Places with higher fees for filing eviction cases have lower eviction rates — even when other factors are considered, new research from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University shows.
The research, published in the journal Housing Policy Debate in May, showed higher filing fees motivate landlords to work with tenants rather than turning to the legal process.
The effect is largest in majority-Black neighborhoods, according to the research. Landlords and property owners disproportionately threaten Black and Latino(a) renters — particularly women — with eviction, according to previous Eviction Lab research.
In Issaquena County, Mississippi, which is 60% Black, it costs landlords $64 to begin the eviction process. There, the eviction filing rate was 25% in 2018.
In areas like these, the research shows, raising filing fees could reduce eviction rates to the same degree as increasing tenants’ incomes by tens of thousands of dollars.
Compare that to 400 miles east, in Lee County, Alabama, where landlords pay $350 to start an eviction case — the highest fee in the nation. Lee County is 23% Black and had a filing rate of 2.3% in 2018.
Henry Gomory, a research assistant on the project and co-author of the paper, was surprised at how strong the correlation was between higher filing fees and lower eviction rates when he first analyzed the data. He and a team of other Eviction Lab researchers, including Evicted author Matthew Desmond, wanted to control for other factors.
The cost of filing an eviction in different states and counties across the U.S. varies considerably, from $15 in Washington, D.C., to $350 in Lee County. In 32 states, the cost to start an eviction case is the same statewide. In the remaining 18 states, fees fluctuate from county to county.
The reason for the variation?
“There’s very little rhyme or reason for them being what they are,” Gomory said.
In Illinois, for example, the fee begins with an amount based on population, Gomory said. From there, money gets added on for different projects the government is trying to fund, like digitizing law libraries or graveside memorial projects.
A 2016 report from the Statutory Court Fee Task Force in Illinois called it “a Byzantine system… a complex web of filing fees, fines, surcharges, and other costs… wildly inconsistent from county to county.”
The variation was useful for the Eviction Lab researchers because it allowed them to compare high- and low-fee areas that were otherwise similar. Even when controlling for other factors — demographics, wealth, political context — researchers were able to estimate the effect of higher filing fees on three key measures of eviction prevalence:
- The eviction filing rate, or how often landlords file cases;
- The serial eviction rate, or how often they file repeated cases against the same tenant at the same address;
- The eviction judgment rate, or how often judgments are handed down against tenants.
In all three of these outcomes, the research showed making evictions more expensive for landlords had a strong effect on driving down evictions in majority-Black communities compared to majority-white communities. This was true even after differences in socioeconomic status, rents and other factors that differ between white and Black neighborhoods.
This reflects the racial bias present in landlords’ eviction practices. Landlords in segregated Black areas are more likely to use an extractive and high-eviction management style, Gomory and Desmond concluded in previous Eviction Lab research.
The new research presents an opportunity for policymakers to improve housing stability long-term, Gomory and his co-authors said.
Gomory said raising filing fees must also come with eviction diversion programs, as well as those that try to prevent landlords from conducting evictions illegally. Landlords evict unlawfully — also referred to as “self-help” evictions — using measures like taking off doors, or disconnecting necessary services such as water and electricity.
A 2021 Urban Institute report found 47 eviction diversion programs across the U.S., with the majority created in response to the pandemic. Such programs provide education and counseling to tenants, and often help tenants navigate difficult conversations with their landlord.
Richmond, Virginia, has an eviction diversion program within Housing Opportunities Made Equal, an organization founded 52 years ago that became known for successfully challenging redlining in court years later.
In Richmond, where one third of renters had evictions filed against them in 2018, it costs $42 to begin the eviction process.
HOME plans to advocate for a longer “stay or quit” period when Virginia’s legislative session opens in January, said Michelle Jones, HOME’s director of housing stability. A 14-day “stay or quit” period, or the length of time between when a landlord delivers an eviction notice and when the landlord files a case in court, can make all the difference for some tenants compared to a seven-day period.
“It allows people to get another paycheck,” Jones said.
She agrees with Gomory that this policy change, or a filing fee policy change, or any other policy change on its own won’t solve the issues of eviction and housing instability. It’s a problem best addressed by an all-hands-on-deck approach: Cooperation from landlords and tenants, coordination between government agencies and service providers, and different programs for any kind of assistance that tenants may need.
“I do feel as though you need them all working together,” Jones said.
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