What Is an Eviction?

Eviction describes the civil process by which a landlord may legally remove a tenant from their rental property. Eviction may occur when the tenant's rent has not been paid, when the terms of the rental agreement have been breached, or in certain other situations that are permitted by law.

In the United States, state law governs evictions or, as they’re sometimes known, “summary ejectments.” Some municipalities—particularly larger cities—may also have their own process for eviction. Generally, a landlord notifies tenants that they are being evicted through an eviction notice. This notice will often specify the number of days that a tenant has to correct the problem that has led to the threat of eviction. The tenant may have three days, for example, to pay rent in full before they must vacate the unit. If the tenant does not voluntarily comply with the eviction notice, the issue must be resolved in court.

Key Takeaways

• An eviction is a court-ordered removal of a tenant from the property in which they reside.

• Evictions are generally heard in civil courts, which means tenants usually are not provided with legal representation from the government.

• Research shows that evictions can have long-lasting effects, including destabilizing families and making it harder for defendants to rent in the future.

How an Eviction Works

Depending on the state or municipality where you live, there are a limited number of conditions under which a landlord may evict a tenant during the course of the lease. These include failure to pay rent on time, violating the terms of the lease, and conducting illegal activities on the property.

According to research by Princeton University sociologist Matthew Desmond reported in the New York Times, unpaid rent is by far the most common reason for eviction proceedings. Desmond's Eviction Lab project found that the median money judgment for cases between 2014 and 2016 was just $1,253, which includes legal costs. That means landlords typically initiate civil proceedings for outstanding rent that totaled less than that figure.

For “tenants at will”—those who are renting without a lease—landlords typically have greater flexibility when it comes to forcibly removing a tenant. Some states allow the property owner to evict such renters even when they have done nothing wrong. However, even in states that allow no-fault evictions, renters may be protected from claims that the courts deem discriminatory or retaliatory in nature.

Different states and municipalities have their own laws concerning eviction. Typically, the process begins when the landlord gives the tenant an eviction notice, which may give them a fixed number of days to pay rent or fix damages. If that period ends without payment, the landlord may file an eviction lawsuit, or “unlawful detainer action,” against the renter. The tenant will receive a summons to appear in court at a specific date and time. In addition to asking that the court order the removal of the renter, the complaint may seek money judgments for unpaid rent and utility costs, damage to the property, late fees, and court costs.

Depending on where you live, the case may be heard in a district court, a small claims court, or a separate housing court. The tenant, who is the defendant in the case, will need to provide a defense. They may argue, for example, that the landlord failed to provide adequate notice to leave the premises or that the property owner appears to be retaliating against the tenant for a particular reason. In addition to verbal and sometimes written testimony, the tenant will often provide evidence in the form of photos, emails, text messages, and any documents that support their case. Tenants are allowed to bring witnesses who can support their testimony or attest to information for which they do not have direct knowledge.

The judge will hear testimony from both parties and make a decision. Often, this judgment is made immediately, although local laws may give the judge a certain length of time in which to make a decision. In addition to deciding whether the tenant must be removed from the property, the judge may also decide whether a tenant owes any money to the landlord, including rent, physical damages, and related fees. 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.   

Special Considerations

Legal Representation

Unlike criminal proceedings, defendants in a civil case are generally not guaranteed legal representation. This can put low-income defendants at a disadvantage in court. A study of cases in Boston, for example, found that as many as 90% of evictors hired an attorney, while only about 11% of defendants had legal counsel.

According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, lack of representation from a lawyer often makes it much harder for tenants to stay in their homes. They may not realize, for example, that they can try to negotiate a deal with the landlord before the summary ejection goes to court. In the Boston study, published in the Harvard Law Review, two-thirds of tenants who had help from a legal aid attorney were able to successfully fight an eviction versus one-third of those who represented themselves.

Due to that mismatch in legal assistance, a “right to counsel” movement has been gaining steam in recent years. In 2017, New York City began a program that provided mandatory counsel for defendants in its housing court. That same year, Washington, D.C. created a $4.5 million grant program that helps pay the legal expenses of residents fighting an eviction case. Los Angeles County has established a similar program for renters.

Impacts of Eviction

Well before the pandemic hit the U.S. in early 2020, housing advocates argued that the United States was in the midst of an eviction crisis. According to the Eviction Lab, landlords made 3.7 million eviction filings in 2016, the last year for which data was collected. However, that data only includes court filings, not illegal or informal evictions, which the research group estimates occur with equal frequency.

One of the main drivers, according to experts, is a lack of affordable housing, especially in urban areas. The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies found that between 1990 and 2017, the inventory of rental units increased by 10.9 million nationwide. However, the number of units that cost less than $600 in inflation-adjusted dollars fell by 4 million.

That’s coincided with a drop in inflation-adjusted income for low-wage earners, according to the Brookings Institution. The result is that many families are paying well over the 30%-of-income threshold that many financial professionals recommend for housing payments. In a 2017 report, Brookings found that among those in the bottom quintile for earnings, most spend more than half of their income on housing and have less than $500 per month remaining after handing in their rent.

For someone ordered out of their rental unit, the effects can be long-lasting. When a person submits a rental application for a new home, for instance, the application will likely ask if they have ever been evicted before. Whether or not they answer truthfully, the landlord still may be able to discover a previous eviction.

Evictions that end in court settlements show up in credit reports, and some landlords report their tenants to companies that provide reports and screenings of potential tenants.

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

Some experts also suggest that high eviction rates have detrimental effects for society at large. By destabilizing families, they argue, 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.

Eviction Moratoriums During Covid-19

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, Congress passed a temporary moratorium on evictions through the CARES Act. The federal law prohibited evictions for a 120-day period for renters who obtain federal housing assistance or live in a property with a federally backed mortgage; that includes houses 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. Renters in some parts of the country are protected by state or local bans, although many have not received any temporary safeguards.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order on August 8 that his administration suggests will provide new protections for renters. The order directed federal agencies to “consider” anti-eviction steps. Initial responses from housing advocates were not enthusiastic. “It creates the impression that something was done, when in fact nothing was done,” John Pollock, coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, told CNBC. 

However, in early September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of those federal agencies, banned eviction for many renters until Dec. 31, 2020, on health grounds. To qualify, a renter must make less than $99,000 per year ($198,000 for couples) and sign a declaration that they have exhausted their best efforts to pay rent and are likely to become homeless due to eviction . Whether there will be further relief in another stimulus package remains to be seen.