Longer Trips to Court Cause Evictions

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Studying ∼200,000 evictions filed against ∼300,000 Philadelphians from 2005 to 2021, we focus on the role of transit to court in preventing tenants from asserting their rights. In this period, nearly 40% of tenants facing eviction were ordered to leave their residences because they did not show up to contest cases against them and received a default judgment. Controlling for a variety of potential confounds at the tenant and landlord level, we find that residents of private tenancies with longer transit travel time to the courthouse were more likely to default. A 1-h increase in estimated travel time increases the probability of default by between 3.8% and 8.6% points across different model specifications. The effect holds after adjusting for direct distance to the court, unobserved landlord characteristics, and even baseline weekend travel time. However, it is absent in public housing evictions, where timing rules are significantly laxer, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, when tenants had the opportunity to be present virtually. We estimate that had all tenants been equally able to get to the court in 10 min, there would have been 4,000 to 9,000 fewer default evictions over the sample period. We replicate this commuting effect in another dataset of over 800,000 evictions from Harris County, Texas. These results open up a new way to study the physical determinants of access to justice, illustrating that the location and accessibility of a courthouse can affect individual case outcomes. We suggest that increased use of video technology in court may reduce barriers to justice.


eviction, default, access to justice, transit, housing, procedure, instrumental, poverty, race, service

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