Philly landlords evict more people than owners in other large cities

Philly ranks fourth among big cities for the raw number of court filings seeking to evict residents from their homes.

Listen 4:29
A protested eviction in Germantown, July 2012

The Philadelphia Sheriff enforces an eviction order. (WHYY)

Among large U.S. cities, Philadelphia has emerged as a leader in an unfortunate category: eviction.

A new national database published by Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond, and a team of fellow researchers ranks the City of Brotherly Love fourth among big cities for the raw number of court filings seeking to oust residents from their homes and 81st out of 100 for the number of eviction judgments ordered by the courts. Notably, Philly is the largest city population-wise to crack the top 100 list and one of few located outside of the South or post-industrial Midwest.

Desmond, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” pointed to the city as an example of the problem’s far-reaching scope. “The data from Philadelphia show that the eviction crisis affects large cities with fairly modest housing costs,” he said.

Philly recorded 10,624 evictions in 2016, amounting to 28 households losing their home every day and 3.5 out of every 100 renting households kicked out each year. The city lagged only the totals for New York and Houston, both places with far larger populations, and Indianapolis. Los Angeles has more than double the number of residents as Philly but only experienced 3,255 official evictions.

The rankings, based on public court records, surely undercount the number of people forced out of homes annually. Many people are evicted off the books—think when a landlord takes the door off the hinges or threatens violence—and many people leave without getting an official order

“This database is a confirmation that the eviction crisis is everywhere, nationwide, but it also confirms that as far as big cities go Philadelphia has a big problem on its hands,” said Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, a staff attorney with the Public Interest Law Center.

Desmond’s research reinforces existing findings about eviction in Philadelphia, especially a 2016 study by The Reinvestment Fund. Reinvestment Fund found that the eviction crisis is concentrated in African-American neighborhoods, both historically low-income communities like North Philadelphia—where the database shows some Census tracts with eviction rates of close to 20 percent—and in outlying “middle neighborhoods” that were hit hard by the Great Recession and haven’t recovered.

Over the past year, housing advocates have worked with City Council on efforts designed to reduce the number of evictions in the city and  keep people in their homes.

The First Judicial District announced in January that landlords who are filing to evict must provide evidence that they’ve been in compliance with Philadelphia law.   Before the reform, the only real impediment for the property owner was the lack of a rental license.

The city also allocated $500,000 annually for anti-eviction efforts, thanks to City Council efforts led by Councilwoman Helen Gym. The funds bolstered the Landlord-Tenant Help Center to a full-time operation, where it had previously sometimes been closed while the court was in session.

The funds also paid to establish a lawyer-for-a-day program and allowed Community Legal Services to hire another full-time lawyer to focus on eviction cases. There were previously only five full time lawyers available for low-income tenants in the city, to handle a caseload that is regularly between 20,000 and 25,000 eviction filming. the vast majority of landlords have legal representation in court and the vast majority of tenants do not.

“The city made a great important first step in allocating money for eviction defense but it’s just dipping their toe in the water,” said Urevick-Ackelsberg.  “I do think it’s had an impact, but we need to be realistic about the profound scope of the problem.”

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal