. Rosen was appointed to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Strike Force, a group tasked with advising city leaders on how to address the rental housing market.
Still, over the longer term, the lack of affordable housing and increasing rental prices in D.C. remain major obstacles to preventing eviction. The city has lost half of its affordable housing since 2002, while annual rents have spiked by $3,000.
According to Rosen, incentivizing the building of affordable housing and changing zoning laws that favor single-family homes could help. Additionally, she’d like to see a stronger safety net for low-income families who can’t afford their homes, including housing vouchers that can also help struggling landlords. As it stands, most D.C. renters who are eligible for federal or local housing vouchers don’t get them, because the programs are underfunded. More than 41,000 families are on the D.C. Housing Authority waiting list. And the assistance being given out isn’t necessarily sufficient to cover rent; 23 percent of eviction filings in 2018 were issued to subsidized renters.
“We have the tools that we need. We know the solutions to housing instability. We just haven’t committed to funding them or providing them to everybody that needs them,” said McCabe.
Without that commitment, D.C. becomes increasingly vulnerable to irreparable loss—of local businesses, long-time venues, and people of color whose families have made the city their home for generations.
“It’s also a huge loss for the people who would be pushed out, who are facing this housing instability,” said Rosen. “This really comes back to questions of racial justice and who can actually afford to live in our city.”