Since 2000, poverty in suburban America has grown so rapidly that there are now more people below the poverty line in suburbs than in the central cities or rural America. This is a seismic shift in America’s suburban landscape. This shift is so recent that it is hard for many suburban civic leaders to fully appreciate how profound of a change this is in our social and economic landscape.
Recently, sociologists have demonstrated evictions are as much a cause of poverty as a result of it. Many people facing eviction are employed, often in low wage, service industry jobs. One economic setback can cause them to miss rent and be put out of their home or apartment. This in turn starts a downward and often irreversible cycle: the loss of personal possessions, kids having to switch schools, a move to substandard housing, and too often homelessness. Evictions and poverty are two sides of the same coin.
It is critically important for civic leaders to realize evictions are not just a problem in larger, central cities. Evictions are common in suburban communities as well, especially in first-ring suburbs which are increasingly facing decline. Suburban government leaders would be wise to gain a richer understanding of the inherent connection between growing suburban poverty and evictions as a key catalyst causing it. If suburban leaders can forge policies that reduce the frequency and severity of evictions in their communities, we can reduce and reverse the growth of suburban poverty.
A 2020 study of 33 municipalities in Hamilton County, Ohio outside of Cincinnati showed many inner-ring suburbs have eviction rates well above the national average.
|Hamilton County First Suburb||Total Population1||% Black1||% Families in poverty1||Eviction Filing Rate, 2014-172|
|North College Hill||9,307||53.5%||15.1%||9.94|
Notes: 1 2018 American Community Survey 5-year estimates; 2 Annual mean number of evictions per 100 renter-occupied units
As this table shows, evictions occur at alarming rates even in smaller suburbs outside of Cincinnati. The data shows eviction rates are highly correlated with poverty and are higher in communities of color.
Another 2020 study drilled down on one of these first suburbs, Silverton. It showed that in almost half of Silverton eviction cases (49.91%) between 2014 and 2017, the tenant faced eviction for back rent of less than $1,000. Clearly, many suburban evictions are taking place over relatively small amounts of owed money. This study also showed that more than half of all evictions (51.69%) in Silverton were initiated by a dozen landlords between 2014-2017. Four landlords filed 29.23% of all evictions during this period. Individual tenants facing the loss of their home are often facing larger corporations who are represented by an attorney 77.85% of the time. Tenants in Silverton were represented by legal counsel in only 17 of the 325 eviction filings, or a mere 5.23% of the time. The court granted a writ of restitution—formally ordering the tenant to leave—in 202 of the 325 (62.15%). This study vividly demonstrates just how one-sided the eviction process is.
It is critical to understand that even though the system favors landlords, everybody loses through the eviction process. Landlords not only loss rent and risk property damage, but face high court costs and legal fees. Merely filing an eviction case is expensive for a landlord. Once evicted, the former tenant loses personal property, has to move, children often have to relocate to another school, and in many cases the family is unsheltered for a period of time.
As the United States emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, many more American families that normally would not face eviction now find themselves at risk. This crisis provides city and suburban civic leaders an important opportunity to examine what can be done to reduce the frequency and severity of evictions going forward. This is particularly important for suburbs that have experienced substantial decline over the past twenty years, many of which are inside America’s beltways. We offer three policy suggestions for suburban leaders to consider going forward.
Eviction Prevention Grants
We propose local governments start pilot programs setting aside $2 to $5 per resident per year to fund emergency eviction prevention grants. Based on recent studies in Hamilton County, Ohio, this level of eviction grant funding could reduce evictions by between 10 and 25% annually. If suburbs were able to leverage eviction grants with additional funding from non-profit and philanthropic partnerships, the eviction prevention benefits could be greatly magnified.
Pay to stay ordinances
Few legal contracts are as one-sided as a typical residential lease. Often times, landlords can use a slightly late rent payment into a pretext to evict tenants for other reasons. Even if a tenant attempts to pay rent late, a landlord can refuse to accept the money and continue forward on an eviction and usually prevail.
Pay to stay ordinances would reduce the frequency of evictions in suburbs. A pay to stay ordinance requires a landlord to stop an eviction process if a tenant presents rent late but in full, including reasonable late fees. The negative consequences of someone being evicted from their home necessitates that they be given a chance to avoid eviction if only a few days late on rent.
Municipalities should require all residential rental properties to register with the local government. This is important to developing working relationships with landlords for eviction prevention grants. It also will help jurisdictions gain a better understanding of the rental market in their communities. More and more, single-family homes once owner-occupied before the Great Recession are now owned by out of state hedge funds. These corporate landlords bring Wall Street’s ruthlessness to local rental markets, and have a statistically higher rate of evictions. Cities may also require registered landlords to notify the municipality about a physical eviction before it takes place.
Cities across the country should not assume that state or federal lawmakers will solve the eviction problems. Instead, civic leaders should enact local policies that reduce the severity and frequency of evictions in their own community. This in turn is an important step towards reducing poverty in your community.