by Vincent Micah Bray, Samuel Ellis, Tan Nyman, Anh-Ton Tran
Background and Motivation
Atlanta has been one of the U.S. cities hardest hit by the eviction crisis since the COVID-19 pandemic. To mitigate the risk of disease transmission imposed by housing instability amidst the concurrent financial and housing affordability crises, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a temporary, national moratorium on evictions, effective September 4, 2020 (Temporary Halt in Residential Evictions To Prevent the Further Spread of COVID-19, 2020). As of August 26, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against and struck down the federal eviction moratorium. Real estate interests in Alabama and Georgia sued to enjoin this eviction ban; the majority conservative court struck down the CDC’s moratorium, saying that the order was too broad to stand without explicit congressional backing.
With the ending of the moratorium, many low-income renters find themselves in precarious financial situations with no protections from eviction (What Should You Do After The Supreme Court Struck Down The CDC’s Second Eviction Moratorium?, n.d.). The moratorium, however, did not stop mass evictions against this group throughout the pandemic. A hearing before the House of Representatives Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis in July of this year highlighted the practice of mass evictions by corporate landlords despite the moratorium, with tens of thousands of evictions filed in courts across the country (Oversight of Pandemic Evictions: Assessing Abuses by Corporate Landlords and Federal Efforts to Keep Americans in Their Homes, 2021).
To understand why evictions continued throughout the pandemic, the eviction crisis must be examined from multiple perspectives. Ontological insecurity from housing instability poses significant financial and health risks to renters (Marcuse, n.d.). Constantly living under the threat of eviction can lead to depression and anxiety. For many renters, the threat of eviction, coupled with employment instability during the pandemic, posed significant and chronic stressors. In addition, having one eviction filed against a resident in pre-pandemic times results in a record that follows the resident from one property to the next. This record makes it challenging to find new housing after being evicted or forcing residents to stay in place due to a lack of other options (Raymond et al., n.d.). Despite the distribution of relief funds from the federal government, many renters did not receive them in time to evade eviction. Some faced landlords who would not accept their relief funds, choosing to evict “problematic tenants” instead to avoid conditions associated with the funds(Parker, 2021).
Community-based non-profit organizations working to prevent evictions during the pandemic have had similar difficulties with fighting evictions. The Housing Justice League (HJL), a grassroots community organization that fights for housing as a human right, has identified a significant lack of awareness or understanding of the eviction moratorium during the period it was in place. They discovered this through their Tenant Power Hotline, a community outreach tool that connects the organization to tenants facing eviction or landlord harassment. While the moratorium was a much-needed tactic to tackle the eviction crisis, it is clear that such policy measures must be combined with bottom-up efforts to address these large systemic issues.
To better understand the eviction crisis and the pandemic’s effects on it, the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank (FED), Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), and housing scholars at Georgia Tech (GT) and the Center for Spatial Planning Analytics and Visualization (CSPAV) have worked together to collect public court eviction data. Over the past year, the FED, ARC, and CSPAV have created scrapers and ad-hoc processes to access housing data across the Atlanta metro counties and collate it into a legible database and dashboard. This public data is beginning to be used by policymakers to inform their decision-making. There is also a desire to make this data accessible to other housing organizations, such as The Housing Justice League (HJL), who fight eviction by providing support and resources to tenants for organizing.
This paper will describe our brief engagement with bridging the grassroots bottom-up efforts to the institutional initiatives at addressing this eviction crisis through data. Namely, we will be making court data collected by ARC, CSPAV, and the FED legible and usable to HJL. To do so, we hone in on a specific use case, organizing against corporate landlords. Our goal is to compile information about the corporate landlords who are the worst offenders in terms of eviction filing in the Atlanta area. The idea behind such actions is that the more information we can provide to activist organizations such as the Housing Justice League, the more targeted they can be at holding these corporations accountable. It is often difficult to contact or even find the corporation that owns a property, given the intentionally opaque ownership chains. Providing relevant information of parent corporations, their agents, and their associated properties provides a starting place for an organization like HJL to allocate resources and efforts to fight evictions.
Company Landlords and LLCs
While not a monolithic threat to all renters, many companies or corporate landlords pose a significant risk to renters in various ways. Of particular concern are limited liability companies, or LLCs, which limit individual investor liability for conditions associated with their investments. Properties owned and operated by LLCs are often neglected for maintenance, especially in lower-income neighborhoods (Graziani et al., 2020; Travis, 2019). LLCs also tend to be difficult to track across jurisdictions due to variation in data availability and structure, making it difficult to understand how much property they own and how much impact a single LLC has in housing quality across the country. Graziani further notes that LLC-renter relationships demonstrate a significant imbalance in power dynamics due to the massive financial and legal resources an LLC possesses.
The recent uptick in purely speculative home-buying driven primarily by private-equity investors adds to the challenges low-income renters face. These corporate landlords are notorious for using techniques for extracting as much value from tenants as possible, such as cutting back on maintenance and amenities typically taken for granted. While some corporate landlords increase rents, the potentially more pressing concern is the exacerbation of the imbalance of power between landowner and renter represented by corporate landlords. Investment firms in possession of many properties will typically put each under the control of a separate LLC. This management practice makes the chain of ownership intentionally complicated in a way that makes it difficult for tenants to hold landowners accountable for bad behavior (Ferrer, 2021).
When tenants fall behind on rent, the profit-maximizing ethos of corporate landlords makes eviction just another method of realizing a return on their investment. A 2016 study found that, in the Atlanta area, corporate landlords are 8% more likely than small landlords to evict their tenants (Raymond et al., n.d.). Another 2019 study centered around Atlanta found that corporate landlords are also more likely to use the threat of eviction than small landlords (Immergluck et al., 2020). Corporate landlords have also been found to disproportionately target lower-income and minority renters (Arnold, 2021). In many cases, these eviction practices proceeded illegally while the moratorium was still in effect. Now that the moratorium is no more, the existing eviction crisis will only intensify.
Eviction Data Background
The effort by ARC, FED, and CSPAV/GT is not the first effort at compiling and analyzing eviction data. The most well-known work has been conducted by Matthew Desmond and his team of researchers. This research has taken a top-down analysis by aggregating eviction filing data across the U.S. The findings these efforts reveal are illuminating. For instance, Porton et. al conducted an analysis of 3.6 million court records from 12 different states and found that about 22% of these records contain ambiguous data (Porton et al., 2021). Adjusting for these ambiguities creates a different picture of evictions in a given area. What this shows is that the court data that is gathered through institutional efforts is limited in what it can or cannot describe.
One point of ambiguity that Porton et. al describe are the differences in data management practices from state to state. This ambiguity is reflected in court data in the Atlanta Metro Area in terms of how court events and judgements are categorized. This ambiguity also materializes in the various record management portals that the five major metro counties use, which differ county to county. Another point of ambiguity is the practice of serial evictions. These are practices where landlords file multiple evictions to extract more financial capital from the tenant (Garboden & Rosen, 2019). Serial filings would inflate the eviction rate gleaned from the court data. Immergluck builds on this work by analyzing serial filings in Atlanta (Immergluck et al., 2020), thus underlining the issue of data legibility and value when it moves from institutions to grassroots organizations. What is it that different groups are interested in? Clearly, displacement and eviction rates don’t have high resolution due to the messiness of court data. To activist organizations like HJL though, understanding general harassment is more valuable. Thus serial evictions may not be something to be adjusted for. Second, for data to be used by groups like HJL, it must first be legible in a format that these groups can read. Sharing raw data in the form of data files like JSON or .CSVs highlight issues of access when sharing data. This motivates us to prevent this data in a readable format that is already organized in a way that is understandable. Hence, we produced dossiers with relevant information that are compiled in a text document.
While the work that Demond’s lab is valuable, there have been critiques from other housing scholars, activists, and geographers. Aielo et. al point to the means of data collection, the lack of local nuance, and the partial political analysis done with court record data that Desmond’s work has modeled (Aiello et al., 2018). It’s important then to consider the values and mission of organizations like Housing Justice League. An important tension that arises between the value of data amongst grassroots organizations versus institutions and academics is the burden of proof required for actionability. Activists are not beholden to issues of reputational risk or practices of objectivity. Critical data scholar Sheila Jasanoff describes this as data from somewhere, whereas attempts at objectivity could be characterized as data from nowhere (Jasanoff, 2017). HJL operates from a particular political orientation, and thus the heuristics they apply to data to glean insights and take actions are situated, and different from how the FED or ARC must use the data. We see this in work like the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project who use data to organize direct actions (Maharawal & McElroy, 2018). Thus, while our analysis of top evictors is thorough, to some actors it could be deemed incomplete. However, for a grassroots organization, this level of information is still actionable.
Evictions Data Analysis
Eviction data were collected from the Fulton County Superior Court eServices Portal using web scraping techniques. Raw data were converted to .xlsx format and read into R using the openxlsx package (Schauberger & Walker, 2020). To protect the identities of individual defendants, each defendant was assigned a unique ID before their names were scrubbed from the data frame. Court proceedings records were subsequently processed using dplyr from the tidyverse collection of packages (Wickham et al., 2019).
Eviction data were grouped and summarized by Case ID and plaintiff name to identify the plaintiffs with the highest count of evictions cases associated with them in 2020. The four plaintiffs with the highest number of evictions associated with them are summarized in Table 1. Of these, Bridge Property Management appeared in the most evictions cases, with 599 unique instances. Of these four corporate plaintiffs, only one, Blue Magma Residential LLC, was associated with a single rental property; the top three plaintiffs were identified across multiple properties in Fulton County.
Table 1. Top Eviction-Filing Plaintiffs in Fulton County, GA – 2020.
|Bridge Property Management||599|
|The Life Properties LLC||438|
|Blue Magma Residential LLC||215|
The plaintiffs in Table 1 did not appear in the court records under a single plaintiff name; rather, the plaintiffs in question were identified by noticing their corporate names appear in several unique plaintiff names (e.g. 3200 Lakeview Place, College Park, LLC, The Life Properties LLC and 2909 Campbellton Rd SW, Atlanta LLC, The Life Properties LLC). To identify the true number of evictions associated with each corporate entity, corporate names were searched using pattern matching in the dplyr package.
After identifying the corporate landlords with the highest eviction counts in 2020, dossiers on each corporation were compiled to help brief community groups like the Housing Justice League on crucial information about each plaintiff. Each dossier contains data compiled across multiple sources, including the Georgia Secretary of State Corporations Division Business Search portal and the Fulton County Board of Assessors Property Search portal (Fulton County Board of Assessors, 2021; Georgia Corporations Division Business Search, 2015). Additional information was obtained by searching for records associated with the agent registered with the corporate landlord in the Business Search portal; investigating any other businesses associated with the corporation and its officers; and looking through the Fulton County parcel database for other properties managed by the corporations that were not previously identified. The resulting dossiers can be found using the hyperlinks compiled in (Fulton County Board of Assessors, 2021; Georgia Corporations Division Business Search, 2015) below.
Table 2. Links to Corporate Landlord Dossiers.
|Bridge Property Management||Access here|
|The Life Properties LLC||Access here|
|Embarcadero Apartments||Access here|
|Blue Magma Residential LLC||Access here|
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