Evictions in Houston After Hurricane Harvey

Hurricane Harvey was one of the largest storms in United States history, leading to over 100 deaths and causing an estimated $125 billion worth of damage. The City of Houston received approximately 51 inches of rain, causing widespread flooding, structural damage, and housing displacement. The storm arrived at the culmination of several years of population growth, increasing housing costs, and major natural disasters within the City of Houston.

Harvey’s impact on renters across Houston was uneven, affecting some neighborhoods more than others. Some neighborhoods, like Braeswood, Harrisburg/Manchester, and Meadowbrook/Allandale, saw massive amounts of flooding, while others emerged relatively unscathed.

Many observers expected to see a large rise in evictions in the aftermath of the storm. Instead, two studies conducted in 2018 (one on this site, and another on Rice’s Urban Edge blog) found little evidence of a strong Harvey effect on evictions, aside from a short-term decline in the month following the storm.

In this post, I revisit the question of Hurricane Harvey’s impact on evictions in Houston with the benefit of six years hindsight. I replicate previous studies’ findings on Harvey’s short-term impact and show that this pattern also occurred in other Harvey-affected areas. I also show that Harvey likely had a longer term impact on evictions, leading to above-average filings well into 2018 and 2019. Moreover, this impact was only seen among garden-style apartments that saw the most flooding after Harvey.

Immediate impact: Eviction boomerang

In order to understand how this disaster impacted evictions, we looked at eviction filing counts from Harris County Justice Courts and the Texas Office of Court Administration.

What we found was in line with previous studies that examined eviction trends 6-12 months after the storm: Hurricane Harvey led to an eviction boomerang. In the two months following the storm, there was a short term decline in eviction filings, followed by a near term correction in October-December when eviction filings spiked above normal levels.

In Houston and Harris County, the immediate drop in evictions was swift and substantial. Because evictions follow a seasonal pattern in Houston, examining year-over-year trends in the monthly number of eviction filings can help us see Harvey’s impact. Typically, August and September are peak months for evictions. Between 2014-2016, August and September saw a little over 3,000 eviction cases filed each month. In 2017, however, there were nearly 1,000 fewer evictions filed in Houston during August and September (371 fewer in August; 613 fewer in September).

This immediate post-Harvey decline, though, was followed by an above-average number of filings in the next several months. In October, November, and December, there were 460 more evictions filed compared with a typical year.

Moreover, this boomerang pattern was not unique to Houston. To put Houston in better context, we used data from the Texas Office of Court Administration. We put Texas counties into three groups: Houston-area counties, other Harvey-affected counties, and counties unaffected by Harvey (based on the Governor’s disaster declaration). To compare counties of varying sizes, we examined the monthly eviction filing rate (number of evictions per 100 renter households) rather than the total number of evictions.

The boomerang pattern in eviction filings we observed in Houston was seen across other Houston-area counties and other Harvey-affected counties. By contrast, the eviction filing rate in counties outside the Governor’s declared disaster area remained relatively unchanged in the months following Hurricane Harvey.

Together, these findings point to the storm’s broad impact on evictions in the region. Moreover, they suggest that Hurricane Harvey – not other factors – was primarily to blame for the fall and rise of evictions in the immediate aftermath of Harvey.

The eviction filing data are limited in what they can tell us about why eviction fell and rose after Harvey, but a few potential factors could be at play:

  • Evictions delayed: Harvey was a disruptive storm for the entire community. Many landlords likely postponed filing evictions as they, the courts, and their tenants sorted through the aftermath of the storm.
  • Temporary relief: While Houston and Harris County did not issue a formal halt to eviction proceedings, Mayor Turner did make a plea to landlords to postpone eviction filings in the weeks after the storm. This action, coupled with community feelings of solidarity after Harvey, e.g., “Houston Strong,” may have contributed to some landlords showing mercy to tenants behind on rent who lost a car or job during Harvey.
  • Displacement: The storm also forced many renters to move who may have already been at risk of eviction. Under normal circumstances, these types of evictions would be classified as “informal evictions” that do not make it onto the court docket.

The long tail of Harvey’s impact on evictions

Previous studies of evictions after Hurricane Harvey took place within one year of the storm, and only captured part of the trend. With enough hindsight, we are able to see a longer tail of Harvey’s impact on renters in Houston.

Looking out one year after Harvey, we find that there were 1,300 more evictions filed than expected. To arrive at this number, we estimated the expected number of evictions each month from a linear regression model that accounts for the seasonality of evictions (month) and the yearly trend in evictions five years before the storm. We then compared our predictions with the actual number of evictions filed each month.

The chart below shows the difference between the expected vs. actual number of evictions filed in the year after Hurricane Harvey. In the first four months, we see the short term decline and near term correction pattern we outlined above. In total, there were 300 fewer evictions filed during this period.

Over the next eight months (Dec 2017-July 2018), however, there were 1,600 more evictions filed than expected. This longer-term growth in eviction filings continued into the rest of 2018 and 2019, with the number of evictions filed reaching a peak in 2019.

Can we attribute this longer-term growth in evictions in the City of Houston to Hurricane Harvey? Yes, but to arrive at this answer I had to dig deeper into the data beyond city-level trends in eviction filings.

Harvey’s impact on garden-style apartments

If the long-term rise in evictions is attributable to Hurricane Harvey, we would expect rental properties that experienced the most flooding to show the steepest rise in evictions over time. For this analysis, we used the Dewberry flood model data provided by the City of Houston about the estimated flooding at all rental properties in the city limits. Each eviction filing record with a valid address was connected to an Harris County Appraisal District (HCAD) parcel through GIS analysis. We then examined the number of evictions filed at every parcel in 2016 through 2019 and compared flooded rental properties to those that did not flood.

The rise in evictions in 2018 and 2019 was only observed among flooded rental properties. Between 2016 and 2019, there was a 23% increase in the number of evictions filed (per 100 parcels) among rental properties that experienced any flooding during Harvey. Among rental properties that did not flood, the number of evictions filed remained unchanged during this period.

Rental properties that flooded also had more evictions, on average, in 2016 than properties that did not flood. This highlights the overlap between flood risk and eviction activity among these sets of rental properties: Rentals in areas with greater risk of flooding were more likely to serve tenants who were at greater risk of eviction.

We also examined the growth in evictions based on the estimated amount of flooding that occurred at each property. Again, the findings are in line with a causal impact of Harvey on evictions: Rental properties that experienced more flooding saw larger increases in evictions in the years following the storm. Rental properties that experienced the most flooding (3 feet or more) saw a 42% increase in the number of evictions filed.

Not all types of rental properties that flooded during Harvey saw an increase in evictions. Using building type codes from HCAD, we found that the post-Harvey rise in evictions only occurred at garden-style apartment complexes. These 1-3 story complexes were mostly built in the 1970s in Houston and feature shared outdoor space. Moreover, as older apartments, they tend to be less expensive and typically serve low-income residents.

Garden-style apartment complexes that flooded saw a 29% increase between 2016-2019 in the number of evictions filed. By contrast, garden-style apartments that did not flood saw little change in eviction activity.

Garden-style apartments also made up the majority of evictions among flooded rentals. In fact, 78% of all evictions filed at rental properties that flooded during Harvey occurred at garden-style apartments.

Moreover, flooded garden-style apartments were not confined to one particular neighborhood but were found across Houston. The most flooded garden-style apartments are found along the bayous but they are found on all sides of the city in neighborhoods with varying socioeconomic levels.

There are a number of possible reasons why garden-style apartments saw such an increase in eviction activity following Hurricane Harvey. All of the following factors likely contribute to higher eviction rates in these complexes and neighborhoods:

  • Concentrated risk: Garden-style apartments are older, less expensive, and have greater exposure to flooding. These complexes were already home to more evictions before the storm hit compared with other styles of apartments. Harvey hit low-income renters especially hard in terms of job loss, wage loss, and the loss of a vehicle. These factors combined likely raised the risk of eviction among renters at these complexes.
  • Loss of financial assistance: The FEMA financial aid to renters lasted for 18 months following the storm. The loss of assistance may have made it more difficult for some tenants to continue paying the rent, leading to an uptick in evictions.
  • Rent deals and lower income requirements at newly renovated complexes: Garden-style apartments that experienced significant flooding had to renovate their buildings, while their former tenants were forced to find new housing or relocated to another complex owned by their landlord. These rehabs typically took six to nine months. After the renovations, the property owners sought to fill their vacancies quickly, often through rent specials or by lowering income requirements.
  • Rising rents: The loss of housing supply caused by Harvey caused rents to increase around the city as displaced tenants tried to find housing quickly. Our analysis of American Community Survey data found that this trend was more pronounced in neighborhoods that experienced more flooding at garden-style apartments. Between 2017 and 2020, median gross rent in neighborhoods with the most flooded garden-style apartments (59%-100%) jumped 11.4% compared with 8.6% in neighborhoods with little flooding (0-12% of garden-style apartments flooded). Rising rents in these neighborhoods likely made it more challenging for low-income tenants to keep up with the rent in the years following Harvey.

Looking ahead

Hurricane Harvey left an indelible mark on Houston, particularly for its low-income residents. Even as the immediate aftermath of the storm faded from the headlines, many families whose apartments were flooded faced a heightened risk of housing insecurity. This analysis underscores a crucial lesson for local authorities, like the City of Houston and Harris County: the importance of maintaining a long-term focus on housing initiatives after a natural disaster, even after the immediate crisis has passed.

The response to the Covid-19 pandemic in Houston provides an interesting comparison. During the pandemic’s most challenging periods, there was a significant reduction in eviction filings. This decline was in part due to unprecedented financial assistance provided to vulnerable families, with the City and County joining forces to ensure residents remained in their homes.

This decline in evictions was unfortunately short-lived. By 2022 and 2023, eviction numbers in the Houston region rebounded sharply, now exceeding even post-Harvey levels. While it’s difficult to attribute this current rise solely to the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, it underscores the city’s ongoing challenges with housing stability for low-income renters. As we look to the future and the potential for more storms like Harvey, it’s clear that evictions remain a pressing concern for Houston.

David McClendon

David is a sociologist, demographer, and data scientist at January Advisors. You can follow him on Twitter and find his full bio on LinkedIn.