As federal measures to mitigate the occupational, financial, and personal strain of the COVID-19 pandemic begin to expire, the country faces an unprecedented crisis of eviction — and according to University researchers, few people are paying attention.
For the past three years, the University’s Eviction Lab has been crafting a first-of-its-kind nationwide dataset on eviction, aiming to spark meaningful policy change with its findings.
On March 27, Congress was bracing to battle the worst economic crisis the United States has faced since the Great Depression. After vigorous debate, but with bipartisan support, emergency legislation passed, and President Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act into law.
Though criticized on the left for “not going far enough,” the CARES Act offered crucial assistance to some of America’s most vulnerable populations: It increased and extended unemployment insurance, offered assistance to small businesses, and imposed a temporary freeze on evictions for all federally-owned housing units. With over one-third of American households living in rental housing and 64 percent of all renters classified as having “low incomes,” experts saw the last measure as particularly important.
But on July 24, the four-month federal moratorium expired, leaving 12 million Americans at risk of eviction. As county and state-level moratoria failed to protect renters, lives have been upended — and some believe the weeks to come will see the worst national eviction crisis in over a century.
“The early warning signs are not pretty,” Matthew Desmond, a sociology professor at the University and the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, told The Daily Princetonian.
In cities such as Milwaukee, Wis., where local eviction moratoria expired in late May, Desmond noted that evictions are already up by 40 percent — well above historical averages. He stressed that in American cities, the data is clear: When evictions rise, those most affected are low-income women, often victims of domestic violence, families with children, and African American and Latino communities. Even before the pandemic, eviction numbers had been on the rise, consistently higher in recent years than the rate of foreclosure filings, even at the height of the 2008 housing crisis.
“For renting families, for one-third of the country,” Desmond said, “the housing crisis never abated.”
Desmond has played a prominent role in exposing this crisis to the public. In 2017, he and a team of sociologists and data scientists founded the Eviction Lab, a data-driven lab run at the University. Their work has documented harrowing eviction numbers and stories across the U.S.
“Every year in America, there are about 3.7 million evictions filed,” Desmond explained. “We know that because of our work.”
The Eviction Lab was born out of Desmond’s research for Evicted, an ethnographic work that documents the personal narratives of eight renters and their families as they struggled with eviction and homelessness in Milwaukee during the 2008 financial crisis. Their narratives lie at the forefront of the book, driving its depiction of American poverty as centered on personal trauma.
When he first began researching U.S. housing policy, Desmond knew that eviction was “this painful, violent moment” that hurts individuals not only economically, but also physically and psychologically.
But without a centralized federal database for tracking evictions, he said, it was difficult to truly understand and convey the scope of the problem. Now, Desmond works to eliminate that obstacle he once faced in his research.
From scouring online databases to manually sifting through eviction records in county courts, the lab works to collect data on eviction and housing from all corners of the U.S., and create a unique national database.
Naomi Shifrin ’21, an undergraduate research assistant at the Eviction Lab, said the lab’s work is “the first effort and success at centralizing data on evictions and making it publicly available so people can understand the prevalence and respond accordingly.”
What sets the lab apart from other similar social science research groups is its public-facing nature and focus on, in Desmond’s words, “the public good.”
Desmond explained that rather than solely producing conclusions from the data, the lab works to create “engines” — “things people can use, build on, and take with them.” With this objective in mind, the lab releases its findings to the public pre-publication and invests in creating graphics and tools that allow anyone, regardless of background or education level, to access and understand the data.
“We are all about building tools that allow people to tell different stories,” Desmond said.
By harnessing the power of this data and intertwining it with the narratives of those who have faced eviction and scarcity first-hand, the Eviction Lab plays an integral role in bringing attention to the crisis in mainstream media. The lab has worked closely with local journalists, artists, and even partnered with comedian John Oliver in a recent episode of Last Week Tonight to increase public awareness of the issue.
The data also works, as Desmond put it, to “move the policy needle.” The Eviction Lab central database serves as the backing for two bipartisan proposals, which were first introduced on the Senate floor in December of 2019: the Family Stability and Opportunities Voucher Act and the Eviction Crisis Act. The latter bill would establish a national database on eviction filings — much like the one organized by the Eviction Lab — run through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Peter Hepburn, an associate professional specialist at the lab, told the ‘Prince’ he feels enthusiastic about the proposed policies.
“The best thing that could possibly happen is that we get put out of jobs by the feds,” he said.
Hepburn is the chief researcher behind the Eviction Tracking System (ETS), a new data tool the Eviction Lab created in light of COVID-19. Unlike the lab’s central database, which tracks nationwide data but as of now is only updated through 2016, the ETS allows users to track eviction filings in real time.
“Having data and showing when a moratoria goes out of effect and the numbers of evictions rise,” Hepburn said, “provides ammunition for an argument about a need for change and a need for a policy response.”
The ETS has also brought to light decades of historical racial inequality in housing policy. Former undergraduate researcher Scott Overbey ’21 said that among those being evicted from their homes during the coronavirus pandemic, there is a stark “overlap with at-risk groups who have been hit hardest by COVID because of historical inequalities of public health.”
In Milwaukee this past June — the month following the expiration of the city’s eviction moratorium — the ETS showed that eviction filings for Black residents rose from 29 to 978, while for white residents, they rose from 17 to 264. The rise of evictions in the most impoverished and often predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods in cities like Milwaukee has exacerbated entrenched inequalities and put the most vulnerable at an even greater risk of contracting and dying from the virus.
“Imagine … living through a pandemic and not even having a place to wash your hands,” said Overbey.
In addition to the ETS, the lab recently created The Policy Scorecard as a means of rating the comprehensiveness of state-level rental protections and moratoria during the pandemic. As Shifrin pointed out, the Scorecard showed that out of a 5 star rating system, only nine states have a score of 3 stars and above, while 33 states have a score of 1 star or less. These subpar policy responses at the state level are impacting “about 48 million renters.” The Policy Scorecard encourages states to take a critical look at their current legislation and to improve their protections of renter households.
These new tools developed in the age of COVID-19, coupled with the Eviction Lab’s central database, work together to achieve the lab’s broader purpose of, in Desmond’s words, “elevating this issue on the domestic agenda and really trying to push and motivate an informed policy response.”
For one undergraduate researcher in the lab, MaryAnn Placheril ’21, it comes down to a simple motto: “Good policy needs good data.”
Now more than ever, the Eviction Lab plays a crucial role in shining a light on the ways historical housing inequalities continue to disadvantage society’s most vulnerable members. The lab’s data makes clear, Shifrin said, that “in the fight for anti-racism, freedom and justice, eviction has to be central.”
“It is a priority of ours to commission work that reflects the historical inequities that are embedded in the institutions of our everyday life,” said Alieza Durana, the lab’s media specialist.
The work of the Eviction Lab represents a new wave of social science, which combines data analysis and scholarly approaches with real people and their stories. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Desmond believes the lab’s data leaves one thing certain: “Without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.”