How National Data Can Help Tackle the Eviction Crisis
by Emily Peiffer
Financial instability and a shortage of affordable rental housing leave millions of US families struggling to pay rent and facing eviction. This crisis has long been rooted in anecdotal and city-specific information because of a lack of national eviction data. But the new Eviction Lab, led by sociologist and ethnographer Matthew Desmond, aims to fill those data gaps and provide local governments with information that can help them combat the eviction crisis.
Desmond, also the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, discussed this new data resource with a panel of researchers and practitioners at an Urban Institute event. Their main question: Why do eviction data matter, and how can communities use that data to improve residential stability for all households?
No longer 'working in a vacuum'
Evictions’ destabilizing effects extend beyond housing. “Parents suffer at work, kids suffer at school, the combination of residential and financial insecurity stands in the way of upward mobility for families, and it’s costly for the cities where those families live,” said Margery Austin Turner, Urban’s senior vice president for program planning and management.
Desmond emphasized that eviction is both a cause and a result of poverty. As he worked on Evicted and documented the “human wreckage of the affordable housing crisis,” he faced a severe lack of information about the broader eviction crisis.
“The issue for folks in the field is that there’s no information,” said Carlos Manjarrez, director of the Office of Data Governance and Analysis for the Legal Services Corporation. “They’re working in a vacuum.”
The Eviction Lab, based on 83 million eviction records dating back to 2000, is the first national database of eviction data. Researchers with the Eviction Lab found records for about 900,000 eviction notices from 2016 and listed the cities with the highest eviction rates.
Desmond noted that the dataset is incomplete because of varying laws in different jurisdictions and sealed court records, but he encouraged users of the data to help improve it. “This is a colossal problem in scope, and this isn’t even the half of it. We have holes in our data,” he said. “This number is scary high, and it’s absolutely an undercount. We just don’t know by how much.”
The data available reveal distinct trends, including that the eviction problem isn’t limited to high-cost urban cities. “This isn’t just a story about DC and San Francisco and Seattle,” Desmond said. “This is a problem pervading cities that are pretty cheap to live in—places like Richmond, Tulsa, and Albuquerque.”
North Charleston, South Carolina; Richmond, Virginia; Hampton, Virginia; Newport News, Virginia; and Jackson, Mississippi, are the top five cities with the highest eviction rates, according to the Eviction Lab data. The eviction crisis is also affecting rural areas and suburbs surrounding larger cities. “This isn’t just an urban problem,” Desmond said.
The Eviction Lab’s data also reveal a disproportionate effect on communities with larger African American populations; Desmond called this phenomenon “an eviction belt” in the Southeast US. “You’re seeing the legacy of discrimination” in the higher eviction rates in those communities, he said.
The Eviction Lab will continue to update its data as its researchers access more eviction records and address concerns about cross-jurisdictional comparisons. Desmond hopes that local governments and practitioners can use the data to learn about the eviction patterns in their specific community and tailor policies to help their residents.
He also called for an expansion of emergency assistance to help families at the brink of eviction avoid losing their home (many who are evicted owe just a few hundred dollars to their landlord) as well as greater federal investment in affordable housing. “The solution to the affordable housing crisis is affordable housing,” he said.
Urban researchers have also offered five strategies for addressing America’s eviction crisis, such as building evaluation into policymaking and encouraging the construction of more affordable housing.
Diana Elliott, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, said the new eviction data can add to Urban’s previous work exploring the cost of residents’ financial instability on city budgets. “Cities are spending so much money after the fact, when it would be a better investment to spend the money earlier in the process and keep families and communities more stable and see a better return on their money,” she said.
Desmond added that he hopes this data can inform many different efforts and policies to help families reach stable ground. “I hope people use the tool to take the information to their city leaders and integrate it into things they care about like health care, education, violence reduction, and smart spending,” he said “For so many years, we’ve neglected housing at the federal level, but also in the poverty debate itself.”