Any seasoned caseworker in the field for St Vincent de Paul Georgia can tell you multiple stories of working families struggling to make ends meet as their rising rents outpace their incomes. In Georgia, 52% of low-income renters pay more than half of their income on rent and utilities. One illness, job-loss, car repair, or unforeseen event can leave them without the money to pay their rent. Our caseworkers are reporting a disturbing new predatory business practice as more and more apartment complexes are being sold to large investment companies-that of serial evictions. A serial eviction is when multiple evictions are filed on the same tenant, at the same address, in the same year. We’re not the only ones witnessing this. A recent study from Georgia State University provided evidence that some of these landlords are exploiting Georgia’s eviction laws not to remove a problem tenant but instead using the courts as a collection agency. “Filings can be the beginning of a forced removal process, but they are also frequently a tool used to enforce the collection of rent and fees,” they note. “Some landlords viewed the additional revenue from late fees, enforced by the threat of an eviction filing, as a supplemental source of funding in addition to the regular rent roll.”
In the metro Atlanta area, 40% of all evictions filed are serial evictions which can add 22% in extra costs to a tenant’s bill according to Mathew Desmond, Pulitzer Prize winning author and director of the Eviction Lab. Is this legal? Yes, thanks to Georgia’s lax laws that favor the landlord. Is it just? No. Serial evictions trap financially fragile people on a hamster wheel many can’t get off of. This practice needlessly adds hundreds of extra dollars to a tenant’s bill through late fees and filing fees, destroys their credit score, prevents them from moving to another apartment or get a better job. It’s unjust because it makes poverty worse. It’s predatory because as the GSU authors note “serial filers may cater to tenants who are economically fragile and, like banks charging overdraft fees, they may have identified a way to capitalize on this fragility.” And it’s the taxpayers who are underwriting the cost of the entire process.
So, what can be done to reduce the number of serial eviction filings? There are a number of possible solutions. Raising the cost of filing an eviction to over $200 has been shown to lower the number of filings according to the Eviction Lab. Requiring a longer notice or waiting time before an eviction is filed may provide more time for tenants to come up with rent. Providing free legal representation to low income renters has also been shown to reduce the number of serial filings. States that have provided legal representation have also shown decreases in the number of evictions overall and decreased serial evictions. Georgia’s laws favor landlords over tenants. Legal representation will help even the scales of justice, lead to more mediation, and fewer filings overall. And local governments and housing advocates might consider publicizing data on eviction patterns by large landlords to warn potential tenants of their business practices.
As a community, we need to say we are done with absorbing the costs of this predatory business practice. It’s time to stop preying on Georgia’s poor.