From 2003 to 2014, landlords filed 200,000 unlawful detainers in Washington. It’s the first legal step taken to evict a renter from property and creates a permanent record that can follow a tenant for the rest of their life.
The Washington Low Income Housing Alliance (WLIHA) calls it a scarlet letter that can prevent people from getting into housing. Frequently, landlords deny rental applications because of an unlawful detainer, which appears on tenant screening reports, whether the eviction was found to be warranted or not.
The sheer number is not surprising, but advocates working on behalf of people who are evicted still don’t know exactly where these are happening and which landlords are particularly egregious when it comes to filing for eviction.
Gary Perry, a sociology professor at Seattle University, is trying to find out through his eviction mapping project. When completed, Perry and his students will have a website that people can access to see where in Seattle the evictions are happening and possibly a “dirty dozen” list of landlords who are responsible for the most evictions in the region.
Perry presented an update to his project at an April 27 general membership meeting of the Tenants Union of Washington. The map, he said, is just a few months away now that he and his students have accessed the thousands of eviction records through King County Superior Court.
The data could provide valuable information to tenant advocates and possibly show whether evictions are being filed disproportionately to low-income people or people of color.
“We don’t have any idea where evictions are happening and to whom,” Perry said. “Hopefully we can start to develop some understanding of whether or not there are some disparate impacts happening around evictions.”
The eviction mapping project is based on a similar effort happening in California. Tenant advocates in San Francisco started a mapping project to get a clearer picture of what was happening to rental properties there.
Erin McElroy, director of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, said that in San Francisco, speculative investors are buying up rental housing property, holding it for up to five years to appreciate in value and selling it to new property owners who turn the buildings into condominiums.
The number of evictions in San Francisco has increased over the last five years and has reached its highest rate in the last decade. From 2008 to 2011, there were fewer than 1,500 evictions a year. From 2014 to 2015, it increased to more than 2,000 evictions a year, according to the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project.
Many of the evictions are done through the Ellis Act, which allows a property owner to evict people from a building by declaring that it is going out of business.
As people are evicted, the units become much more expensive.
“They’re creating housing that people who are poor, working-class people who were raised in this city [and] immigrant communities can’t afford,” McElroy said.
McElroy has posted lots of eviction maps at antievictionmappingproject.squarespace.com, including maps of San Francisco, East Bay and Los Angeles.
Each map is dotted with circles of varying sizes. The size of the circle corresponds to the number of units evicted in a particular building.
Perry hopes to develop a similar tool for Seattle, but is working to add other items on the map which could paint a picture of poverty and economic inequality in the region, such as the location of payday lenders, pawn shops and schools with a large number of students receiving free or reduced lunches.
The information would be valuable to advocates, said Michele Thomas, policy and advocacy director at WLIHA.
“Any research on who is being evicted, especially landlord repeat offenders, I think will be really informative,” Thomas said.
WLIHA advocated this legislative session for bills that would benefit tenants, including a bill that would have limited what kind of evictions can be reported in tenant screening reports. Private companies conduct background checks, including eviction histories, to provide screening reports for landlords.
An eviction will appear on a screening report whether the courts sided with the tenants or the landlords. Evictions that are not completed, resolved between the tenant and landlord, or dismissed because they are unfounded, appear the same way and are seen as an actual eviction.
The bill died in the regular session but was reintroduced in the special session on April 29.
Perry’s research could show more information on which evictions are warranted and which are not.
Emerald Niakan, one of Perry’s former students who worked on the project and is a Tenants Union intern, said the data will likely show damning evidence of the harm evictions cause to low-income people. She expects the data will show that people are being pushed out of their neighborhoods in an attempt to gentrify Seattle.
People who see Seattle as progressive and anti-racist will see a new picture of their city: “I think the map is going to reveal the capital-T truth that you can’t be ignorant anymore,” she said.