In 2016, sociologist Matthew Desmond published Evicted, a wrenching book that investigates the devastating circumstances and effects of evictions in impoverished neighborhoods in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. At the end of the book—which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and make it onto President Obama’s must-read list of 2017—Desmond makes an admission: We don’t have national data available on evictions and therefore don’t fully understand the complexity of the crisis, making it difficult to enact policy solutions.
But now we do. The Eviction Lab—Desmond’s research group at Princeton University—just released the first-ever data set about evictions across 48 U.S. states.
The Eviction Lab analyzed 80 million eviction records across the country, primarily from court filings (some of which exist only on paper and not in a digital database) and county-level documentation, to create an interactive map that lets people compare eviction data from 2000 to 2010 against census information like income, race, age, rent burden and more. It also created a list of the top-evicting areas in the U.S.
This interactive map visualizes county-level evictions against the percentage of African-American residents, a demographic disproportionately affected by evictions.
Exploring the interactive map immediately reveals that many evictions are concentrated in the Rust Belt and Southeast. Eviction Lab found that African-American communities are disproportionately affected by high eviction rates, which supports previous eviction research identifying a correlation with race.
In a news release, Eviction Lab pointed out that large cities receive a disproportionate amount of attention in the affordability crisis. Meanwhile, smaller cities with high eviction rates—such as Hampton, Virginia; Jackson, Mississippi; Kansas City, Missouri; Omaha, Nebraska; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma—are neglected in national debates.
One statistic is especially troublesome: Eviction Lab discovered that in 2016, the same year Desmond published his book, nearly one million households (and more individuals since households usually include more than one person) were evicted. Comparing that to other statistics about the housing crisis puts the gravity of the epidemic in high relief: In 2010, at the peak of the foreclosure crisis, banks seized more than one million homes.
Evictions are a particularly challenging subject in the affordability crisis since there are a lot of misconceptions about the causes and effects of eviction: They can dramatically vary in every city and county across the country.
As Washington D.C. journalist Joseph Williams reflected on his own eviction experience on Curbed, evictions aren’t only the problem of the working poor or impoverished; the shrinking middle class is also affected. And as Desmond chronicled throughout Evicted and reiterates on The Eviction Lab’s site, an eviction triggers a domino effect of trauma and destabilization:
“A legal eviction comes with a court record, which can prevent families from relocating to decent housing in a safe neighborhood, because many landlords screen for recent evictions. Studies also show that eviction causes job loss, as the stressful and drawn-out process of being forcibly expelled from a home causes people to make mistakes at work and lose their job. Eviction also has been shown to affect people’s mental health: one study found that mothers who experienced eviction reported higher rates of depression two years after their move. The evidence strongly indicates that eviction is not just a condition of poverty, it is a cause of it.”
Through its research, the Eviction Lab is giving visibility to a facet of the affordability crisis that remains inadequately addressed. There is still a lot that the researchers don’t know and they view this dataset as a jumping off point for social scientists, journalists, and policy makers to instigate more research. While Eviction Lab was able to compile over 80 million eviction records, not all evictions make it to court or are officially documented by cities and counties. For example, North and South Dakota don’t maintain any records on individual evictions.
As Desmond writes in a blog post on the Eviction Lab site: “The breadth and depth of America’s eviction epidemic—and its data trail—requires attention from a wide array of people with different perspectives and skills. This is why we’ve adopted an open-source model of data sharing. We need more researchers, city planners, court officers, political leaders, and concerned citizens to join us in filling in the gaps.”
It’s no accident that The Eviction Lab released its data at the same time that the National Building Museum is staging an exhibition about the eviction crisis, which includes an opportunity for visitors to interact with the data. Getting as many people familiar with the facts is the first step toward enacting meaningful policy change.