The Outsized Impact of Filing Fees on Eviction Rates: A Q&A with Henry Gomory

February 20, 2024

The Housing Solutions Lab spoke with Henry Gomory, PhD candidate in Sociology and Social Policy at Princeton University, to discuss his 2023 article The Racially Disparate Influence of Filing Fees on Eviction Rates. His study found that the amount of money landlords have to pay to start evicting tenants has a big impact on eviction rates. If the fees are higher, fewer people are evicted, while lower fees make landlords more likely to keep filing against the same tenants to collect rent. This affects Black renters the most, making it harder for them to keep their homes, and confirms the racialization of eviction practices in the United States. In our interview, Gomory explained the context of filing fees, shared his findings, and suggested next steps for related research.

The following is an edited conversation from our interview.

To begin, why were you interested in exploring the impact of filing fees?  

I’ve been interested in both the processes that lead to eviction and potential policy solutions that could reduce eviction filings, and filing fees seemed interesting for a couple of reasons. One was simply that I had done a lot of analyses where I kept noticing that the filing fee had this incredibly strong relationship with filing rates and judgment rates.

The second reason is that it’s hard to change the macroeconomic structure that leads to evictions. Not to say that that shouldn’t be something we try to change in terms of reducing poverty overall and, say, increasing nonprofit housing, social housing, and public housing. But, given the difficulty of doing those things, it can be more appealing to try to change the regulatory environment, at least as a first step. 

What was the problem you discovered, and what were you hoping to learn? 

There are many cases where evictions are filed extremely readily and as a method of collecting rent rather than as a way to remove tenants from their homes. Tenants are getting filed against month after month, and that tarnishes their housing records and makes it more difficult to obtain housing in the future.  

It’s not surprising that higher filing fees would reduce the extent to which landlords file evictions. What we found very surprising was the magnitude of the effect and that it was comparable to many key predictors of eviction, like poverty rates and income levels. What we found was that in the areas where fees are really low, landlords can abuse the court system, filling it up with huge numbers of eviction cases. This not only leads to these serial filings, which tarnish tenants’ records, but also actual evictions because often, when people are filed against, they don’t know that they can fight it in court, or they can’t take time off work.  

There can be many costs associated with filing an eviction, such as a variety of court costs or a fee for a sheriff to serve a notice of eviction. What exactly is an eviction filing fee, what triggers it, and who pays it?

The filing fee, as we define it, is the minimum cost for a landlord to file a civil action in court against a tenant. So there can be additional fees from getting an execution done or getting the sheriff to come, but we were focused on the minimum cost. 

What was very interesting is that filing fees are often very similar to other civil court fees in magnitude and in how they are presented in court documents. And so, in a state like Minnesota, it costs about $290 to file an eviction. And that’s the same cost it takes to adopt a child or to file for divorce. For some reason, in a place like Minnesota, these civil court fees are comparable for lots of different activities. 

That was really interesting for a couple of reasons. Eviction touches so many people’s lives, but the filing fee is decided almost arbitrarily. It’s tied to these other civil court actions, rather than being a thoughtful response to the local housing situation, and tied to arbitrary things unrelated to the housing environment or the market segment in which evictions are taking place. 

And secondly, because the fees are determined in ways that are highly unrelated to socioeconomic and housing conditions, it allowed us to make really strong comparisons between very high and low fee areas that were very similar except for their filing fees.  

You observed that filing fees ranged from as low as $15 to as high as $350 and noted that filing fees are determined in “often-arbitrary ways.” How are the fee amounts determined, and by whom – What role do states, localities, and courts play in setting filing fees?

They are determined at the state or county level, but most variation exists between states. So Illinois, as an example, has certain base fees for any civil court action that are tied to the county population, and then counties themselves can levy additional fees. The formula is determined by state legislatures, and they have a huge amount of discretion. 

As we discussed in the paper, it’s not correlated with, say, being a Democratic- or Republican-controlled state, or having strong or weak housing regulations. It has much more to do with an aggressive legislature deciding, “We really need to raise money through the court system.”

Did you observe any surprising patterns regarding places with higher or lower fees, or variation in how landlords with properties in jurisdictions with different filing fees behave?  

We tend to think of the South and the Sunbelt as lower regulation environments, but filing fee amounts weren’t highly correlated with that. Within the South, you have Alabama as a very high fee area, with Georgia and Mississippi on either side with very low fees. Maryland has by far the lowest fees in the country. And then, right above Maryland, you have Pennsylvania, which has fairly high fees. Those stark differences were definitely surprising. 

Researcher and PhD candidate in Sociology and Social Policy at Princeton University, Henry Gomory. Photo credit: Henry Gomory. 

You discuss two types of landlords: those who generally file for eviction as a last resort, and those who serially file evictions. Can you discuss how you define serial filing?

We define a serial filing as any eviction filing against a household that had a previous court-ordered eviction filing against it in the same year. Often, serial filing is used in a way that gives the landlord increased rights. There are no longer two parties in equal standing in the rental transaction. It’s a creditor-debtor relationship, which gives landlords an expedited path to actually executing the eviction and can make it extremely difficult for tenants to advocate, say, for repairs. 

A huge factor in why some landlords tend to file serially is the landlord’s management strategy and whether they are catering to tenants who may frequently be behind on rent or have a poor credit history, an eviction history, or a criminal history, and many other landlords will not rent to them. These tenants have very limited options. And within that market, landlords frequently use eviction filings as a first resort, as both a tenant disciplining and a rent collection strategy.

Another factor is the landlord’s goals. If you think about somebody who owns a single property, they really want to reduce the extent to which they have to find new tenants. They want a stable situation. They’re not necessarily trying to maximize their profits as single-mindedly. They may put a lot of effort into finding a tenant and go to much greater lengths to try to keep them in the property. 

There’s also landlords’ familiarity with the court system. Small-scale, amateur landlords very often have never filed the eviction before and so are not familiar with it, compared to large-scale landlords who may retain an attorney who handles all their cases. 

A final factor is the way that landlords make eviction decisions. Large-scale landlords will often have bureaucratized systems through which they manage their properties where, on a certain day of the month, they file automatically. 

What share of all eviction filings are serial filings? 

It really varies from state to state, in large part because of the filing fee. So in places like Maryland, it’s a huge percentage. In other places, it’s as small as five percent. There’s an article by Lillian Leung with a state-by-state breakdown.  

You found that a $76 higher filing fee is associated with lower rates of eviction filings. What is special about $76, and why do you believe that amount is enough to influence landlord behavior?  

There’s really nothing special about that number. I wondered whether there was a threshold where, once you get a filing fee above $100, $125, it doesn’t make much of a difference. But that’s not what I saw.  From what I could see, there was a fairly stable and somewhat linear effect where increasing the filing fee makes a difference, even if you’re going from $150 to $225 or $250. 

But to the question of, “Can such a small fee increase really make a difference in landlord behavior?” I think there are a few reasons that it would. The first one is that in many eviction cases, the amount of money being sought by the landlord is extremely low. So the fee can be significant in terms of the landlord’s decision-making about whether it’s really worth it to try to collect that small amount of rent owed. 

Another way to think about it is that a lot of landlords who are most affected by a filing fee increase have a lot of tenants and are filing very frequently against them. And in that context, that $76 difference will really add up. 

And a third reason is that making these decisions is not a purely rational economic calculus for many landlords. They have to estimate the chance of recouping any back rent, which is often extremely unlikely. It’s pretty unlikely that landlords actually garnish tenants’ wages in the future to try to collect that back rent. But they are also weighing, “How much more money will I make from bringing a new tenant? How quickly can I fill the vacancy? How much do I need to refurbish the property in order to get a new tenant?” And then, as part of that calculation, “How much does it cost to file?” And so the filing fee may have a psychological effect in addition to a purely economic one.

How can a locality determine if $76 or some other amount is the right fee increase needed to reduce eviction filings?    

I think, for the most part, the question is: “How much can we increase the filing fee without the landlord lobby winning?” Because many efforts to raise fees have been defeated by landlord lobbies or other groups.

But, in the more theoretical space and in the context of a private market in which evictions still exist and we need to balance the rights of property owners to make profits, I would say the right fee level is one that allows evictions to serve the purpose that they often do in the public imagination, which is to remove a tenant who is consistently refusing to or unable to pay rent. You want to raise the fees sufficiently that those are the only instances where a landlord is filing. 

You found that higher filing fees are associated with lower rates of eviction filings and judgments for all renters, but the effect was more pronounced for renters in majority-Black neighborhoods. You say that this effect is “likely a consequence of the more eviction-prone strategies that landlords adopt in racially segmented housing markets.” Can you say more about these findings and explain why filing fees, which tend to be the same across an entire county or even a state, have a greater influence on evictions in Black neighborhoods? 

If you look at the relationship between eviction filings and neighborhood characteristics, neighborhood racial composition, particularly the proportion of Black residents, is far and away the strongest predictor of eviction rates, in a way that is wholly unexplained by socioeconomic differences. Higher poverty rates or high levels of unemployment are obviously associated with higher rates of eviction, but they can’t explain these huge racial differences. That is a consequence of a lot of factors, one being segregated rental markets that limit the residential options of Black renters. Having fewer options increases landlords’ power.

Another factor is discrimination on the part of landlords in majority-Black neighborhoods. Obviously, there is a long history of disinvestment whereby so many properties in majority-Black neighborhoods have been drained of value. They’re in bad repair. And it’s in the landlord’s interest to invest as little as possible in the property, do very little tenant screening, and adopt management strategies that rely on frequent turnover of tenants. All those factors contribute to a much more frequent use of eviction filings, which then the higher filing fees disrupt to a greater degree.  

Based on what you’ve learned from the study, what guidance would you give to localities interested in understanding the extent of or reducing some landlords’ abuse of the eviction process or its disparate impact on households of color? 

A really useful first step would be to go to housing court and basically take in the scene there. In most areas, even ones with fairly high filing fees, eviction cases are decided in a matter of seconds. They are totally rote. But talk to the tenants and landlords and understand what the tenants’ experience has been. So often, you’ll find that the court system is failing these tenants, not just in terms of how readily they get filed against, but also in the way their right to a habitable home is almost always overridden by the landlord’s right to receive rent. And so, even when landlords have not made repairs for months, the minute the tenants stop paying rent, they get evicted. I don’t think the eviction court system is working anywhere – even in areas with high fees. I think raising filing fees is a good step, but that should be one part of a multi-pronged approach that would also include mandatory eviction diversion programs. There are a range of different responses. Some are ones like increasing filing fees or requiring earlier notice, which increases the difficulty of filing an eviction. Others, like right to counsel within eviction cases, make sure that the letter of the law is actually followed when in so many cases, it isn’t. 

One other thing I wanted to mention: in jurisdictions where they do raise filing fees or raise the barriers to legal evictions, those measures should be paired with efforts to ensure that that doesn’t increase informal evictions where landlords – because it’s more difficult to go through the court system – use alternative, often illegal, approaches like shutting off utilities. I think that would be through greater code enforcement, greater outreach to ensure tenants are aware of their rights, and things of that nature.

Some places allow landlords to recoup the cost of filing fees from tenants. In those places, would you still expect an increase in filing fees to reduce the rate of filings or judgments?   

If you want to raise filing fees, try to have clauses that prohibit that type of pass-through. But even in areas where landlords are allowed to pass the cost of filing on to tenants, my sense would be that raising filing fees would still have an effect, though maybe a mitigated one. 

What additional research on this topic do you think would be valuable? What are your next steps?

I think there’s so many directions that we could go in. There’s on-the-ground advocacy, both in terms of challenging evictions through policy reform and through additional protections. And there’s so many interesting and useful approaches that people have come up with. There needs to be a similarly comprehensive swath of research to evaluate the effects of these. There’s been really good research done on the effects of legal representation, but I would be interested in seeing the effects of increasing notices required to tenants, in looking at the efficacy of eviction diversion programs, and looking at the efficacy of short-term loans to tenants. 

I think also, though, it would be useful to do research with a broader view of possible policy reform. Research that can emphasize alternative solutions such as social housing and de-commodified forms of housing. I think it would be really useful to put the American housing system in an international perspective so we can see how the degree to which the private market dominates housing is anomalous. Having those comparison cases could help motivate us so that instead of seeing eviction as a necessary part of the market, we could learn to see it as the anomalous circumstance it is in many other housing systems. 

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