URBANA – A new report that examines the ways COVID-19 mitigation policies affected housing and eviction-court proceedings found that their effects were unevenly distributed and the backlogs they created will impact the court system for years to come.
The Policy Spotlight, titled Race and Eviction During the Pandemic, draws its findings from surveys and focus groups that included litigants, lawyers, judges, and court personnel. It is the second in a series from the University of Illinois System’s Institute of Government and Public Affairs (IGPA) that explores how COVID-19 mitigation policies affected access to justice during the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic altered almost all aspects of life, including judicial proceedings. Few if any areas of law were untouched, but landlord-tenant law was especially disrupted. Early in the pandemic, some states and then the federal government put broad moratoriums on most evictions so that a large class of legal cases was indefinitely put on hold. The authors reviewed national survey data asking how the pandemic affected people’s housing situations. An ongoing substantial backlog of eviction cases means that the range of innovations in court procedures will continue to influence outcomes for the foreseeable future.
“When eviction moratoriums were first broached as a response to COVID-19, racial disparities were a recurring concern,” said Matthew Mettler, a co-author of the Policy Spotlight and a Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “There were widespread fears that African-American communities would be hit hardest by COVID-19’s impact on housing security.”
The survey evidence presents a more mixed picture of eviction and race. Attorneys surveyed believed that moratoriums generally succeeded in keeping people in their homes, though some lost housing just the same. Attorneys with mostly Black clients reported the highest levels of clients losing their housing. The authors also asked tenants to self-report some data. When litigants were asked to self-report, white litigants reported the worst outcomes, and Black respondents the best.
“Despite the rather small sample size, this difference achieves statistical significance at conventional levels,” said Brian Gaines, a co-author of the Policy Spotlight and professor of political science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “The data suggests comparable experiences across non-Black respondents but markedly better outcomes for Black respondents.”
After extracting data and surveying attorneys and litigants, one critical issue is how eviction court cases take place, whether online, in person, or some of each. Research on how virtual proceedings differ from in-person proceedings is still ongoing, and in the case of eviction, features like the high pre-trial settlement rate and high rate of tenant self-representation seem likely to play a significant role in the outcome of cases.
Other co-authors included: Jason Mazzone, the Albert E. Jenner, Jr., Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law; and IGPA Director Robin Fretwell Wilson, the Mildred Van Voorhis Jones Chair in Law at the University of Illinois College of Law.