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The Eviction Prediction Scorecard: How Accurate Are Forecasters?

The Eviction Prediction Scorecard: How Accurate Are Forecasters?

You’ve heard about the looming “eviction tsunami” for months. How accurate are the forecasts? Our goal here is to help you cut through the noise and quickly discern what different sources have said about evictions versus what is actually taking place. We’ll continue to update the scorecard as new data comes out, and new forecasts are released.

How Many Renters Have Been Evicted Since COVID-19 Hit?

While national numbers are not yet available for 2020, all indicators from a wide number of sources show that evictions have plummeted – and remain very low – since March when the pandemic started.

Princeton’s Eviction Lab is tracking 17 markets in close to real time. In those cities, eviction filings from March 15 through September 20 had plunged 67% compared to historical averages. In total, 53,020 eviction filings have been filed in those markets since the pandemic hit. There’s no known evidence to suggest the national picture isn’t similar.

Even prior to the Center for Disease Control’s eviction moratorium, evictions were down materially in many cities without local eviction bans. In Houston, for example, eviction filings were down 55% to 61% from normal levels in June, July and August. In Fort Worth, filings tumbled 72% in June and July, and were down 57% in August. Similar drops were reported in Ohio’s big three cities. And in the few markets where evictions did top what the Eviction Lab called “average levels,” the increase was hardly epic. In Milwaukee, for example, eviction filings peaked at 17% above normal in June following two months at near zero evictions. By August, eviction filings were down again by 36%. In the nation’s largest city, New York, eviction filings plunged dramatically, in part due to moratoriums extended multiple times as well as other factors we’ll discuss later in the article.

Who Got It Right, and Who Got It Wrong?

Interestingly, forecasters fall into two groups: Winners and Misses. One group showing relatively few eviction filings, and another group calling for a colossal eviction crisis in 2020. It is the latter group fueling media headlines of a looming “tsunami” or “avalanche” of evictions, but those forecasts have – so far – massively overshot in their estimates.

Winners

Urban Institute: In July, the Urban Institute released results of a survey showing that about “4 percent of all adult renters reported facing eviction.” This finding passes the sniff test based on known available data. While there is a technical difference between “adult renters” and “renter households,” the number isn’t far from the normal eviction filing rate of 6% to 7%, according to the Eviction Lab. Interestingly, the Urban Institute also found that among renters whose “families have lost work or work-related income because of the pandemic,” only 8% “have received an eviction notice or been threatened with eviction since March 2020.” This proves the effectiveness of substantial efforts by property owners and managers to provide renters with unprecedented leniency and flexibility – limiting evictions.

RealPage: Not to pat ourselves on the back (but we’ll do it anyway for accountability), we stated back in July: “[T]he idea that America is facing a ‘tsunami’ or ‘tidal wave’ of evictions at unprecedented levels is highly unlikely. There’s a strong case to be made that actual eviction totals in the second half of 2020 could very well come in below levels seen in prior years.” That forecast has proven true so far, aligning with data from the Eviction Lab in the majority of tracked cities. RealPage had accounted for a wide number of factors ignored or downplayed by other forecasters – relatively normal rent collection rates, eviction moratoriums, a delayed legal system and a sympathetic base of property owners providing extensive measures to give renters unprecedented flexibility.

Mortgage Bankers Association: While the MBA did not produce a specific evictions forecast, the organization did extensive surveys to calculate renter distress – the basis for evicting renters behind on rent – and the data align with actual results seen to date. In particular, MBA found that the share of renters receiving unemployment benefits reached 12% at the end of June, up from 3% at the beginning of April. MBA also found that only 4.5% of renters missed two rent payments in the quarter, and only 2.7% missed all three payments. Relatively low repeat non-payment rates aligns with the low eviction totals seen so far.

Misses

These are the leading voices calling for an “eviction tsunami,” which so far looks highly unlikely.

Stout: This consulting firm forecasted about 11 million potential eviction filings over a four-month period beginning May 13, according to the consultant’s website, among the 16.2 million households “at risk of eviction.” Stout also predicted 2 million eviction filings in both August and September – meaning four times the annual number in just a two-month period. Both estimates appear to have overshot by a huge margin based on currently available data. Still, Stout maintains its position that millions of evictions are coming in a matter of months. In a September report produced for the National Council of State Housing Agencies, Stout wrote “that by January 2021, up to 8.4 million renter households, which include 20.1 million individual renters, could experience an eviction filing.” That outlook appears to be highly unlikely at this point.

Aspen Institute: This think tank, in conjunction with the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, estimated in June that “19 to 23 million, or one in five of the 110 million Americans who live in renter households, are at risk of eviction by September 30, 2020.” While there is no uniform measure for “at risk,” there is plenty of evidence that actual evictions through September ended up a small fraction of Aspen’s forecast. Curiously, even as the economy showed signs of gradual recovery over the summer, Aspen doubled down in a follow up report in August, estimating that “30–40 million people in America could be at risk of eviction in the next several months … If conditions do not change, 29-43% of renter households could be at risk of eviction by the end of the year.” That appears highly unlikely.

Amherst: In May, Amherst opined risks that evictions and foreclosures could register “in excess of the levels we saw in the wake of the Great Recession.” That forecast has – so far – proven incorrect, though in fairness, Amherst didn’t provide a timeline or specific forecast. Amherst did, however, make headlines for a quote that was largely taken out of context from its report: “[W]e estimate the population at the greatest risk of eviction … are 28 million renter households.” In context, however, Amherst was merely pointing out that 28 million renters lived in housing units not covered by eviction moratoriums in the federal CARES Act. Therefore, we’ll give Amherst a pass on that statement.

Moody’s: The leading economic forecasting shop has not produced an eviction estimate that we are aware of. However, in its August 13 Weekly Market Outlook, Moody’s estimated that by year-end 2020, “12.8 million renter households will owe back rent by then, and they will owe an average of $5,400.” Certainly an outstanding balance of that amount could be cause for eviction filings. Based on rent collection data from the Mortgage Bankers Association and other industry groups, we aren’t yet seeing distress near the levels Moody’s is forecasting. Barring a massive collapse between now and December, it appears unlikely that segment can move the needle enough to match Moody’s estimate.

Are Evictions Low Because of Moratoriums?

Eviction moratoriums do play a role in the low number of evictions, yes, and the most accurate eviction forecasters included moratoriums in their outlooks. But that is only one of many factors limiting evictions. As noted above, evictions dropped even in cities that were allowing evictions to proceed prior to the CDC’s eviction ban put in place through the end of 2020.

Surprisingly healthy rent collections are another massive factor largely ignored by those who had predicted an “avalanche” of evictions. The Mortgage Bankers Association reported that “10.5% of renters missed one payment over the quarter, 4.5% missed two payments and 2.7% missed all three payments.” This is incredibly significant – proving not only that the number of distressed renter households remains low, but also that the vast majority of renters missing a payment are getting caught up by Month 2 or 3. In turn, solid collection rates are contributing to low eviction filings. Other industry groups – including the National Multifamily Housing Council – reported similar trends.

Other factors helping limit evictions include property owners and managers going to extensive, unprecedented lengths to protect their renters, offering flexible or deferred payment plans, relaxed eviction criteria or even self-imposed bans, and some even providing direct renter aid.

How Did Some Forecasts Overestimate Evictions so Dramatically?

Some of the chronic over-staters of evictions tend to downplay or ignore a number of major factors that have kept evictions low, such as relatively normal rent collection rates, widespread eviction moratoriums, a delayed legal system and a sympathetic base of property owners providing extensive measures to give renters unprecedented flexibility.

Additionally, good forecasts wisely separate newly distressed households from those challenged even prior to the pandemic, as the latter group is largely accounted for in pre-pandemic eviction baseline numbers. Failing to make that distinction can lead to wildly inflated eviction estimates.

One way to quickly discern relevance of a forecast is to read their assumptions. One forecaster, for example, initially assumed a 25% to 30% unemployment rate, which is roughly triple the current rate. By comparison, Urban Institute estimated in July that 13.8% of all renter households, or roughly 6 million, experienced at least one job loss.

Some forecasters rely heavily on a new Census dataset called the Household Pulse Survey, which the Census itself labels as “experimental” and discloses risk of overstating distress due to non-response bias.

In most cases, it appears forecasters who overestimated evictions gave minimal attention or weighting to rental housing industry data – as well as anecdotal reports – on rent collections and renter distress.

Does All This Mean the Rental Housing Industry is Just Fine?

To be clear: Evictions would be much higher this year if not for the sympathetic efforts of property owners, the patchwork of eviction bans and – most importantly – the millions of renters paying rent every month. Still, facts do matter. Accuracy matters. The more precise we can be in defining the problem, the easier and more affordable the problem is to solve.

Renter distress is very real, and property owners are taking on much of the burden right now – which is clearly unsustainable, adding more risk for an already fragile U.S. economy. Additionally, the CDC’s national eviction ban is merely a Band-Aid. Rent is still due when the moratorium expires, and direct renter aid programs are needed to protect both renters and property owners – most of which are small, family businesses.

Furthermore, housing advocates rightly point out the severe shortage of affordable housing that existed even prior to COVID-19. Any serious effort to solve the affordable housing crisis must start with increased public funding to provide safe, affordable housing for those in need.