In September of 2018, the King Country Housing Justice Project and the Seattle Women’s Commission released a report they conducted of filed unlawful detainer actions in the City of Seattle in 2017. 

The paper is grabbing headlines because of some of the statistics that it contains.  The attention grabbing lines from Losing Homes: The Human Cost of Eviction in Seattle include:

  • 51.7 of eviction files were against people of color
  • 86.5% of eviction filings were for non-payment of rent and 52.3% of those were for one month’s rent or less;
  • 81% of evictions for less than $100.00 were against women; and
  • 74% of respondents believed they could pay some or all of the rent

Biased Results

Tenant advocates, including the paper’s authors, are using these statistics as evidence for policy changes that they were already advocating.  The authors made eighteen policy recommendations at the conclusion of their paper, any or all of which have been on tenant advocates’ wish list for quite some time.  Among the recommendations were making payment plans for rent defaults mandatory, restricting the parties’ ability to mutually terminate leases and giving the judges discretion to deny eviction or legal fees even when a default is proven.

The scope of disputes considered and the definitions the authors created both biased the results to make evictions appear more common.  The paper was based on review of filed unlawful detainer actions for the City ofSeattlein 2017.  The overwhelming number of disputes between landlords and tenants, however, do not result in an unlawful detainer because they are resolved between the parties.  For example, a tenant may work out a payment plan after receiving a notice to pay or vacate or may kick out the unauthorized roommate after being served with a complaint for breach of lease.

In cases where the landlord is forced to serve an eviction lawsuit, over 55% are resolved without filing, generally in the tenant’s favor.  None of these favorable results appear in the paper’s statistics.  The authors also created an over-broad definition of “eviction” to mean any tenant who vacated after the case was filed; this means they reported tenants who were in the process of moving when a dispute arose as “evicted” even though the case did not cause the tenant to move.   The narrow scope of the paper caused some eye-catching figures.

For example, several media agencies repeated the claim that a black person is 4.5 times more likely to be evicted that the average Seattleite.  The actual statistic that the percentage of defendants in filed eviction cases who are black is 4.5 times higher than the percentage of black tenants in the city as a whole – a much different statistic. Citing that, the authors accuse landlords of both intentional and unintentional discrimination and advocate for a heightened “just cause” eviction stand, among other changes.  As the paper acknowledges, black Seattleites are statistically far more likely to be tenants, to have lower incomes and to have lower rents, all of which increase the likelihood of being evicted without any act of discrimination by the tenant’s landlord.

Lack of Data

Unfortunately, there is a lack of data on evictions throughout the country as well as in Washington specifically. This paper identifies some data deficiencies, including the inability to verify the outcome of the cases studied and a lack of information on the population as a whole.  The authors tended to assume that a lack of data also supported their conclusions.  While recommending greater access to legal services, the authors write that, “We were unable to do further research into why nearly half of all tenants fail to appear or contest the eviction matter, but we suspect that most tenants are confused by the process or unaware of their rights to contest the matter.”

Additional data could either verify or undermine the author’s conclusions; for example, the paper emphasizes the high percentage of women evicted for owing less than $100.  This number seems high but only 21 cases were based on rent defaults of less than $100 and the authors do not have data on the number of women who fall behind by less than $100 and are not evicted.

The author’s conclusions are frequently based on assumptions rather than the information contained in the paper.

For example, the authors write that tenants reported “depression, anxiety, or insomnia caused by their eviction.” That statement was based on self-reported healthy issues from a population as a whole or any attempt to show causation.  Social scientists commonly use regression analysis to determine whether one reported variable caused or highly indicated another, but there is no indication that the authors attempted any type of regression analysis.  Put another way, there is no data on whether the tenants’ health issues caused their lease defaults rather than their lease defaults causing healthy issues – or even whether the two are related at all.

The policy recommendations are wide-ranging but largely focus on making evictions slower and more expensive an on increasing funding for tenant legal services.  The authors recommend making payment plans for rent defaults mandatory.  Under current law, a landlord may use his or her business judgment before agreeing to a payment plan and can consider a tenant’s credit in the decision; yet, over one in three tenants in the report who receive payment plans defaulted anyway.

This recommendation was based in part on the author’s frequent comparison between eviction outcomes inSeattleandBronx County,New York.  The authors do not explain whether the Bronx is a valid comparison in terms of population, income, demographics or any other metric.  The comparison appears arbitrary.  Further emphasizing the gap in logic, the authors offer no data on the relative success of payment in the Bronx, where they are far more common.

One area where the authors and housing providers agree is on the need for more short-term rental assistance.  The housing community supported $290 million Housing Levy that passed in 2016, but less than 4% of those funds are being used for short-term rental assistance.  Short-term rental assistance is one of the most efficient ways to reduce homelessness; more of that money should be used for this purpose.

All the tenants facing eviction for $2,500 or less could have had their rent paid in full with less than $1 million in total emergency assistance – a small fraction of the funds available.

Christopher D. Cutting is an attorney and owner of Cutting Law Office PC and LT Services.  He represents landlords throughout Western Washington in a variety of tenant disputes and advises on best practices to avoid those disputes.  He can be reached at (206) 788-8840 or at cuttinglaw.comReprinted with permission of the Rental Housing Association of Washington.