Photo: Flickr user Fibonacci Blue.

Why do property owners file evictions against the same tenant over and over? A new study of Atlanta-area eviction filings considers the practice.

Even just one eviction can have potentially significant impacts on a renter. From housing instability to job loss and school turnover, as well as damages to emotional and physical health, eviction often brings with it a trail of chaos and harm. But what about for tenants who are the targets of so-called serial filing?

Often used as a tool, serial filing is a way for landlords to collect on late payment, fees and fines without the intent to remove the tenant. Hesitant to take on the process of securing another tenant, some landlords look to serial filing as a way to provide "a clear signal that the state is on the side of the landlord," according to a new study published in the Housing Studies journal that reviewed 2016 eviction court data from the five core counties of the Atlanta metropolitan area.

"While serial and nonserial filings are important and can harm tenants," the authors wrote, "they indicate different phenomena and different landlord intentions."

Tenants "experiencing serial evictions experience fines and fees that increase their housing costs by an average of 22 [percent]," according to additional research cited by the study. And renters with "serial filings are likely to be relegated to a segment of low-end rental housing that is a form of last resort housing, where they have even less power and their new landlords even more." The study was co-authored by Dan Immergluck, Stephanie Earl and Allison Powell, with Georgia State University's Urban Studies Institute, as well as Jeff Ernsthausen with ProPublica.

In the Atlanta area, the researchers found that while both nonserial and serial filings increased as the share of black renters in an area increased, the rise was even greater for serial filings. In both instances, high neighborhood rent burdens and the share of black renters corresponded to increases in eviction filings. But serial filings, in particular, were associated with larger properties, newer properties and higher education levels.

Landlords over larger properties, the paper suggested, may "face greater reluctance to vary in how they treat tenants," relying instead on "systemization, computerization and routinization" that produces serial filing. And they may also prefer to "reduce risk and uncertainty" by keeping existing tenants.

There's also a sort of predatory logic at work, the authors explained. "Serial filers may cater to tenants who are economically fragile," the article suggested, "and, like banks charging overdraft fees, they may have identified a way to capitalize on this fragility," potentially creating an additional revenue stream from fees and fines. 

By looking at recent property sales, the authors were also able to support a commonly recognized but not well-documented phenomenon. The authors found that "property turnover, which may be followed by upgrading, is associated with physical displacement of tenants" and what the study calls a possibly "sizeable eviction filing effect" as the result of purchase and redevelopment projects.

With this in mind, the authors pointed to the "social costs of state policy that facilitates low-cost, easy filing, which may foster serial filing." But instead of simply raising filing costs, which could be passed on to the tenants themselves through additional fees, the study suggested other changes.

"One way to make filing somewhat less easy for landlords is to adopt and lengthen notice periods that precede the landlord filing the eviction," giving the tenant more opportunity to pay back rent without getting a court filing on their record. "In addition," the study continued, "requiring or expanding legal representation to renters prior to their receiving the eviction filing, during a pre-filing notice period, could both deter serial filing and provide critical assistance to tenants." 

Issues