Evictions in Nebraska During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Publication Date: 2021
Evictions and housing instability received renewed policy focus during the COVID-19 pandemic as federal, state, and local governments scrambled to protect renters from being displaced during a public health emergency. However, the efficacy of eviction protection actions during the pandemic were mixed and still left some renters vulnerable. In Nebraska, renters who may have been protected under federal moratoriums were still evicted, underscoring some of the inherent inequalities in the eviction process. This report examines overall monthly trends in eviction during the pandemic, the frequency of unlawful evictions, and the presence of legal representation for tenants in Nebraska. The report finds that state moratoria were effective at preventing evictions, but—contrary to public health goals—were lifted long before statewide spikes in COVID-19 occurred toward the end of 2020. We also documented, through an extensive coding process, 60 evictions in the state that occurred at properties that should have been protected under the federal CARES Act eviction moratorium. Finally, we noted a slight uptick in legal representation for people facing evictions in 2020 compared to previous years, which still only amounted to 4.4% of tenants. We distributed these findings in an abbreviated format to help inform policy debates about eviction at the state level and hosted a community forum on the topic as part of Creighton University’s Public Health Week. This quick response project draws attention to the need for more comparative and qualitative work on the effects of policy on evictions during the pandemic.
In an average year, more than 6,000 people in Nebraska are evicted from their homes. These evictions fall along racial and class lines in the state, reflecting a stark legacy of racial inequality. In 2020, far from an average year, housing inequities deepened due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Evictions became an important policy focus of the pandemic as lawmakers at the state and national levels recognized the problem of displacing people from their homes at a time when people had to remain socially distanced from one another. However, a patchwork of federal and local moratoria led to cracks in the systems that saw more than 1,800 people in Nebraska evicted during the pandemic.
This report analyzes (1) general trends in evictions in Nebraska during COVID-19, (2) unlawful evictions, where people in homes protected by federal moratoria were evicted, and (3) the frequency of legal representation in evictions during COVID-19. We specifically sought to provide state policymakers with data to inform eviction-related legislation in the spring of 2021. However, the findings below also have broader implications for policy and practice regarding housing and inequality during the pandemic.
Evictions have received new attention from social science researchers in recent years, as scholars have highlighted evictions as a potential key cause—not just consequence—of poverty (Desmond, 20121; 20162) and job loss (Desmond & Gershenson, 20163). An eviction can lead individuals to lose their possessions; damage individuals’ and families’ physical and mental health; and make it much harder to secure stable, safe, and adequate housing (Desmond, 2016). Evictions can also have harmful impacts on children who may be forced to move schools and lose social ties (Desmond et al., 20134). Further, evictions are the source of major racial and gender disparities; Black women are often evicted at disproportionately high rates compared to their white counterparts (Desmond, 2012).
In addition to individual consequences, eviction can impact social capital in neighborhoods, making it difficult to achieve community cohesion (Desmond, 2016; van Holm & Monaghan, 20205). A recent study found that neighborhoods with higher levels of evictions had significantly less public engagement, as measured by calls to city services hotlines (van Holm & Monaghan, 2020).
Further, the legal system that governs evictions is rife with structural barriers and inequities. Studies have identified several examples of the imbalance of power in the legal process of eviction. A key aspect of Desmond’s (2016) seminal book on evictions is that landlords profit from evicting tenants. They have little incentive to maintain clean and stable housing, and renters lack representation in eviction court to advocate for those basic rights. A recent study based on interviews with 127 landlords and property managers illustrated how the threat of eviction—through serial filing in court—creates a power imbalance, which can stifle renters’ complaints about code enforcement and other fair housing issues (Garboden & Rosen, 20196).
The individual, neighborhood, and structural inequities related to eviction have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As lockdown orders swept the country in March 2020, federal, state, and local governments enacted policies to prevent individuals from being evicted. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law on March 27, 2020, made it unlawful for landlords of covered properties to file new evictions against tenants for nonpayment of rent for 120 days. Covered properties included any property where landlords received federally backed mortgages or other federal funding. This accounted for about 28.1% of all rental units, according to an Urban Institute analysis (Goodman et al., 20207). An investigative report by ProPublica found that landlords in four states (Georgia, Oklahoma, Texas, and Florida) moved to evict people, despite their properties being covered by the moratorium (Ernsthausen et al., 20208). Following the expiration of the CARES Act moratorium in late July, landlords were prohibited from filing eviction proceedings on protected properties for 30 days, until August 24. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued another moratorium effective from September 4 until December 31, 2020. This moratorium covered the same federally-backed properties but came with additional stipulations, such as a requirement that renters submit a signed sworn statement attesting to meeting five income/hardship qualifications related to COVID-19 (Hepburn & Louis, 20209).
Research has shown that these moratoria have been effective in reducing the overall number of evictions when compared to 2019 (Cowin et al., 202010); however, significant issues remain. The Eviction Lab at Princeton found that eviction filing trends between the moratoria varied at the city level based on the presence of additional local and state eviction protections. Cities without additional protections—such as St. Louis and Cleveland—experienced large eviction spikes between the two moratoria (Hepburn & Louis, 2020). Further, the Eviction Lab examined the amount of money owed by tenants in evictions across different jurisdictions during the pandemic, showing that many claims were for less than $1,000 (Louis et al., 202011).
Our project attempts to answer similar questions in the state of Nebraska: (1) How did differing federal moratoria impact trends in the number of evictions in Nebraska? (2) How many evictions in Nebraska during COVID-19 violated the federal moratoria on eviction enacted through the CARES Act? (3) How many people facing eviction during the pandemic had legal representation, compared to previous years?
This project builds off existing research already completed by the research team. The lead investigator co-authored a report in July 2020, highlighting the racially segregated patterns of evictions in Omaha, Nebraska’s largest city. Roughly 55% of Nebraska’s evictions occur in Omaha, and majority non-white neighborhoods had more than double the number of evictions as majority-white neighborhoods, on average, from 2012-2019 (Greenberg & Fischer, 202012). Further, we highlighted the overlapping health and educational disparities related to eviction. The report was featured on the front page of the Omaha World-Herald and local TV news, and has been the topic of several community forums and conversations. Together Inc., where two of the co-authors work, is an organization that works to end hunger and homelessness in Omaha by providing services such as a food pantry, rental and housing assistance, and advocacy. During the pandemic, Together Inc. used data from eviction court to target rental assistance towards individuals who may be facing eviction or housing instability. Our collaboration aims to bring more eviction data to bear on local policy debates around eviction during the pandemic.
Study Site Description
Our study site was the state of Nebraska, home to roughly 2 million people. The Omaha metropolitan statistical area is in the southeastern part of the state, where half of the state’s population resides. The other half are scattered across largely rural counties throughout the rest of the state. In an average year from 2012 to 2019, there were 8,433 evictions filed in Nebraska, according to state records, with the majority of those (55.7%) occurring in Omaha, the state’s most populous and racially diverse metropolitan area.
Omaha, like other U.S. cities, has a legacy of racism in housing and other sectors. In the 1930s, redlining maps in Omaha highlighted the city’s Black neighborhood, the near-Northside, as “hazardous” for bank investment (Strand, 201713). Redlining was coupled with other laws that isolated and disadvantaged African American residents of Omaha: restrictive covenants that prevented Black residents from moving into white neighborhoods; “white flight” following desegregation; and continual patterns of discrimination and disinvestment (Rothstein, 201714). Analysis from 2020 shows that evictions follow patterns of racial segregation in the city: majority non-white census tracts have an average of 41 evictions per year, compared to 17 evictions per year in majority-white tracts (Greenberg & Fischer, 2020). This is important context for understanding the data and findings below.
Data, Methods, and Procedures
The data used in our descriptive study focused exclusively on eviction filings in 2020. We obtained a list of all eviction cases filed in Nebraska in 2020 by filing several requests for research and data with the Administrative Office of the Courts and Probation. This data enabled analysis of statewide eviction trends and legal representation during the pandemic.
To track unlawful evictions in the state, we undertook an intensive coding process. We coded each address to determine whether the eviction could be covered by the moratorium. This involved an initial search of each address in ProPublica’s “Can I Be Evicted During Coronavirus?” database, a resource housed by ProPublica that compiles lists of protected properties according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, the Public and Affordable Housing Research Corporation, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Federal Housing Administration.
This search application allowed for a geographic search of each eviction address. This was necessary since many multi-family apartment complexes, where evictions were more common, have different addresses between individual units and the overall complex office address as listed in the federal databases. Therefore, addresses had to be geographically matched to an apartment complex. This process involved determining whether the address of the eviction fell within .2 miles of the address of the closest protected property in the ProPublica database.
If so, the coder searched the address on Google Maps to determine whether the eviction address was part of the protected property. Oftentimes, this was determined by using Google Street View technology to see whether signs visible from the roadway matched the protected complex. For example, the coder would compare the complex office’s building style (color, siding or brick pattern, building shape and structure) to the building that included the eviction address. Sometimes there would be actual signage with the complex name on or outside of the building that included the eviction address. If there were clear differences in building style, it was assumed that the address was not a part of the same complex and therefore not part of the protected property. In this case, the coder was often able to locate within a .2 mile radius the correct, structurally similar complex office for the eviction address in question to confirm its protection status. In the case that an address was for a mobile home site, Google Maps was used to identify the mobile home community to which it belonged, so that the mobile home community could be searched using the ProPublica database. In cases where the coder was unsure or unable to confirm that unit buildings belonged to a larger complex, the address was double-checked by others on the team using the same methods. In some cases, the research team consulted the Douglas County Assessor’s Office website to check whether an “in situ” address that might provide further clarification on the location. If there was any uncertainty about the location of an address after this cross-referencing, we erred on the side of caution and did not consider the eviction as being on a protected property.
After identifying evictions that occurred at protected properties, we collected additional data from each case using Nebraska’s JUSTICE search, which provides the actual court documents used in the filings. For each illegal eviction, a coder searched the case number and date associated with the eviction in the Nebraska JUSTICE database. The coder recorded the reason for eviction (nonpayment, lease violation, or refusal to vacate); the amount of money owed by the tenant (in nonpayment cases); whether the property in question was government subsidized; whether the tenant appeared in court; whether the tenant had legal representation; the judge involved in the case; notes from the filed complaint; and miscellaneous information, such as whether the case was settled, dismissed, or postponed from the court’s filed Journal Entry and Order. For example, one case noted, “Case dismissed without prejudice by plaintiff, plaintiff to bear costs. Complaint is for nonpayment plus late fees totaling $8,156.28 and an additional $2,700 for ‘improper holdover.’”
The research team used the Pivot Table functions of Microsoft Excel to create the descriptive statistics in the study. The team used ArcGIS Pro to create Figure 2.
Researcher Positionality, Reciprocity, and Other Ethical Considerations
The research team included a faculty member and a student at Creighton University, as well as two employees of Together Inc., a local non-profit organization. The Social Science Data Lab at Creighton had published research on evictions in the year prior and hosted and participated in community forums and meetings about eviction, including one sponsored by the Omaha Community Council on Racial Justice and Reconciliation. Together Inc. is a local organization deeply involved in rental assistance, eviction prevention, and housing advocacy at the state level. Therefore, all researchers had some degree of rapport and credibility with the broader community. Through media coverage and other dissemination means discussed below, we aimed to raise awareness and affect local policy. Although eviction data is public record, we did not share data in a raw, unaggregated form to prevent it from being used in unethical ways and causing harm to vulnerable people.
Our analysis of the court data shows that eviction filings and evictions were down in 2020 across Nebraska (Figure 1). In an average year from 2016-2019, there were more than 6,286 evictions in the state. In 2020, there were 3,482, a 44.6% decrease. While that may seem encouraging, there were likely many “pent-up” evictions that could have taken place following the lifting of federal moratoria or the continued economic damage caused by the pandemic in 2021. Further, there was significant focus on evictions by non-profit groups and other organizations that may have prevented evictions through rental assistance or legal aid.
Figure 1. Evictions in Nebraska, Douglas County, and Lancaster County, 2016-2019 and 2020
The majority of evictions (77%) in Nebraska occurred in Douglas or Lancaster counties from 2016-2019, and those counties accounted for 74% of evictions in Nebraska in 2020. Figure 2 shows eviction rates per 1,000 rental units across the state.
Figure 2. Eviction Rates Across Nebraska, 2020
Lastly, 56.7% of eviction cases filed in 2020 resulted in an eviction, compared to 72.4% in a normal year. Cases that are filed can still result in a forced move if tenants settle or come to an agreement to move without an eviction order taking place.
Monthly Eviction Trends: How Moratoriums Impacted Evictions in Nebraska
Monthly case filings and evictions plummeted in April following the Nebraska governor’s moratorium on evictions due to nonpayment through May 31, 2020 (Figure 3). In June, evictions nearly doubled May’s figures, even though the federal CARES Act moratorium covered evictions on certain properties until July 24.
Figure 3. Monthly Eviction Trends in Nebraska, 2016-2019 and 2020
In August, the CARES Act moratorium expired and evictions reached their highest point of the pandemic. A revised CDC eviction moratorium went into effect in early September. Other researchers have documented a spike in evictions and eviction filings during this period between the two moratoria, especially in places without local protections for tenants (Hepburn & Louis, 2020).
Figure 4 shows that by the end of December 2020, eviction fillings were only down by 18% from the average of the preceding four years, while COVID-19 cases were near their late-November peak. During the state moratorium in April 2020, evictions were down by 67%, but COVID-19 cases were a small fraction of what they were in December.
Figure 4. COVID-19 Cases and Eviction Filings in Nebraska, 2020
One aspect of the uneven playing field for tenants facing eviction is a lack of legal representation. While those who are accused of a criminal act are provided a court-appointed attorney, people facing eviction have little help navigating the court system. This is especially troubling during the pandemic, when it is up to tenants to understand the complicated patchwork of federal and state moratoria. Further, past research has shown that evictions are overrepresented in low-income and racially segregated neighborhoods that may have less access to the internet and more households with limited English proficiency. These are all potential barriers to mounting a legal defense in court.
Overall, only 1.66% of defendants in eviction cases had listed legal representation from 2016 to 2019, on average (Figure 5). There was an uptick in legal representation across the state in 2020, likely due to efforts by organizations such as Legal Aid of Nebraska. Still, just 4.43% of all defendants on eviction filings had legal representation in 2020. In our analysis of unlawful evictions, 100% of landlords had legal representation.
Figure 5. Percent of Eviction Cases with Legal Representation, 2016-2019 and 2020
We also found that cases with legal representation were more likely to be dismissed than cases without legal representation. This trend was more pronounced in 2016-2019, where 45.99% of cases with defendant legal representation were dismissed, compared to just 27.24% of cases without legal representation (Figure 6).
Figure 6. Dismissal Rate of Cases with and Without Legal Representation, 2016-2019 and 2020
One problem with the lack of legal representation during the pandemic is that renters may have a hard time knowing if their properties are covered by legal protections. To investigate this further, we analyzed all eviction filings during the federal CARES Act moratorium, which was in place from March 27, 2020 to July 24, 2020. During this time, renters could not be evicted for nonpayment of rent if their property was protected by the moratorium. The law also mandated that covered properties must provide tenants a 30-day notice of intention to evict, meaning it was unlawful to begin eviction proceedings until August 24. These rules applied to properties that had federally-backed mortgages or were part of other federal grant programs. However, it was difficult for renters to know if their properties were protected. Some online publications such as ProPublica developed databases that renters could search to see if their houses were protected.
Using the methods described above, our research team identified 136 eviction filings in Nebraska for nonpayment during the CARES Act moratorium in properties that may have been protected. Roughly 43% of those filings (60 cases) resulted in an eviction that may have been unlawful. However, as stated before, simply filing an eviction can result in a negotiated move, even if the case was dismissed.
The average amount of rent owed in potentially unlawful evictions was $1,488. The maximum amount owed was $13,261, and the minimum rent owed that resulted in an unlawful eviction was $194. The potentially unlawful evictions were enforced over a total of $104,371 in unpaid rent among the 58 cases that included that information.
We identified potentially unlawful evictions in nine counties across the state. Douglas County led the state with at least 36 potentially unlawful evictions, followed by Buffalo (6), Sarpy (6), and Lancaster (4) counties. Our research team had more resources available for searching Douglas County, including checking detailed property records through the assessor’s office, which may partially account for the higher number in Douglas.
The findings above highlight several key issues related to eviction in Nebraska during COVID-19. First, local moratoria early in the pandemic were highly effective at preventing evictions. However, evictions continued after those moratoria were lifted. COVID-19 cases were at their lowest level in Nebraska during the moratorium, and the peak of COVID-19 cases occurred as the most people were being evicted from their homes towards the end of the year. We hoped this data would be useful to policymakers and advocates dealing with continued waves of the pandemic. However, eviction moratoria never returned to the state.
The report also highlights how legal representation continued to be rare during the pandemic. While Legal Aid organizations worked hard to increase representation, many renters were left to navigate a complicated patchwork of state and federal protections on their own, or not at all. In dozens of cases, renters that should have been protected by moratoria were evicted. In 2021, we were pleased to see a volunteer tenant assistance project develop in Omaha, and hope our report played a role in highlighting these issues.
Dissemination of Findings
We disseminated our findings through a shorter report published on the Social Science Data Lab’s website and local news media. The Omaha World-Herald featured our report on the front page of the paper on April 19, 2021. A podcast interview and news story with Greenberg and Feichtinger was produced by KIOA Omaha Public Radio. We also sent the report to different legislative officials at the state and local levels. We drew on a list of email addresses and local contacts that were developed through the dissemination of prior research to further distribute the report.
We also held a community forum via Zoom as part of Creighton University’s Public Health Week. More than 60 people attended the meeting, including representatives from Legal Aid, the Omaha Housing Authority, and other political and non-profit leaders in the city. A recording of the meeting can be found here.
Our study was limited in several important ways. First, in trying to target the audience of state policymakers, our report left out some of the local nuances in eviction trends. There may be interesting comparisons, for example, between Lincoln, which established a tenant assistance project during 2020, and Omaha, which has only recently adopted a similar model. Further, there may be rural-urban differences in these numbers, which are obscured by looking at overall trends. Second, we took a conservative approach to counting unlawful evictions and may not have captured all of the unlawful evictions that occurred. For example, we didn’t have additional resources outside of Douglas County to provide a deeper dive into those address locations—so we may have missed some unlawful evictions outside of Omaha. Third, the focus on data and numbers does not illuminate people’s thoughts, stories, and experiences. Qualitative data would be an important complement to this work and may better highlight some of the barriers to housing stability for Nebraskans during the pandemic.
This report provides several important avenues for future research. First, future research should compare eviction trends across different political contexts and states. Beyond local moratoria, what policies were helpful in reducing the number of evictions during the pandemic? This research should include questions about whether state or local policies were more effective. Second, more broad research about the causes and consequences of pandemic evictions—including qualitative data from tenants—is needed to help inform policy.
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Greenberg, P., Feichtinger, E., Smith, D., & Burke, E. (2021) Evictions in Nebraska During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Natural Hazards Center Quick Response Grant Report Series, 333. Boulder, CO: Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder. Available at: https://hazards.colorado.edu/quick-response-report/evictions-in-nebraska-during-the-covid-19-pandemic