Eviction: Definition and How It Works Under the Law

What Is Eviction?

Eviction is the civil process by which a landlord may legally remove a tenant from their rental property. Eviction may occur when the tenant stops paying rent, when the terms of the rental agreement are breached, or in other situations permitted by law.

Evictions in the United States are governed by individual states and certain municipalities. Landlords are required to inform tenants they are being evicted with a notice that specifies the reason for the eviction and the number of days before eviction proceedings begin.

Key Takeaways

  • An eviction is the court-ordered removal of a tenant from the property where they reside.
  • A landlord may decide to evict a tenant for nonpayment of rent, damages, illegal activity, violating the terms of a lease, or if the landlord wishes to take possession of the property.
  • The eviction process normally begins with a notice from the landlord that asks the tenant to remedy certain conditions.
  • If the tenant doesn’t provide a remedy, then the landlord can begin eviction proceedings through a court.
  • Judges hear testimony, review evidence, and decide whether to evict or deny a landlord’s request.

How Eviction Works

Rental properties and all parties involved in lease agreements are subject to landlord–tenant laws. Landlords can’t evict tenants without good cause. Reasons include nonpayment of rent, damages, illegal activity, violating the terms of a lease, or if the landlord wishes to take possession of the property. Unpaid rent is the most common reason for eviction, according to research by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. Some states allow property owners to evict tenants-at-will even when they have done nothing wrong. These renters may be protected in states that allow no-fault evictions, especially if courts deem the action to be discriminatory or retaliatory.

Eviction laws vary by state and municipality, but the process is fairly uniform. A landlord provides an eviction notice to their tenant, giving them a number of days to pay rent or fix any damages. If that period ends without resolution, then the landlord may file an eviction lawsuit against the renter. A complainant may seek financial restitution for unpaid rent and utility costs, damage to the property, late fees, and court costs in addition to the eviction.

Cases are generally heard in district courts, small claims courts, or housing courts. Both landlords and tenants are required to attend and may seek legal representation. Courts require evidence of wrongdoing, including photos, emails, text messages, other documents, and witness testimony that may support each party’s case.

A judge hears testimony and reviews any evidence before making a decision to evict or deny a landlord’s case. The judge may also decide whether to award monetary damages in the case and how much. If the renter fails to appear in court, they typically receive an eviction judgment automatically, so long as the landlord or a legal representative is present.

Evictions and COVID-19

Congress temporarily prohibited evictions through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Evictions were banned for 120 days for people on federal housing assistance or in homes with federally backed mortgages, including those financed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, or the Federal Housing Administration (FHA).

The original ban, which ended July 24, 2020, prohibited landlords from filing new eviction cases due to unpaid rent. The moratorium applied to roughly 28% of the nation’s 43.8 million renter households, according to an analysis by the Urban Institute.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) then banned eviction for many renters on public health grounds. The original order, issued on Sept. 4, 2020, has been extended several times. Due to the rapid spread of the Delta variant, the CDC issued a new order, effective August 3, 2021, temporarily banning evictions in counties with substantial or high levels of community spread. The new order was set to expire on October 3, 2021, but was struck down by the Supreme Court on August 26, 2021. Some states and localities may still have bans and other protections.

While the Supreme Court rejected the CDC's latest extension of its previous moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, there is still help available. The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 bill passed in December 2020, provided $25 billion to the U.S. Treasury Emergency Rental Assistance program.

Renters in need of assistance should consult the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s website, which provides a searchable list of all the programs currently available.

To qualify for the initial moratorium, a renter must have made less than $99,000 per year ($198,000 for couples) and sign a declaration that they exhausted all efforts to pay rent and are likely to become homeless due to eviction.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) announced on September 24, 2021, that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would continue to offer COVID-19 forbearance to multifamily property owners who experience a financial hardship due to the COVID-19 emergency.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Eviction

For Landlords

Evictions allow landlords to remove unruly tenants, as well as those who don’t pay their rent on time or at all. Although it can be costly, landlords can benefit by going through eviction proceedings to protect the interests of their property. By evicting an undesirable tenant, a landlord can open up their property to better, more responsible tenants.

For Tenants

The effects of an eviction can be long lasting for tenants. For instance, when a person submits a rental application for a new home, the application will likely ask if they have ever been evicted before.

Still, having a previous eviction may not completely disqualify a person from a lease. Some landlords may simply want to know more about the terms of the eviction. For example, if a landlord decided to sell an apartment as a condominium and legally evicted the tenants to do so, then that would be unlikely to negatively affect a landlord’s view of a potential tenant.

For Society

Research also reveals that high eviction rates have detrimental effects on society at large. By destabilizing families, high-eviction neighborhoods become more susceptible to crime.

High eviction rates also come at a steep financial cost to cities, which often lose property taxes and outstanding utility bills and may have to pay more for shelters and social services.

Article Sources
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  1. Eviction Lab. “Why Eviction Matters: Why Do People Get Evicted?” Accessed Sept. 24, 2021.

  2. Eviction Lab. “Why Eviction Matters: What Is the Eviction Process Like?” Accessed Sept. 24, 2021.

  3. EveryCRSRreport. "CARES Act Eviction Moratorium," Page 1-2. Accessed Sept. 24, 2021.

  4. National Archives, Federal Register. "Temporary Halt in Residential Evictions To Prevent the Further Spread of COVID-19." Accessed Sept. 24, 2021.

  5. Urban Institute. “The CARES Act Eviction Moratorium Covers All Federally Financed Rentals—That’s One in Four U.S. Rental Units.” Accessed Sept. 24, 2021.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "CDC Issues Eviction Moratorium Order in Areas of Substantial and High Transmission." Accessed Sept. 24, 2021.

  7. Supreme Court of the United States. "Supreme Court of the United States: On Application to Vacate Stay." Accessed Sept. 24, 2021.

  8. U.S. Department of the Treasury. "Emergency Rental Assistance Program." Accessed Sept. 24, 2021.

  9. FHFA. "FHFA Extends Availability of COVID-19 Multifamily Forbearance." Accessed Sept. 24, 2021.

  10. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "Evidence Matters: Neighborhoods and Violent Crime: Residential Instability, Foreclosures, Vacancy Rates, and Evictions." Accessed Sept. 24, 2021.

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