Yesterday, the Budget, Finance, and Economic Development Committee of the Lexington Urban County Council heard a report on the status of rental assistance in our city. While rental assistance has helped many families, hundreds of Lexingtonians have nonetheless lost their homes. This is because current eviction protections are full of loopholes; far too many families are falling through the cracks. As mentioned in today’s presentation by Charlie Lanter, Director of Grants and Special Programs for LFUCG, some tenants have been evicted because their landlord would not renew their lease or accused their tenant of a lease violation. The vast majority of evictions, however, (82.5% of eviction judgments in the two months that Lexington Housing Justice Collective has been tracking this data) have been for failure to appear in court.
Missing court if you are facing eviction is often a reasonable choice. The odds against a tenant receiving a favorable judgment in court are usually overwhelming. Between 2005 and 2016 in Fayette County, a total of exactly three cases heard in court–out of a dataset of over 67,000 eviction filings–was “identified as having a definitive judgment in favor of the tenant.” Compare that to 43,725 “definitive judgments in favor of the landlord” (p. 20). Not good odds for a tenant.
Moreover, multiple tenants have reported to Lexington Housing Justice Collective that they never received information on how to join eviction proceedings via Zoom. This suggests that some tenants who wanted to attend court were unable because of failure by the court to adequately perform basic administrative duties.
Unfortunately, most eviction data is not publicly available. To remedy this, members of Lexington Housing Justice Collective have been keeping detailed data on eviction court proceedings since mid-December 2020 (although our data is incomplete, due to difficulties on some days accessing Zoom court; actual numbers are higher). As of February 23, in 2021, we have observed 609 eviction cases. Of those, 122 ended in a judgment against the tenant, or 20% of observed cases.
When a tenant receives an eviction judgment in Fayette County, the consequences are often swift and cruel. They have seven days to vacate their property. After seven days, if they have not left, a sheriff will come to their home and force them to leave, often throwing their furniture and personal belongings onto the sidewalk like garbage. In 2021, over 122 tenants in Fayette County have had to vacate their property or face this fate. For a breakdown of eviction cases by judge in Fayette County in 2021, see our tracker.
In reality, the total number of families evicted is likely much higher: national data suggests that informal evictions, which happen entirely outside the court system, happen twice as frequently as evictions through court. Extrapolating from this data would put the total number of evictions in 2021 over 350 in Fayette County.
That’s in fewer than two months. Evictions were being carried out with the same level of protections for roughly three months in 2020: evictions resumed without any moratorium on August 24, 2020, accompanied by procedural changes in court ordered by the Governor on August 25, and the partial CDC moratorium was ordered on September 4, 2020.
Members of Lexington Housing Justice Collective did not track the total number of eviction judgments for most of Fall 2020; instead, we were attending court proceedings to help tenants leaving court apply for rental assistance. However, we did track the number of eviction filings for most court days. We tracked 1,417 eviction filings between August 24 and the end of 2020–which is an undercount, as we are missing about two weeks of data. According to an earlier analysis of Fayette County District Court, about 33% of eviction filings are dismissed before going to court (p. 20); assuming that number remains true, we can estimate that the courts heard roughly 933 cases between August 24 and December 31, 2020.
Since the level of legal protections available to tenants was the same or less during that time period compared to throughout 2021, we can assume that the percentage of cases ending in eviction judgments is roughly the same. As indicated above, 20% of observed eviction cases in 2021 have ended in judgments. Applying this percentage to estimated cases between August 24 and December 31, 2020 puts the estimated number of evictions at 186.6.
In December 2020, Lexington Housing Justice Collective tracked eviction judgments for 10 days in court, i.e., two full weeks. During those two weeks, there were 52 eviction judgments, or 26 per week. This indicates that an estimate of 186.6 in 18 weeks (there were no proceedings the final week of 2020) of eviction proceedings is, if anything, a significant underestimate. Further, as discussed above, national data indicates that evictions through court represent just one-third of total evictions. Extrapolating from that data suggests that over 500 people were forced from their homes in Lexington between August 24, 2020 and the end of the year.
Put together–122 observed eviction judgments through the courts in 2021, and an estimated 186.6 eviction judgments through the court August 24, 2020-December 31, 2020–the number of formal evictions in Fayette County since Governor Beshear lifted his comprehensive moratorium on evictions for non-payment on August 24 is estimated to be over 300. Add that to the number of informal evictions, nationally reported to happen twice as frequently as court evictions, and over 900 Lexingtonians may have been forced from their homes in the past five months.
As we argued in our open letter to Mayor Gorton on December 4, backed by reasoning from the CDC and data from leading public health researchers, evictions are a massive public health threat. One study from researchers in public health, law, medicine, nursing, and health policy at Johns Hopkins, UCLA, Boston University, and more found “a total of 433,700 excess [COVID-19] cases (…) and 10,700 excess [COVID-19] deaths (…) associated with eviction moratoriums lifting” from March 13 through September 3, 2020 in the US (p. 5).
Moreover, the vast majority of eviction filings–and hence most eviction judgments, given that over 4 in 5 judgments are for failure to appear–are for non-payment. When so many families have lost their income due to the pandemic–many never receiving unemployment after nearly a year of waiting because of failures by the state government–these evictions are unjust as well as being public health threats. Rental assistance is not enough.
For months, we have been urging the Mayor to use her vast emergency powers as our city’s top executive to do all she can to stop evictions in Fayette County. While she has refused to act, hundreds of her constituents have lost their homes. We understand that the city’s action in this respect has to comply with state law. We also understand that over 15 cities across the country, including cities constrained by similar state laws, have found the political will and legal creativity to stop all evictions (for a partial list of cities enacting eviction moratoria, see the bottom of this article). Every day Mayor Gorton refuses to act, more people lose their homes.
We appreciate the members of city government and local non-profits who have worked hard to administer rental assistance to hundreds of families in the past few months. And we know that hundreds continue to lose their homes because of inaction by the city, and specifically, Mayor Gorton. While rental assistance continues to roll out, people keep falling through the cracks. Mayor Gorton: stop all evictions now.