Why Houston Should Care About Evictions

Over the last week, amid escalating concerns about the spread of COVID-19, at least 600 families in Harris County were evicted from their homes.

In other words, it was a pretty normal week for evictions in Harris County. In the first eight weeks of 2020, there have been an average of 1,435 eviction cases filed and 766 eviction judgments every week.

In other cities across the country, politicians and housing advocates are calling for restrictions on evictions during the unfolding public health crisis. That’s apparently against state law here in Texas. So we continue, business as usual.

An eviction can happen for a variety of reasons, but most often its when a tenant fails to pay rent to a landlord. Compared to other states, Texas law makes it pretty easy for landlords to evict tenants for non-payment of rent. It only requires three days notice.

If the tenant doesn’t comply, then the landlord can file a lawsuit in the Harris County Justice of the Peace Courts. From there, a lot of things can happen. Here’s a breakdown of the outcomes from 2019:

  • 55% of cases ended in favor of the landlord, which presumably means the tenant was evicted.
  • 28% of cases were dismissed. This can happen when the tenant pays back rent, vacated the property, worked it out somehow, the landlord didn’t show up to court, or the suit was brought in the wrong jurisdiction, among other reasons.
  • 17% of cases didn’t have a judgment and were dismissed, though the tenant might have already been evicted.
  • 5% were appeals of a previous ruling.
  • Some of the cases made it to a trial by judge. When that happened, the landlord won 95% of the time.

An eviction can have wide-ranging, long term financial and psychological consequences. There are a lot of good places to learn about the impact of evictions on society. Needless to say, there are clear moral and ethical reasons to reduce the harm that evictions cause.

In this blog, I am trying to show the scale of Harris County’s enormous, underreported problem with evictions. For every person experiencing this loss, there is a story. It’s been going on for decades now. And our community is only beginning to grapple with it.

Evictions are underestimated in Harris County

In 2016, the Eviction Lab from Princeton University compiled the first-ever nationwide evictions dataset. They looked at eviction rates across the country and ranked the cities with the highest eviction rates. It was an incredible and ambitious project that led to major changes in eviction policies. Their work has singlehandedly elevated evictions into the popular consciousness.

They estimated that Houston had 11,082 evictions in 2016, which ranked Houston’s eviction rate #126 in the country, roughly tracking the nationwide average. There was no reason to suspect that evictions were more of a problem in Houston than elsewhere in the country.

But those numbers are wrong.

We gathered twenty years worth of data directly from the Harris County Justice of the Peace Court, which oversees eviction cases. This dataset contains about 1.1 million records going back to January 1999.

In fact, Houston had at least 25,013 evictions in 2016. This data would have changed Houston’s eviction rate ranking from #126 to #36. We would be tied with Detroit.

Taken together, Harris County and the City of Houston had at least 31,201 evictions in 2016. That volume is second only to New York City.

This list had an enormous impact on some communities, since shining light on the problem immediately led to drastic interventions. For example, Richmond, Virginia ranked #2 on the Eviction Lab list, and promptly instituted a citywide eviction diversion program that includes financial assistance, financial literacy training, and legal assistance.

What would have happened if this ranking had been accurate for Harris County? Houston already has one of the worst supplies of affordable and available housing for low income renters in the nation. And since those rankings came out three years ago, there have been about 100,000 tenants evicted from their homes.

Looking at twenty years of evictions

Evictions were always a problem in Harris County, but it is getting worse. I looked at the last twenty years of eviction cases, going back to 1999, to better understand the eviction filing trends.

line chart showing the growth of evictions over time
There has been a steady growth in evictions over the past twenty years.

Since 1999, eviction filings have followed an upward trend. In 2016, there was a suspicious increase in eviction filings, and no one really knows why. We suspect that the courts changed how they report data, so we adjusted for the changes.

For this analysis, we looked at unique case numbers. Beginning in 2016, there were duplicate entries with the same case number that noted minor differences, such as updates about a trial. This artificially inflates the number of records, making it look like there are more cases than there really are.

Another pattern emerged in the data around the same time. Starting in 2016, the data includes dispositions where a motion to dismiss was filed prior to the court date, usually because the eviction dispute had already been settled.

I looked into several of these records, and found that they fall into one of the following four categories:

redacted image from court filings showing tenant moved out of the unit

The tenant already moved out of the unit.

redacted image from court filings showing tenants paid in full

The tenant paid their back rent.

redacted image from court filings showing plaintiff did not show up for court

No one showed up to court.

redacted image from court filings showing handwritten order to dismiss

No one knows what happened.

These cases started appearing in the data in the beginning of 2016, and account for the corresponding rise in cases filed:

line chart showing the prevalence of eviction cases with an unknown outcome
Beginning in 2016, cases that were dismissed prior to trial began to show up in the data, accounting for an increase in cases filed.

After controlling for these changes, the data show that evictions in Harris County are on a steady upward trend over twenty years.

Where are people getting evicted?

I wanted to understand where these evictions are happening throughout the county. Not surprisingly, evictions happen where there are a lot of apartments. But there are some trends in the data that should be explored in more depth.

This is a map of eviction filings and outcomes from 2019 based on Harris County neighborhood:

This is a map of the same data broken down by Houston City Council District:

The fields on the maps above include:

  • Total eviction cases filed includes all eviction cases filed, regardless of status or outcome. This includes appeals, as well as cases with an unknown outcome.
  • Total evictions includes all eviction cases with a judgment for the landlord.
  • % cases evicted provides a landlord “win rate” for eviction cases.
  • Total dismissed includes all cases with a status of “dismissed.” This typically does not include the “unknown outcome” cases detailed above that are dismissed prior to trial.
  • % cases dismissed provides a tenant “win rate” for eviction cases.

At a glance, some of the initial findings are:

  • Dismissal rates are higher, and tenants are less likely to be evicted, in neighborhoods in the North and Northwest regions of Harris County.
  • The chance of a tenant losing an eviction case is higher in neighborhoods that are majority Black or Latinx, such as OST/South Union or Lawndale/Wayside.
  • Harris County has an uneven distribution of renters and multifamily units across neighborhoods, so some neighborhoods will struggle with evictions more than others. For example, we did not find any eviction cases filed in the West University / Southside neighborhood.

There is a lot more to study here, and my colleagues at January Advisors will address these issues in future posts about evictions. Let us know if you want to collaborate.

Eviction diversion programs are just getting started in Harris County

Across the country, the areas that were hit the hardest by the housing crisis have implemented programs to prevent evictions. Last year, Judge Jeremy Brown established Harris County’s first eviction diversion program. He’s been working with a coalition of partners to study evictions and develop strategies for keeping people in their homes.

This two year pilot program is a partnership between Coalition for the Homeless, the Houston Apartment Association, Harris County Community Services Department, and Texas Southern University.

“As a judge, I think about how we can pull stakeholders together to keep people out of the courthouse in the first place,” he told me over coffee at Denny’s. “That’s what this pilot program is about.”

The idea is to connect landlords, tenants, and other social service providers together to understand the resources available for tenants, and to give landlords a different set of tools for striking a deal.

At the conclusion of the pilot program, Texas Southern University is going to publish a report about the root causes of evictions in Harris County. As far as I can tell, this will be the first study of its kind for our community.

But we will need to move faster. Over the course of the two year study, there will be tens of thousands of people who experience an eviction.

What can the Houston community do right now about our eviction crisis?

Acknowledge the scope of the problem. The number of evictions in Harris County has been underestimated, and the actual numbers put us in crisis territory. The result of this type of eviction volume is an unnecessary burden on social service providers and schools, as families seek help and find new places to live. Sometimes, evictions even lead to an increase in the homeless population.

Support Judge Brown and the Harris County eviction diversion pilot program and study. By creating popular awareness of the program, we can hold Harris County accountable for implementing the recommendations that come out of the study. You can also tell Judge Brown you support this program.

Get our electeds to use the bully pulpit. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and City of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner have lots of no-cost options to raise awareness of evictions and come up with innovative measures to address them. They can convene a task force, develop local and state policy recommendations, bring together landlords, tenants, and trade associations to discuss the problem, and use the power of their megaphones to make eviction diversion a priority for our community.

Use the 2-1-1 social services hotline for eviction diversion. The United Way of Greater Houston operates our regional 2-1-1 social services hotline. Anyone can call that number and speak to a person who will refer them to local social service providers. Kalamazoo County, Michigan built their entire eviction diversion program around calling 2-1-1, which helps identify vulnerable people as soon as possible. The 2-1-1 operators also capture information about co-occurring needs, such as utility bill or car payment assistance. By examining these co-occurring needs, we can better predict the factors leading up to non-payment of rent, and eventually eviction. Plus, telling people to “call 211” when they are worried about their rent is very easy to remember.

Increase funding for eviction support services, such as legal aid, financial counseling, and rent payment assistance programs. This includes services to support the tenant prior to an eviction being filed, all the way through legal representation and potential rapid rehousing services. For example, New York City passed an ordinance that ensures that every tenant has the right to counsel. We have a lot of housing support services doing great work in Houston, but they need more funding.

Increase media coverage about evictions. Other media markets are paying much closer attention to evictions in their community. The San Antonio Express-News launched a multi-part investigation into evictions. This humanizes evictions and helps build public empathy.

Pay close attention. Going forward, January Advisors will publish a monthly evictions activity update so we can monitor changes as they happen. This report will be free and available to everyone. We will provide more details in our newsletter and on social media in April.

Do you have thoughts about this story? You can tweet to us at @januaryadvisors or send us an email.

Jeff Reichman

Jeff is passionate about data. He founded January Advisors, and serves on the board of two Houston nonprofits. Read his full bio on LinkedIn.