Revealing Opportunities and Challenges: An Analysis of Eviction Filings in Pennsylvania

The Web version of the report presented here is condensed from the downloadable PDF version of the report, which is available here.

Main Findings

  • Eviction filings increased through 2021 but remained below pre-pandemic levels
  • Many communities across PA continue to experience a high prevalence of evictions
  • Local eviction diversion programs are reaching mutually beneficial solutions
  • Communities of color, communities with high rent burdens, and communities with many female-headed families with children are among those especially affected by eviction
  • Most eviction cases involve rent in arrears
  • After the CDC moratorium ended, eviction filings as well as eviction orders have risen

Introduction

An eviction is one of the most traumatic events that a family can experience. They deprive families of stable homes, which has cascading effects on economic, physical, and mental well-being. Evictions disrupt the fabric of neighborhoods and perpetuate racial inequalities in housing. Neither do landlords benefit from the high costs and instability associated with eviction proceedings. Solutions that prevent evictions can help both tenants and landlords achieve stability and help foster better landlord-tenant relationships. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, we also know that evictions exacerbate the spread of COVID-19, endangering renter families and jeopardizing broader public health.

This report is intended to shed data-driven light on both the problem of evictions in Pennsylvania and on promising solutions working to prevent evictions. To support these goals, we analyzed data on eviction cases at both the statewide and local levels, obtained via a public data request from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC). Because Philadelphia data are not available from AOPC, we used data from the Eviction Lab and the Legal Services Corporation to supplement data for Philadelphia.

Filings Increased in 2021 but Still Remained Below Pre-Pandemic Levels

In 2021, 66,193 eviction cases were filed in PA. This number compares to 116,287 eviction cases filed in 2019, the last calendar year before the pandemic began.[efn_note]A very small percentage of cases were filed against defendants which were clearly businesses. In all further analyses, those cases were excluded.[/efn_note] You can explore the number of eviction cases filed each week in 2020 and 2021 in the interactive plot below by choosing a county (or statewide numbers) from the drop-down menu. You can also hover over the individual bars to see how many cases were filed that week, and download the data for all counties using the ‘Download data’ button.

Statewide, the effects of the PA moratorium on evictions is clearly visible from April 2020 through August 2020. However, when the PA moratorium expired at the end of August 2020, filings initially increased to an extremely high level, with around 3,500 filings in the few days where no eviction moratorium was in effect. Filings dropped after the CDC moratorium came into effect on September 4, 2020, though they remained at a more elevated level than during the PA state-level moratorium.

From September to December 2021 (after the CDC moratorium was invalidated) new filings rose compared to the immediately previous months, but were still at 70% of filings made in the same months in 2019. Even so, approximately 1,500 families faced eviction filings weekly through the last four months of 2021.

Eviction Filing Rates Show the Prevalence of Evictions Across Pennsylvania

Which counties see the highest prevalence of eviction filings? We can answer this question by comparing the number of eviction filings to the county’s total renter population.[efn_note]For renter population, we use American Community Survey 2019 5-year estimates for the number of renter households in the jurisdiction. Due to pandemic-related issues, no more recent reliable estimates of households by housing tenure are available.[/efn_note] Controlling for the number of renter households allows us to compare the prevalence of eviction filings across counties. The interactive plot below presents the top 10 counties by the number of eviction filings as well as the top 10 counties by the eviction filing rate. You can add or subtract counties of your choice by using the selection menus, or select the top 20 counties in each category.

We see that while high-population counties like Philadelphia and Allegheny County top the list in terms of the number of eviction filings, the highest rates of eviction are not always found in those same counties. High eviction filing rates are indeed found in counties in nearly every region of the Commonwealth, not just in the largest cities.

ZIP code map of eviction filings

We looked at filings and filing rates in more granular detail by mapping filings at the ZIP code level, which is the most detailed geographic level available from the state courts data. The interactive map below shows how many filings were made at each PA ZIP code in 2021. You can zoom into ZIP codes of your choice, and get exact data by hovering over the map. The color labels are divided at the 50th, 75th, 90th, and 95th percentiles: the ZIP codes in orange have the highest number of evictions. (For Philadelphia, the Eviction Lab tracker allows you to explore eviction filings by Census tract.)

ZIP code map of eviction filing rates

You can also explore eviction filing rates for each ZIP code in 2021. As with the map above, you can zoom into local areas of interest, and hover over a ZIP code to see the calculation of its eviction filing rate. The ZIP codes shaded in orange have eviction rates of 5% or more: to put this into perspective, a 5% eviction filing rate means that, roughly speaking, one out of every 20 renter households in that ZIP code received an eviction filing in 2021.

We also compared how and where eviction filing rates changed (or did not change) between 2019 and 2021. The interactive map below shows eviction rates in the same fashion as the map above, but for cases filed in 2019 rather than 2021. While rates are significantly higher overall in 2019 compared to 2021, the areas that experienced high eviction filing rates in 2021 were also likely to have seen high filing rates in 2019.

Opportunities to Intervene Remain After Evictions Are Filed

Case Dispositions

The filing of an eviction case is only the first step of the eviction process.

Once an eviction case is filed, a hearing is scheduled before a judge. Unless the case is withdrawn by the landlord or settled between the landlord and tenant, the the judge can decide the case for either the plaintiff (landlord) or the defendant (tenant), or dismiss the case without prejudice (meaning the plaintiff/landlord is free to re-file the case at another time). You can explore how often each of these disposition outcomes occurred for eviction cases in the interactive plot below, which compares cases filed in 2021 with those filed in 2019. Using the selection menu, you can compare case dispositions between counties of your choice, as well as statewide. Please note that due to data limitations, this analysis is not available for Philadelphia cases and that the statewide numbers do not include any Philadelphia cases.

Looking at cases statewide, in both 2019 and 2021 judgments for the plaintiff (in practice, the landlord) accounted for the vast majority of cases that reached a disposition. However, 2021 did see a slight decrease in the percentage of cases found for the plaintiff, with a small corresponding increase in cases that were withdrawn, settled, or dismissed.

While not shown in this plot, case dispositions made in September and October of 2021 (after the CDC moratorium was invalidated) were similar to those made in June and July of 2021, the last two months in which the CDC moratorium was fully in effect.

Orders of Possession

If a judge rules for the landlord in an eviction case, the landlord is entitled to petition the judge for an order of possession. An order of possession authorizes the constable (or sheriff) to physically eject or lock out the tenant from the property, as soon as 11 days after the order of possession has been served to the tenant.[efn_note]This procedure is slightly different in Philadelphia, but our dataset does not include Philadelphia data for orders of possession.[/efn_note]

By the close of 2021, an order of possession was issued in 17,180 eviction cases (not including Philadelphia cases); therefore, 29% of eviction cases reached a stage where a legal eviction may take place. In 2019, 39,030 eviction cases were issued an order of possession, or 41% of cases that were filed (outside of Philadelphia). The lower rate in 2021 is most likely due to the CDC eviction moratorium: since the eviction moratorium was invalidated in August 2021, orders of possession have been issued at a faster pace. For instance, 1,367 orders of possession were issued in July 2021 and 1,945 were issued in October 2021.

An important caveat to this analysis is the fact that the issuance of an order of possession does not necessarily mean that a tenant was ejected from the home by the sheriff or constable. For example, tenants may have the option to pay the judgment against them in order to avoid eviction, but whether this happens or not is not recorded in the court records we draw our data from. We also do not know how many tenants are evicted or involuntarily displaced by other means, such as landlord pressure or illegal eviction. However, given these limitations, the issuance of an order of possession is the best proxy we have available in this report for the displacement caused by the eviction process.

Local Court-Based Solutions Are Working

The magnitude of the eviction crisis calls for focused solutions to prevent and divert evictions. We provide brief looks at two locally based programs, one in Chester County and one in Berks County, to examine the potential of court-based programs to reduce evictions. The data clearly show that connecting tenants at risk of eviction to rental assistance, supportive services, and legal representation can reduce the number of evictions.

Chester County Eviction Prevention Court

The Friends Association of Care and Protection for Children (Friends Association) launched the Eviction Prevention Court in Chester County, Pennsylvania, in September 2020. It is a program in partnership with three of Chester County’s Magisterial District Judges (MDJs).[efn_note]MDJs are locally elected judges who hear eviction cases.[/efn_note] It provides rental assistance along with supportive services and/or legal representation to tenants who appear before the court for an eviction filing. The courts participating in the program cover communities with comparatively high numbers of eviction filings.

Through a weekly right to know request, the court coordinator receives a list of the eviction hearings before the hearing date. They contact the tenants, including going door-to-door, to introduce them to the program and if the tenant wants to participate, they try to complete all intake before the hearing. On the day of the hearing, a contract attorney represents the tenant who, along with a court coordinator, work to develop a settlement with the landlord so that the tenant may remain in their home.

The Housing Alliance analyzed eviction filings in Chester County courts, comparing the eviction filings in the courts of the three participating MDJs to the other magisterial district courts in Chester County. We also compared cases from 2019, before the program began, to cases in 2021. 

In 2019, before the program started, cases before all MDJs in Chester County were very likely to end up with a judgment for the plaintiff (landlord), with less than a third of cases withdrawn or settled combined. In 2021, a dramatic difference emerges between cases filed in the magisterial district courts participating in the Eviction Prevention Court compared to other magisterial district courts in Chester County (see plot below).

In the three courts participating in the Eviction Prevention Court, the proportion of cases withdrawn by the landlord, as well as settlements between landlords and tenants, more than doubled between 2019 and 2021. In comparison, dispositions for eviction cases in courts not in the program changed little from 2019.

The program also likely had a major impact on how many cases were issued an order of possession.

In 2019, before the program started, there was little difference across the different courts in Chester County in the percentage of cases where an order of possession was issued (see plot below). However, in 2021, only 14% of cases in the Eviction Prevention Court participating courtrooms were issued an order of possession, compared to 23% elsewhere in the county. While the percentage decreased in all magisterial district courts from 2019 to 2021 (likely due to the CDC moratorium and availability of rental assistance nationally), the decrease was greater in the Eviction Prevention Court participating courts.

Berks County Eviction Diversion Program

In Berks County, Don Smith, a pro bono attorney with Mid-Penn Legal Services, piloted an eviction diversion program in one court in the county with a high number of eviction filings. The Honorable Tonya Butler serves as the Magisterial District Judge for a district in the city of Reading where the high number of eviction filings severely disrupt the community.

The program, launched in 2020, focuses on tenant representation and connections to resources. Prior to eviction hearings, tenants receive information about free representation and available rental assistance along with the complaint notice from the court. The program has been very successful in decreasing the number of cases where tenants are not present at hearings. Prior to the program, a majority of tenants did not show up to court, but that figure has been reported to have been cut to 6% since the program began.

In 2019, before the program started, there were relatively small differences in eviction case dispositions across all courts, whether in Judge Butler’s court, other MDJs in Reading, or Berks County MDJs outside of Reading. But in 2021, after legal representation and information about resources became available to tenants in cases being heard by the Honorable Magisterial District Judge Tonya Butler, there was a notable increase in cases being withdrawn by landlords in Judge Butler’s court but not in other Reading or Berks County courts (see plot below).

Orders of possession were also issued less frequently for cases filed in Judge Butler’s court after the program began, decreasing from 43% in 2019 to 17% in 2021. While the issuance of orders of possession also declined in other Berks County courts, the change was much greater in Judge Butler’s court.

Demographics and Disparities

We can shed light on who is most vulnerable to eviction filings by examining the demographics of ZIP codes in which eviction filings are most prevalent. We examined four factors that have often been found to be important in prior research on evictions: race (and ethnicity), income, rent burden, and the presence of children in the household (especially female-headed households).

In each of the interactive plots below, we compared the eviction filing rate in each ZIP code against a demographic variable, using data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.[efn_note]We used the American Community Survey 2015-2019 estimates, for renter households only; we only included ZIP codes with 100 or more renter households since very small areas do not have reliable estimates; we also only included ZIP codes outside of Philadelphia.[/efn_note] Each dot represents a ZIP code, with the size of the dot corresponding to the number of eviction filings in the ZIP code.

Race and Ethnicity of Renters is a Predictor of Eviction Filings

First, we compared eviction filing rates by ZIP code against the percentage of renter households that were headed by a person of color (specifically, someone who is not White and/or Hispanic or Latino). There is a clear relationship—the higher the percentage of renters who are people of color in a ZIP code, the higher the eviction filing rate.

Rent Burden, But Not Income By Itself, is A Predictor of Eviction Filings

We also examined the relationship between eviction filing rates and renters’ household income. Income, considered alone, does not appear to predict which ZIP codes are likely to have a higher prevalence of eviction filings.

In contrast, we see a positive relationship between eviction filing rates and the percentage of households paying more than 30% of income on rent; ZIP codes where more renters are rent burdened also tend to have higher eviction filing rates.

Female-headed Households with Children May be at Greater Risk

Here, we specifically focused on renter households with children headed by females. ZIP codes where a higher percentage of renter households are headed by females with children are also, on average, ZIP codes with higher eviction filing rates.

These analyses underscore which communities are most at risk of evictions: neighborhoods with a high proportion of renters of color, cost-burdened renters, and renters (especially females) with children. Though we cannot make causal claims from these relatively simple analyses, the disparities shown along racial and socioeconomic lines remind us that evictions are a strong driver of continuing inequalities in our housing system.

Most Eviction Cases Involve Rent In Arrears

If a judge decides an eviction case for the plaintiff (landlord), the landlord will generally be awarded a money judgment. A large majority of judgments include rent in arrears—92% in 2019 and 85% in 2021. In addition, for the majority of eviction judgments, defendants (tenants) are also required to pay court costs and filing fees.

The case records often report the monthly rent amount as well. When we compared the amount of rent in arrears awarded in the judgement to the monthly rent amount, we found that tenants were further behind in rent in 2021 than they were in 2019. In 2021, 39% of renters were behind for more than 3 months, while in 2019 only 26% of renters were behind by more than 3 months.[efn_note]These figures are for eviction cases listing monthly rent and amount of arrears.[/efn_note]

The court-based eviction process involves at least three important points in time. The process starts at the date of the filing of the case; the legal status of the case is recorded at case disposition (whether through judgment, dismissal, withdrawal, or settlement); and the order of possession, if issued, allows a legal eviction to take place.

Each business day, hundreds of these case actions are completed, and the interactive plot below shows how many cases were filed, reached a disposition, or was issued an order of possession each day.[efn_note]For readability reasons, the lines are 7-day rolling averages since courts are closed on weekends and holidays. Because this analysis deals with the number, rather than types, of case actions, the line for case dispositions include all dispositions made, even those superseded later, and include the reinstatement of cases earlier dismissed.[/efn_note] You can use the drop-down menu to drill down to a specific county. But please note that this analysis does not include Philadelphia cases due to data limitations and the statewide figures do not include any cases filed in Philadelphia.

At the statewide level, new case filings gradually increased from April to August 2021, dipping somewhat in the following few weeks before climbing back up from mid-September on. Case dispositions generally followed case filings with a lag of about two weeks, which is often how long it takes for a case to get a hearing. Orders of possession spiked at the beginning of August 2021 when the original CDC moratorium expired. The spike did not persist through the rest of August 2021 (a different CDC moratorium having been in effect for most of that month). But since September 2021, there has been a steady increase in the number of orders of possession issued.

Eviction Data By The Numbers

The following interactive plot summarizes how many cases were involved at each step of the court-based eviction process in 2021. You can use the drop-down menu to drill down to a county of your choice, though due to data limitations Philadelphia cases could not be included here (the statewide data also do not include Philadelphia cases).

This summary highlights the fact that the filing of an eviction case is only the start of the process, and that opportunities exist between the filing of an eviction case and the completion of an actual eviction to prevent the eviction from occurring. However, it is important to note that we cannot tell from available data what happens before a case is filed or after an order of possession is issued. Given the fact that just the filing of an eviction case jeopardizes tenants’ chances of finding housing in the future, and the fact that ‘informal’ evictions outside of the court processes may be several times more common than ‘formal’ evictions, it will be important to support vulnerable tenants outside of the formal court system as well.

Conclusion: Challenges and Opportunities

Challenges

Many pandemic response measures that protected families from evictions have expired:

  • The CDC eviction moratorium was invalidated by the Supreme Court in August 2021
  • Expanded unemployment benefits ended in September of 2021
  • Expanded Child Tax Credit payments expired at the end of 2021

Low-income renters are also facing a critical shortage of affordable housing as market rents continue to climb. As of November 2021, rent for one-bedroom apartments in Pennsylvania rose 31% from 2020 to 2021, and rent for two-bedroom apartments rose 14%.

Opportunities

At the same time, 2021 provided an opportunity for new and expanded programs to prevent households from being pushed into displacement and homelessness, including:

  • Implementation of Emergency Rental Assistance (ERAP),
  • Expansion of eviction diversion and mediation programs, and
  • Strengthened representation of tenants in court.

In Pennsylvania, the Emergency Rental Assistance Program assisted nearly 110,000 households with rental and utility assistance, keeping families in their homes and making landlords whole.[efn_note]However, some jurisdictions like Berks County and Philadelphia have now closed their programs to new applications due to low funds.[/efn_note] Along with rental assistance, local eviction diversion programs have reduced evictions, as shown in our analyses of programs in Berks and Chester Counties.

In Conclusion

As we understand better the root cause of evictions, where they are taking place, and who is at risk, we can work with our local partners to implement and expand programs to divert and prevent evictions. The Housing Alliance is committed to supporting Pennsylvania communities in their efforts to prevent evictions and ensure that every family has a safe, stable, and affordable home.

Data Limitations

The data we analyzed only included the information available on case docket sheets, which are electronically stored by the state courts system. The following are some limitations of these data:

  • Only cases that are formally filed with the courts are included within the dataset. Instances where tenants leave at the threat of eviction, are forced out, or are illegally locked out of their homes are not captured.
  • Pennsylvania law provides for a notice period (notice to quit) to tenants that infers a “right to cure” the breach of lease before a landlord can file for eviction. Pennsylvania law allows this provision to be waived, and it is commonly waived in private market leases. The consequence of the waiver is it denies tenants time in which to correct the breach to the lease before an eviction filing. To our knowledge, no dataset is available regarding how many notices to quit are given in Pennsylvania.
  • There are no readily accessible records of whether a legally sanctioned lockout is carried out. Once an order of possession is served, we do not know if a formal eviction was completed. Other possible scenarios include the tenant leaving (or being forced out) before the formal eviction, the tenant paying the arrears and still being evicted for minor breach of lease during period when landlord had right to file for order of possession, or the tenant paying their rent in arrears and staying.
  • We do not know the reason(s) why an eviction complaint was filed. The state system does not provide this information electronically (or publicly). Though most eviction cases involve rent in arrears, we do not know if there were other reasons for the eviction filing.
  • The eviction records we have do not include demographic information such as race, ethnicity, income, or the presence of children.
  • The data we have only specify cases down to the ZIP code level, and do not include address-level data.
  • Due to the structure of the state courts’ information management system as well as structural differences between local courts in Philadelphia versus the rest of the Commonwealth, we did not have case level data for Philadelphia eviction filings.
  • We do not know which eviction cases were appealed.
  • The quantitative data we have do not account for the experiences and circumstances of individual tenants and landlords. Our analysis was limited to publicly available data in bulk and does not include the qualitative context or other aspects of the eviction process not captured in the case docket sheets.

Acknowledgments

This report would not have been possible without the help of many individuals and organizations.

We would like to thank Jennifer Lopez (Executive Director of the Friends Association in Chester County) and Don Smith (volunteer attorney with Mid-Penn Legal Services in Berks County) for sharing about their programs.
We thank the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts for their prompt assistance with landlord-tenant court data, as well as Eviction Lab and the Legal Services Corporation for their work in making eviction data publicly available. We thank the local governments and nonprofit organizations that are administering the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) at the local level as ERAP has had a significant impact on reducing eviction filings and evictions during the pandemic.

Recognizing those who made our work possible

Further Reading

Eviction Lab

Eviction Lab tracks eviction cases in Philadelphia and Allegheny County, as well as 35 other jurisdictions in the U.S. Data include weekly tracking of eviction filings, comparison to historic filing levels, breakdowns by Census tract (for Philadelphia) and ZIP code (for Allegheny County), eviction filings by neighborhood demographics, and for Philadelphia, monthly claim amounts and a list of buildings generating the most eviction filings.

The LSC Eviction Tracker provides data on the number of eviction filings by week across 24 states, including PA. Filings data from each of the 67 Pennsylvania counties are available going back to 2016. The LSC tracker is updated regularly.

County-Specific Analyses

In Philadelphia, the Reinvestment Fund has examined the impact of race and place in evictions, as well as summaries of case outcomes and legal representation in Landlord-Tenant court. The City of Philadelphia published a report focusing on Philadelphia’s eviction prevention and response initiatives.

In Allegheny County, the county Department of Human Services and The Pittsburgh Foundation published a report on eviction cases filed from 2012 to 2019, including analyses of which landlords and tenants are most likely to be involved in the eviction process. They also provide a summary of the legal aspects of the eviction process. The Pittsburgh Foundation has also published a report on the causes and consequences of evictions in Allegheny County, informed by interviews with tenants and landlords.

Key Terms

Docket Sheet

A court record that summarizes the case. In Landlord-Tenant cases, this includes information about the plaintiff, defendant, dates of court actions, and details about outcomes of the case, among other fields.

Eviction

According to a HUD report on eviction data, “[P]rocesses and means by which landlords remove tenants from their rental properties.” The term ‘eviction’ can also refer to the end state of the eviction process where a tenant is physically displaced from the property. Here, we distinguish between eviction filings, the eviction process, and the actual physical displacement. A legal eviction in Pennsylvania can only take place after a judge has issued an order for possession.

Eviction Filing

A landlord-tenant complaint where the landlord (plaintiff) sues the tenant (defendant) for recovery of possession of real property, including (if applicable) the payment of unpaid rent and damages. It is filed in the Magisterial District Court covering the location of the property (in jurisdictions outside of Philadelphia) or in Municipal Court (in Philadelphia).

Judgment

The decision made by the judge hearing the eviction case. If the judge determines that the landlord’s complaint has been proven, the judge enters judgment for the plaintiff (landlord). The judgment may include monetary amounts for which the tenant is responsible to pay including rent in arrears, court costs, or other costs, as applicable.

Notice to Quit

A written notice given by the landlord to the tenant specifying the date by which the tenant must correct a breach of the lease or move out. The notice to quit may provide a period of 10 or 30 days, depending on the nature of the breach (as stipulated in the PA Landlord Tenant Act), before an eviction case can be filed. This provision of Pennsylvania landlord-tenant law can be waived in leases.

Order of Possession

A legal order directing a sheriff or constable to deliver possession of the property to the landlord. The landlord may file a request for an order of possession 10 days after judgment against the tenant is entered. Once requested, the judge must issue the order of possession unless there has been an appeal or the tenant has already satisfied the judgment. Currently, the landlord has 120 days to request an order of possession. After the order of possession is served to the tenant, 11 days must pass before the sheriff or constable is authorized to physically eject the tenant. If the case only involves nonpayment of rent, the tenant can pay the judgment, including to the sheriff or constable, up to the day of eviction to avoid being evicted. A landlord can request a re-issuance of the order of possession within the 120-day period.

Rent in Arrears

The amount of back rent owed by the tenant to the landlord. In most cases that are decided for the landlord, the judge will specify an amount of rent in arrears owed to the landlord.

Magisterial District Judge or MDJ

In jurisdictions outside of Philadelphia, landlord-tenant cases are heard by locally elected judges called Magisterial District Judges, who cover particular geographic districts within the county. In Philadelphia, Municipal Court judges who are elected citywide hear landlord-tenant cases.

Disposition

The court’s determination of a case. Case dispositions include Judgment for Plaintiff, Judgment for Defendant, Settled, Withdrawn, Dismissed Without Prejudice, and Landlord/Tenant Reinstatement.

Footnotes