Definition and How It Works Under the Law

Table of Contents

What Is Eviction?

Eviction is the civil process by which a landlord can legally remove a tenant from their rental property. An eviction may occur when the tenant stops paying rent, when the terms of the rental agreement are breached, or in other situations permitted by law.

Evictions in the United States are governed by individual states and by certain municipalities. Landlords are required to inform tenants that they are being evicted with a notice that specifies the reason for the eviction and tell them the number of days that remain before eviction proceedings begin.

Key Takeaways

  • An eviction is the court-ordered removal of a tenant from the property where they reside.
  • A landlord may decide to evict a tenant for nonpayment of rent, damages, illegal activity, violating the terms of a lease, or if the landlord wishes to take possession of the property.
  • The eviction process normally begins with a notice from the landlord that asks the tenant to remedy certain conditions.
  • The landlord can begin eviction proceedings through a court if the tenant doesn’t provide a remedy.
  • Judges hear testimony, review evidence, and decide whether to evict or deny a landlord’s request when the matter gets to court.

How Eviction Works

Rental properties and all parties involved in lease agreements are subject to landlord/tenant laws set by states, counties, and municipalities. Landlords can’t evict tenants without good cause. Reasons include nonpayment of rent, damages, illegal activity, violating the terms of a lease, or if the landlord wishes to take possession of the property.

Unpaid rent is the most common cause of eviction, according to research by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.

Some states allow property owners to evict tenants-at-will even when they have done nothing wrong. This type of tenancy is open-ended. It isn’t bound by a lease or contract. But these renters may be protected in some states, especially if courts deem the action to be discriminatory or retaliatory.

The Eviction Legal Process

Eviction laws vary by state and municipality, but the process is fairly uniform. A landlord provides an eviction notice to their tenant, giving them a number of days to pay rent, fix any damages, or otherwise remedy the problem that led to eviction.

The landlord may then file an eviction lawsuit against the renter if that time period ends without a resolution. A complainant/landlord can seek financial restitution for unpaid rent and utility costs, damage to the property, late fees, and court costs in addition to the eviction.

Cases are generally heard in district courts, small claims courts, or housing courts. Both landlords and tenants are required to attend and may seek legal representation. Courts require evidence of wrongdoing, including photos, emails, text messages, other documents, and witness testimony that may support each party’s case.

A judge hears testimony and reviews evidence before deciding to evict or deny a landlord’s case for eviction. The judge may also decide whether to award monetary damages in the case and, if so, how much.

The renter will typically receive an eviction judgment automatically if they fail to appear in court and the landlord or the landlord’s legal representative is present for the proceedings.

Evictions During COVID-19

Congress temporarily prohibited evictions through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Evictions were banned for 120 days in 2020 for people on federal housing assistance or in homes with federally-backed mortgages. These include those financed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, or the Federal Housing Administration (FHA).

The original ban prohibited landlords from filing new eviction cases due to unpaid rent. It ended on July 24, 2020. The moratorium applied to roughly 28% of the nation’s 43.8 million renter households, according to an analysis by the Urban Institute.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) then banned eviction for many renters on public health grounds. This original order was issued on Sept. 4, 2020, and it was extended several times.

The CDC then issued a new order effective Aug. 3, 2021 due to the rapid spread of the Delta variant. This temporarily banned evictions in counties with substantial or high levels of community spread. It was set to expire on Oct. 3, 2021, but it was struck down by the Supreme Court on Aug. 26, 2021.

Some states and localities may still have some bans and other protections in place as of 2023.

Renters in need of assistance should consult the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s website which provides a searchable list of all the programs currently available.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Eviction

For Landlords

Evictions allow landlords to remove unruly tenants, as well as those who don’t pay their rent on time or at all. Eviction proceedings can be costly but landlords can benefit by going through the process to protect the interests of their property. A landlord can open their property to better, more responsible tenants by evicting an undesirable tenant.

For Tenants

The effects of an eviction can be long-lasting for tenants. A rental application will likely ask if they have ever been evicted before if they apply for a new home. But having a previous eviction may not completely disqualify a person from acquiring a new lease.

Some landlords may simply want to know more about the terms of the eviction. It would be unlikely to negatively affect a landlord’s view of a potential tenant if a previous landlord decided to sell an apartment as a condominium and legally evicted the tenants to do so.

What Is a Notice to Cease?

A notice to cease is required to be served on a tenant in many states before a landlord can initiate eviction legal proceedings. It’s sometimes referred to as a notice to quit. Depending on the reason for the eviction, the tenant may have a period of time to rectify whatever is causing the potential eviction.

Can a Tenant Terminate a Lease?

Landlord/tenant laws can differ by state but there are some similarities. Recognized causes for a tenant to break a lease in Texas include a provision for servicemembers that they can legally vacate early if they’re restationed or deployed. Other recognized causes include domestic violence issues and a landlord’s failure to make certain repairs. These are referred to as “statutory rights” and they don’t require a court proceeding in Texas but this rule can vary by state.

Does an Eviction Have an Effect on the Neighborhood?

Research shows that high eviction rates have detrimental effects on society at large. High-eviction neighborhoods become more susceptible to crime by destabilizing families. High eviction rates also come at a steep financial cost to cities that often lose property taxes and outstanding utility bills and they may have to pay more for shelters and social services.

The Bottom Line

Life happens and you might find yourself in a position where you’re simply unable to continue honoring your lease for one reason or another. Some lease violations are voluntary, such as causing harm to the property or engaging in illegal activities, but others may be beyond your control, such as job loss that prevents you from paying your rent.

Reach out to your county government for assistance if you find yourself in this type of situation. All states have some provisions in place to help tenants in unforeseeable circumstances, such as occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic.