Eviction’s Impact in the Lehigh Valley
Greg was going to be evicted from his public housing apartment. His dog, an emotional support animal, had been living with him for several months. Greg’s dog was friendly and well-behaved, and had caused no problems for any of the tenants. But out of nowhere, Greg’s landlord gave Greg a notice telling him that his lease was going to be terminated. The notice said that Greg had violated his lease because dogs of certain breeds were not allowed to live in the apartment. Greg mentioned that he had a letter from his doctor saying that he needed the dog because of his anxiety. The landlord did not care. Greg was concerned, and called North Penn Legal Services for help. Despite attempts to resolve the matter, the landlord filed for eviction and a hearing was held with the Magisterial District Judge. An attorney from our office represented Greg. Our attorney presented evidence that the client had asked for a reasonable accommodation, and argued that the landlord could, and should, allow an exception to the rule in this case. The judge agreed, ruling in Greg’s favor. Without an attorney to help him, it is very possible that Greg would have been evicted from his apartment.
Formal vs. Informal Eviction
Greg’s case is an example of a “formal” eviction. In formal evictions, landlords use the legal process to make tenants leave their premises. By clicking here and here, you can read sections from our landlord-tenant handbook and learn more about formal evictions.
Now, it may surprise you to learn that most evictions are not formal evictions. Actually, most evictions are “informal” evictions, which means they do not go through the legal process. For example, a landlord may pay a tenant to leave the premises by a certain date, lock the tenant out, or make it difficult for the tenant to live in the property. Because informal evictions happen outside the legal system, it is very difficult for researchers to know exactly how many take place. It is also difficult for researchers to collect eviction data about people with low incomes. This is because they tend to be harder to contact than the general population, and they are also more likely to move. Because of these and other reasons, we have been without a clear picture of eviction in the United States.
Matthew Desmond wanted to change this. Desmond is a Princeton University sociologist and the author of the award-winning book, Evicted. His work inspired the creation of Eviction Lab. Eviction Lab is a database that contains eviction data from all around the country. It can help us learn more about eviction here in the Lehigh Valley.
Please note that all data listed below are Eviction Lab’s data for 2016. Also, Eviction Lab’s data only count formal evictions. As mentioned above, informal evictions are much more difficult to track. Although the data are not perfect, they are the best data available. Please click here to learn more about Eviction Lab.
By The Numbers…
Figure 1 shows the “eviction filing rate” for three of the Lehigh Valley’s most populated cities (Allentown, Easton, and Bethlehem). It also shows data for Lehigh County and Northampton County, as well as Pennsylvania and the United States for comparison. An eviction filing rate is the number of eviction actions filed in court for every 100 rented homes in the area. So if a city has 250 rented homes, and 25 eviction actions were filed last year, there would be an eviction filing rate of 10%.
In Figure 1, we see that, in 2016, the three cities and two counties had higher eviction filing rates than the Pennsylvania average. We also see that the three cities and Lehigh County had higher eviction filing rates than the national average. Out of the areas in Figure 1, Allentown had the highest eviction filing rate by far.
Figure 2 shows the “eviction rate” for the same areas as Figure 1. An eviction rate is the number of formal evictions that actually happen for every 100 rented homes in an area. So if a city has 250 rented homes, and there were 10 eviction judgments last year, there would be an eviction rate of 4%.
In Figure 2, we see that in 2016, Allentown had a higher eviction rate than the national average. Allentown’s high eviction rate could help explain why Lehigh County’s eviction rate was higher than the state average. Looking at Figures 1 and 2 together, it is interesting to note that while Easton had the second highest eviction filing rate, it had the lowest eviction rate. Because the data do not count informal evictions, it is possible that some evictions began in the court system, but ended in other ways.
Figure 3 shows the “poverty rate” for the three cities, the two counties, and the state. National data was not available on Eviction Lab. However, the United States Census Bureau reported that the national poverty rate in 2016 was 12.7%. This means that Allentown, Easton, and Bethlehem had poverty rates higher than the national average, with Allentown’s being almost a full 10% higher. In fact, Allentown’s poverty rate was even higher than Philadelphia’s (21.04%). As Figure 3 shows, Allentown and Easton had poverty rates that more than doubled their counties’ averages in 2016.
Figure 4 shows the “rent burden” for the same areas as Figure 3. Rent burden is the percentage of household income used to pay rent in an area. Yes, Allentown tops this list as well. But even more worrying is Redfin’s finding that between 2011 and 2014, Allentown had the highest increase in rent burden out of 30 of the country’s major cities. It is important to note that rent burden reflects an area’s average rent and income. If we were to look only at people in poverty, these percentages would be much, much higher.
Lastly, Figure 5 shows the non-white population for the three cities, the two counties, and the state. We see that Allentown is almost 2/3 non-white, while Easton is almost 1/2 non-white. Throughout the Lehigh Valley, Hispanic/Latinx communities make up the majority of non-white populations. Almost half of Allentown’s entire population is Hispanic/Latinx (47.05%), while about a quarter of Bethlehem’s (26.57%) and Easton’s (23.74%) populations are Hispanic/Latinx.
“Most evictions happen because renters cannot or do not pay their rent.” When families spend more than 1/3 of their income on rent, they are forced to make very difficult choices. Food, health care, education—these things cost money. Because the cost of rent has been rising faster than wages, the threat of eviction is very real for many families in the Lehigh Valley. The threat is even more real for those with low incomes.
Even with Eviction Lab’s data, we cannot truly know how many people are just days away from homelessness. Eviction is a complicated story, and data can only tell part of it. After all, eviction means more than the loss of housing. Many landlords screen potential tenants for eviction records, so eviction may also mean difficulty finding new housing. Eviction may also mean children having to switch schools. Eviction may also mean families losing their possessions, or having to pay a fee to recover them. Put simply, eviction is stress, anxiety, and depression.
This is why attorneys have a vital role to play. Attorneys can inform tenants of their rights, and they can hold landlords accountable. At hearings, attorneys can help tenants present strong defenses and counterclaims. Attorneys can also help present evidence, and examine and cross-examine witnesses. While there is no doubt that eviction is a very serious problem in the Lehigh Valley, attorneys can be part of the solution. This is why North Penn Legal Services is determined to help tenants, just like Greg, avoid eviction and achieve more stable lives.