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Eviction by Default

June 09, 2022

Prof. David Hoffman’s new study links tenant evictions with long courthouse commute times.

In the first controlled study of eviction rates across time in a large urban center, David Hoffman, William A. Schnader Professor of Law and Deputy Dean at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, and colleague Anton Strezhnev of the University of Chicago found that Philadelphia tenants who live further away from the city’s courthouse and rely on mass public transit are more likely to fail to show up, leading to eviction by default. Default judgments are entered against tenants who have not appeared at their eviction hearings.

The study, which is outlined in the paper, “Longer Trips to Court Cause Evictions,” reviewed nearly 235,000 evictions filed against approximately 300,000 Philadelphians from 2005 through 2021. Using datasets obtained through the non-profit Philadelphia Legal Assistance, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and elsewhere, Hoffman and Strezhnev found that 40 percent of tenants in eviction proceedings during that time period lost due to default.

“Eviction is at the center of a set of social ills that are often difficult to understand and disentangle. Our goal is to offer a previously unidentified but plausible cause of evictions: commuting time to court,” said Hoffman, a widely cited scholar who focuses his research and teaching on contract law. “When the court system requires defendants to show up by a particular time – in this case, 8:45 a.m. – or default their rights with near-certainty, our research shows that longer mass transit commutes result in significantly higher likelihoods of being evicted.”

According to the calculations of Hoffman and Strezhnev, for every 10 minutes in additional commuting time, tenants are between .65 and 1.4 percentage points more likely to default. A one-hour increase in commuting time has a 3.9 to 8.6 percentage point average effect on the probability of tenant default. Were all tenants to be able to get to their hearing in 10 minutes or less, Philadelphia would have eliminated approximately 4,000-to-9,000 such defaults over the time period. Hoffman and Strezhnev found that tenants rarely successfully reopen default judgments.

In contrast, when tenants were offered Zoom or virtual hearings during the COVID-19 pandemic, the commuting time effect disappeared. The result is also absent for tenants in public housing, whose eviction processes are laxer and are not built around defaulting those who show up to court late.

“Even when we compare across buildings that are all roughly the same distance from the courthouse, we find that there is still a lot of variation in commuting time because of how Philadelphia’s public transit network is laid out and that this residual commuting time is strongly correlated with default,” Strezhnev added. “Our finding persists even after accounting for a lot of other factors that might be associated with both commuting time and default. We are quite confident that the relationship we’ve discovered is causal and not spurious.”

Like many cities across the nation, Philadelphia continues to suffer from an ongoing eviction crisis. Hoffman and Strezhnev write that because commuting time is plausibly unrelated to other causes of eviction, policymakers may consider it as an instrument to better identify how eviction causes downstream social problems and prevents disadvantaged people from flourishing.

“These results open up a new way to study the drivers of this important social phenomenon – including increased use of video technology in court and relaxing the requirement to show up to the courthouse by a particular time – and may significantly reduce barriers to justice,” said Hoffman. “Other alternatives, such as easy rescheduling and no-excuse reopening, are available and would reduce the barriers to justice that cause evictions.”

The authors’ data and observations related to the role of mass transit commutes in evictions are presented throughout the paper.

Read the full paper.