Eviction Court Outcomes in Philadelphia Differ by Type of Landlord
Data sheds light on variations in dispositions for individual, corporate, and government landlords
Philadelphia courts saw more than 300,000 evictions filed from 2005 to 2020, and 90% cited missed rent payments as a cause. In 2018, landlord-tenant cases comprised about 22% of total cases in Municipal Court’s Civil Division, making them one of the most common types of civil court cases. In a city where more than half of renters struggle with housing affordability and many work in service jobs or other positions subject to economic shocks and variable hours, the threat of eviction can be a constant for many households.
And that threat may loom larger in 2022 as federal, state, and city eviction moratoriums that were enacted early in the COVID-19 pandemic expire or are modified. Previous research pointing to racial disparities in both access to housing and eviction rates in Philadelphia underscores the critical need to gain better insight into how the current eviction system operates. Accurate data is essential for developing policies that generate better outcomes for tenants and landlords.
In 2021, Georgetown University launched the Civil Justice Data Commons (CJDC) as a joint project between the Law Center and the Massive Data Institute at the McCourt School of Public Policy to make high-quality civil court data available to researchers. The Pew Charitable Trusts supported development of the platform, and a Pew team served as the CJDC’s pilot researchers. Team members analyzed Philadelphia Municipal Court eviction data to explore whether the type of landlord affected case outcomes, regardless of the original filing reason. The analysis shows that case dispositions do vary according to landlord type—typically individual, corporate, or government.
To be sure, case outcomes depend on many factors—including some not easily captured in an administrative dataset, such as the relationship between the landlord and tenant—but landlord type appears to make a difference. The data also shows that many cases may be resolved efficiently outside of court; more than half were withdrawn or resulted in a tenant and a landlord coming to a formal agreement.
Most cases have one of three outcomes
For an eviction case to proceed in court, landlords or their attorneys must demonstrate that tenants have been notified of a case against them. Tenants must be served with a court summons noting the date and time of their scheduled court appearance.
If the Philadelphia court determines that a tenant was not served, the case is automatically dismissed. In the data analysis, only 0.8% of cases were dismissed for no service.
Slightly more than one-third (36%) of cases ended in default judgments, which occur when tenants facing eviction do not show up for their court date and a judgment is automatically entered against them. Many factors can contribute to defendants not showing up to court, including whether they were actually notified of the lawsuit. It would seem that if a case receives any other disposition besides dismissal service must have been complete, but that may not always be true. A recent report in The Philadelphia Inquirer suggests that some tenants never received their summons, even when the official record indicated that they had.
Although the rules governing service of process for debt collection cases differ somewhat from those for eviction cases, examining debt collection proceedings can provide useful insights. A recent Pew report on debt collection cases in Philadelphia Municipal Court found that some consumers struggle to understand service documents, feel too overwhelmed to attend court, or feel there is nothing they can do to change the outcome of the case.
Another factor may influence default judgment rates among those who do receive their eviction summons: Recent research from the universities of Pennsylvania and Chicago, for example, indicates that tenants with longer mass transit commute times to the courthouse are more likely than others to face a default judgment for failure to appear.
And those struggles can work against their interests. When defendants do not appear in court to take advantage of their right to due process, they cannot share their side of the story, and judges may not have all the facts with which to make a fully informed decision.
About a third of the cases (34%) recorded a judgment by agreement, wherein tenants have worked with their landlords in court to set terms that settle the eviction case. Such a disposition is recorded as a judgment.
Individual landlords—those without a limited liability or other corporate designation—were more likely to enter into a judgment by agreement with their tenants than other landlords. This may be because these work with tenants outside of the court setting to avoid eviction, as described in a 2021 Philadelphia-based study by the Urban Institute. And Reinvestment Fund, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that engages in research and policy analysis, found in 2020 that individual landlords may be more likely to seek a judgment by agreement. Such agreements can allow for more flexibility and collaboration with the tenant. Still, the Reinvestment Fund study noted differences for tenants based on whether they were represented; tenants with attorneys had better outcomes, such as more realistic payment plans, but the majority of tenants engaged in such agreements were not represented.
According to Philadelphia court data, landlords in 24% of cases agreed to withdraw an eviction filing, sometimes because of an agreement reached outside the court or because the tenant paid the rent. Government landlords, a category in Philadelphia made up largely of the city’s public housing authority, withdrew 42% of all cases—significantly more than other types of landlords.
Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) officials say a case may be withdrawn if a tenant pays the past due rent, makes payment arrangements before the court date, or takes advantage of processes typically unavailable to tenants of private landlords. Those can include an appeal with the PHA or a request for administrative review of rent charges.
Responding to the eviction challenge
Pew researchers expect that the CJDC platform will help demonstrate what can be learned by having better access to court data. Good data will enable analysts, court officials, and policymakers to measure whether reforms are resulting in a more equitable and efficient court for tenants and landlords. For example, the data in the CJDC allowed Pew to analyze the impact of the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project (PEPP), which launched in January 2018. The project has aimed to increase tenants’ access to legal representation, financial counseling, and other resources. Pew’s work shows early benefits from the program: Cases filed in or after 2018 had greater odds of judgments in favor of defendants—the tenants—and decreased odds for judgments in favor of plaintiffs compared with cases filed before 2018.
Other initiatives launched in recent years also have helped tenants facing evictions, including the various moratoriums put in place after the start of the pandemic in 2020. City policymakers also launched an Eviction Diversion Program in 2020, which encourages landlords and tenants to seek agreement before court, and paired the initiative with rental assistance.
Since Philadelphia lifted its eviction moratorium in August 2021, the diversion program has kept eviction filings down—the filing rate remains at 53% of historic averages. The Renters’ Access Act of 2021 included additional tenant protections, and the city is piloting a Right to Counsel program for eviction cases in target zip codes with high rates of evictions. These changes allow for more cases to be handled before court proceedings, which benefits both the court and court user: landlords and tenants avoid unnecessarily paying court costs and attorney's fees, and court staff and judges can devote their time to more complex cases. This approach also helps prevent a formal eviction filing that can tarnish a tenant's housing record.
Although it is too early to determine the impact that these recent actions may have on households facing or dealing with the aftermath of eviction proceedings, Philadelphia is among a small number of jurisdictions that make high-quality eviction data available to local researchers and policymakers. Still, data documenting the legal and financial supports provided to tenants and more detailed metrics on case resolutions would allow for more robust analyses. Such additional information would support an analysis of whether policy interventions are indeed resulting in outcomes that work for both tenants and landlords.
Continued and expanded access to publicly available eviction data, such as that available through the CJDC, will help make evaluation of ongoing reforms more effective nationwide.
Casey Chiappetta is a principal associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ civil legal system modernization project, and Octavia Howell is a manager with Pew’s Philadelphia research and policy initiative.
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