‘Simple’ Fixes Offered for 2 Housing Issues

Columnist Lew Sichelman on a couple of seemingly simple fixes for a very difficult problem.

Lew Sichelman

Lew Sichelman

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could just flip a switch and cure at least some of the nation’s housing woes? Maybe reduce the rate of evictions, or perhaps increase the supply of housing options for middle-income families?

It may not be as easy as throwing a switch, but researchers at Princeton University believe they have a “simple way” of doing away with a healthy slice of the number of evictions nationwide. And the American Enterprise Institute’s Ed Pinto says there’s an elementary way to boost housing choices.

Four researchers with the Ivy League school’s Eviction Lab would trim evictions by raising the cost of the fees local governments charge to allow landlords to remove a tenant for cause. In an article published by the journal Housing Policy Debate, the academics maintain that a “higher price changes landlords’ economic calculus and encourages them to work with their tenants rather than turning immediately to the courts.”

Nationally, according to the authors’ research, filing fees are wide-ranging, from as little as $15 in much of Maryland up to $350 in Lee County, Ala. On average, the fee is $109.

While admitting that more than just fees influence eviction patterns, they say they can estimate the “causal effect” of the fees on three key measures: how often landlords file cases; how often they file against the same household at the same address; and how often judgements go against tenants.

And the say they found that cost has a “clear and powerful effect” on how often landlords turn to the courts.

Specifically, boosting the fee by $100 reduces the eviction rate by 2.25 percentage points, they say. In other words, if the filing rate was 3.3 percent, a $100 jump in fees would “more than halve” the number of cases, and drive down the judgement rate by 0.64 points.

“When filing fees are low, landlords often use the court to help them collect rent,” the study maintains. “Instead of talking with tenants whose payments are late or working out plans to help families get back on track, some landlords file for eviction as soon as rent is past-due, thinking that the threat of removal is the most effective way to get tenants to pay.”

As the authors see it, the “arbitrariness” of eviction filing fees “signals an opportunity” for policy makers searching for ways to improve housing stability.

“If people are paying the same amount to get divorced as to evict a tenant, it exposes the fundamental randomness of these fees,” the reasearchers found. “Filing fees are bureaucratic artifacts that have little reason to remain at their current levels. Increasing these fees could dramatically reduce evictions and help tenants remain stably housed.”


Boosting housing choices isn’t as easy as raising fees. But Pinto’s “simple solution” to the issue is to legalize duplexes, triplexes and other forms of what he labels “light-touch density.” Once these LTD options are legal, he says, builders can erect “more affordable housing options for more Americans,”  including small multi-family properties.

All it takes, the co-director of AEI’s Housing Center and a senior fellow at the conservation think tank wrote in a recent Op-Ed piece in Newsweek is eliminating the laws that ban them. “To tackle today’s housing crunch, we need to build more housing to undo the damage done by misguided zoning policies,” he argued. “The key is to return to the light-touch density housing types of the early 20th Century.”

That’s already happening in some states and localities, he notes. Three places have passed HOME legislation: Housing Opportunity and More Efficiency in California, Housing Opportunities Made for Everyone in Vermont, and Home Options for Middle-Income Empowerment in Austin, Tex. In all three cases, these laws repeal zoning ordinances that allow solely for single-family detached housing.

Pinto estimates that an additional 930,000 housing units could be built annually over the next 30 to 40 years, depending on the maximum allowed density, by changing the rules. And, he says, it would expand the construction of more affordable and inclusionary housing, “thereby keeping home prices more aligned with incomes and keeping housing displacement pressures low.”

As Pinto sees it, a movement back to LTD zoning already is afoot. Besides the aforementioned localities, Washington, Oregon and Montana as well as Minneapolis and Charlotte have all passed reforms scaling back their zoning laws and legalizing LTD zoning, he reports. And “many more” jurisdictions are considering the same.

“Legalizing light-touch density is the most effective and politically palatable way to solve our housing crisis,” Pinto concluded. “LTD zoning unleashes the private sector to close the housing supply gap and provide more housing opportunities and affordable homes for more Americans.”

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