Hopewell and Bristol are at opposite ends of the state, but in the context of the eviction crisis, you wouldn’t necessarily expect them to be so far apart: they both face high poverty rates and have large populations of renters who bear similar housing costs.

The outcomes for those renters, however, are dramatically different. According to data released earlier this year, more than one in six faced eviction in Hopewell in 2016, more than double the rate in Bristol.

Another difference between the two cities: Hopewell is 40 percent black. Bristol is 5 percent.

While the apartment industry and others have pointed to poverty as the main culprit behind Virginia’s highest-in-the-nation eviction rates, new research suggests race – not income – is the most reliable predictor of high evictions.

“Landlords say, ‘We have really poor tenants and we have high eviction rates,’” says Benjamin Teresa, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Wilder School. “That is intuitive at some basic level because eviction is often about people not having enough money to pay rent.

“But when we really get into this, there’s something else going on. … As the percentage of African Americans in a census tract increases, so does the eviction rate.”

Renters in the cities of Bristol and Hopewell face similar poverty rates and housing pressures but have dramatically different eviction rates. (Creative Commons)
Renters in the cities of Bristol and Hopewell face similar poverty rates and housing pressures but have dramatically different eviction rates. (Creative Commons)

Sparked by the first-of-its-kind research by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab released earlier this year, Teresa and his colleague Kathryn Howell co-founded their own RVA Eviction Lab to study the phenomenon in Virginia.

Drilling down by neighborhood, they found that a little more than 50 percent of majority-black census tracts have eviction rates higher than 10 percent.

The phenomenon isn’t just visible when comparing cities. Teresa released a report this week focusing on eviction rates within Richmond. Again, he found the areas with the most extreme eviction rates aren’t the poorest. Poverty rates, meanwhile, were statistically insignificant in determining whether there are high eviction rates.

The finding held when accounting for property values, incomes and rent costs.

Why?

Lingering inequality, segregation, weak tenant protections: He theorizes that racial categories are “likely standing in for much more complex histories and lived realities of accumulated disadvantage for black people and families in job and housing markets and how black people live in institutionally and spatially segmented housing markets.”

Which leads him to another area of research he plans to explore further: the rental housing ownership, financing and property management strategies in those high-eviction areas where black residents are more likely to live.

In short, they are often the sites of corporately developed and managed apartment complexes. He says previous research has shown that large-scale owners evict at higher rates than smaller, mom-and-pop landlords.

In Richmond and elsewhere in the state, many large landlords have automated their management practices to the point where they can file eviction lawsuits against tenants with the click of button, often suing the same tenant multiple times a year each time their rent is late.

But the ability to systematically examine the link to ownership in Virginia is limited, he said, because many large properties are held by limited liability companies. Unravelling who is behind them is often impossible. That’s because, there’s no requirement that LLCs that own property make their ownership public, which has emerged as a growing issue around the country.

Anecdotally, at least, the theory holds up in the comparisons between Bristol and Hopewell.

“Bristol doesn’t have a lot of commercial landlords,” said David Eddy, a Bristol lawyer who handles eviction cases for both landlords and tenants. “Most are just mom-and-pop landlords who own either single family homes or maybe the occasional home they’ve converted into multiple apartments.”

He says those landlords rarely pursue eviction cases because of the expense and complexity of bringing them on a small sale.

“It’s costly to go to court, then you have to take off work to appear and then, generally, people are not able to pay even if you win a judgment for unpaid rent or even damage to the unit,” he says.

To explore the issue further, Teresa and other advocates are calling for changes to the law to make ownership more transparent.

“It’s likely that a small share of owners are contributing to a lot of the evictions,” Teresa said. “I think understanding who those owners are is important.”