The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A small group of landlords is behind nearly half of D.C.’s evictions, report says

Signs that read “no job, no rent” hang from the windows of an apartment building in Northwest Washington on May 20. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
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A small group of property owners who collectively hold 21 percent of the District’s rental market is responsible for nearly 50 percent of the city’s eviction filings, according to a report released Thursday by Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.

In the report, “Eviction in Washington, DC: Racial and Geographic Disparities in Housing Instability,” researchers Eva Rosen and Brian McCabe uncovered patterns in the city’s eviction data for 2014 to 2018. In that period, an average of 32,000 evictions were filed annually, almost all of them for nonpayment of rent.

But not all of those filings lead to tenants being turned out of their homes. The report details how some landlords use eviction filings as a way to squeeze tenants for rent.

In 2018, only 5.5 percent of filed evictions led to executed evictions — meaning that renters were actually removed from the property. But around 70 percent of the annual filings are dismissed in court, according to Rosen and McCabe, indicating that the tenant paid or the landlord had no proof to carry the case to judgment.

“Landlords are using eviction as a tactic,” said Rosen, an assistant professor at Georgetown’s McCourt School. “Most of the time, when they are filing, they are not expecting it is going to result in eviction. They are trying to sort of get the state and courts behind their claim for the rent that is owed and push the tenant to find a new way to get the money, whether it’s from a church or a friend or a family member.”

Such tactics are used more heavily in the District’s poorest neighborhoods. The report presents a vivid snapshot of the inequalities within the city’s housing market. In 2018, according to the report, 11 out of every 100 renters in D.C. experienced an eviction filing. In Wards 7 and 8, however, 20 out of 100 and 25 out of 100 experience eviction, respectively.

The disproportionate use of eviction filings by a small number of landlords is also more pronounced in Wards 7 and 8, the report notes. In 2018, 47 percent of all filings in the city that year were tied to 20 landlords, who together owned 21 percent of the rental market. But in Wards 7 and 8, “the 10 landlords with the largest number of eviction filings were responsible for 50 percent of all eviction filings,” the report states. “However, they only owned 30 percent of the rental units.”

One reason for the volume of filings is the cheap cost of eviction paperwork in Washington, the researchers argue. According to the paper, it costs $15 to file an eviction, the lowest among the largest 50 American cities. “The barrier to eviction is too low here, and it allows [landlords] to misuse the court system as a money collection agency,” Rosen said.

The researchers say the patterns they found in the data for 2014 to 2018 probably remain in effect today and that the disparities in eviction rates among the wards have probably widened because of the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

These findings are more detailed than many eviction studies because of a unique data-sharing agreement between the researchers and the city. “In a lot of places, you just don’t have the sort of fine-grained data to do the work that we were able to do,” said McCabe, an associate professor of sociology at Georgetown.

Under their agreement with the city, Rosen and McCabe cannot publicly name the landlords.

Amanda Korber, the head of the housing law unit at the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, said the report tracks with her own work, particularly “the idea that eviction is used as a debt collection tactic.” She cited her experience with landlords who are quick to file and often over small amounts of money.

“We see a lot of cases where just a few days after the rent is due they’ll sue, even before the month is over,” she said. “It’s pretty clear it’s an attempt to get tenants to pay up faster. ‘Why not file if you want to get your money as soon as possible,’ I’m sure is what many landlords are thinking.”

The researchers briefed D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) on their findings a few weeks ago. The report “heavily influenced” his thinking, he said Thursday. Mendelson and Ward 3 Councilmember Mary M. Cheh (D) co-sponsored temporary legislation passed this week that blocks landlords from evicting tenants for less than $600 in unpaid rent, seals court records for eviction filings that do not lead to judgments, and urges the court to raise the eviction filing fee to $100.

“Let me be clear, in my view, if a person isn’t paying the rent and they are a scofflaw, they should be evicted,” Mendelson said. “But it’s clear there’s a lot of filing going on where it isn’t the landlord’s goal to get rid of nonpaying tenants.”

He supports further scrutiny of the disproportionate use of eviction filings by a small number of landlords. “I think the council should look at it, I think the courts should look at it, and I think [the D.C. Department of Housing] should look at it,” Mendelson said.