Leah Binkovitz | @leahbink | May 22, 2017
“If you did not pay, you cannot stay.”
That’s how Justice of the Peace Lincoln Goodwin explained eviction proceedings to the standing room only crowd gathered in his courtroom on the northwest side of Harris County earlier this year.
His courtroom is one of 16 where eviction cases are heard across the county. It also happens to be one of the busiest, according to a review of recent court records.
In January, for example, more than 4,300 eviction cases were either closed, dismissed or appealed in his Precinct 4 Place 1 courtroom in Spring, which, along with the Precinct 4 Place 2 court, covers most of the county north of the Sam Houston Tollway. Landlords and property managers come with boxes full of files, handling multiple evictions at once. As one put it, after a change of management, she was tasked with cleaning house.
In reviewing a year’s worth of data of eviction records from across Harris County, some patterns begin to emerge.
Though not every judgment resulted in an eviction, the records reveal where people are the facing the greatest housing instability. Eviction not only has immediate consequences for families, but long-lasting ones as well. And having an eviction makes future housing choices much more limited, effectively further concentrating low-income families and individuals in poor and often more dangerous areas with low-quality housing.
Certain zip codes in Harris County face more evictions in court than others, for example. In the zip code surrounding the intersection of Cypress Creek Parkway and Ella Boulevard, 77090, just west of I-45, there were some 4,500 eviction cases that received judgments from May 2016 through April 2017. One apartment complex just south of there, Mira Vista Apartments, in a zip code with almost 2,500 evictions in the court records, accounted for more than 870 of the cases that received judgments.
Click on the arrows at the top left of the map to learn more. Story continues after the map.
Many of the highest eviction case counts fell outside the city center, except for those in the Third Ward area, which saw more than 1,000 eviction cases that received judgments over the course of the year. And they tended to overlap with areas that were largely African American or Hispanic. The more than 4,500 evictions in the 77090 zip code come from can area that is 49 percent black and 30 percent Hispanic.
And though most of the plaintiffs in the cases that received judgments were from Houston, some 13 percent were from Austin, acting as absentee landlords. Many cities have taken steps to regulate absentee landlords
But the data only tells part of the story, says Matthew Desmond, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the bestseller Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.
“There are other ways, there are cheaper and quicker ways,” to get tenants out of a unit than formal eviction, he said. During research for his book, he encountered landlords in the Midwest who would simply remove the front door of an apartment unit when they wanted someone out, or even cut off the electricity and place an anonymous call to city officials who would then inspect the unit and determine it uninhabitable. Threats often work too.
His years-long investigation in eviction in Milwaukee has now grown into a national effort. And though he’s still collecting data he said during his visit to Houston, “I think that for now what we can say is Milwaukee is a lot more typical than other cities that usually make the news. Cities like New York City and Boston and San Francisco, which are incredibly high cost cities, are more exceptional than a city like Milwaukee on this topic.”
In total there were more than 68,000 eviction cases in Harris County that received some sort of judgment over the 12-month period that the Urban Edge analyzed. Some of those had incomplete address information in the records and so the map above only reflects roughly 67,900 cases.
“Without stable shelter,” said Desmond, “everything else falls apart.”
To read more about eviction in the Houston area, check out this story from the Urban Edge’s “Housing of Houston” series. And keep visiting the Urban Edge for continued analysis of this topic.