Researchers at Princeton University say they are onto a simple way to reduce the eviction rate in America: nominally increase the eviction filing fee, which is arbitrary and varies wildly from county to county. In one area of study, boosting that cost by $100 resulted in a reduction of eviction filing rate by 2.25 percentage points, they report in a recently published research paper.
Since 2018, when Princeton professor Matthew Desmond published his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Evicted, information scientists at the university’s Eviction Lab have been publishing research findings, databases, and interactive tools to help policymakers understand the eviction crisis, one component of the larger affordable housing deficit.
“That higher price changes landlords’ economic calculus and encourages them to work with their tenants rather than turning immediately to the courts,” noted Henry Gomory, Douglas S. Massey, James R. Hendrickson, and Matthew Desmond in their article, published in the journal Housing Policy Debate.
In addition to demonstrating that higher filing fees lead to lower eviction rates, the authors provide evidence that the effects are largest for renters in majority-Black neighborhoods.
The article originated with findings in Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama. The latter has one of the lowest minimum wages in the country ($7.25/hour) and almost half of renters are burdened by high costs, devoting more than 30% of their income to housing, a situation in which researchers would expect high eviction rates. But that’s not the case: Alabama’s eviction filing rate in 2018 was only 3.8%. That’s half the national average (7.8%) and far below rates found in neighboring states Mississippi (14.7%) and Georgia (18.8%).
The reason, the researchers theorize, is that the eviction filing fee in Alabama is $276, compared to $65 in Mississippi and $87 in Georgia.
They went on to collect filing fee information from all counties across the U.S. and found that, on average, the filing fee for an eviction case is $109, but the range is broad, from a low of $15 in much of Maryland up to $350 in Lee County, Alabama.
Even accounting for differences in demographics, wealth, and political context, they found that “the cost of filing an eviction case has a clear and powerful effect on how often landlords turn to the courts.”
Furthermore they discovered low eviction filing fees have a particularly high price for Black tenants.
“We found that for all outcomes—filings, serial filings, and judgments—the effect of increasing the filing fee in driving down eviction rates was much larger in majority-Black than in majority-white neighborhoods,” the authors noted, “even after controlling for differences in socioeconomic status, rents, and a wide array of other factors that differ between white and Black neighborhoods.”
The researchers conclude that the arbitrariness of filing fees signals an opportunity for policymakers looking for ways to improve housing stability.
“Increasing these fees could dramatically reduce evictions and help tenants remain stably housed,” they surmise.
The full paper, including detailed data, graphs, and methodology is available at evictionlab.org.