Staggering Eviction Data Brings the Heartbreaking Stories of American Inequality Into Focus
When Princeton University sociology professor Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, was published in 2016, no one knew exactly how many people were threatened with eviction—or actually lost their homes—each year. We still don’t.
But the Eviction Lab, a new research organization “dedicated to studying the prevalence, causes, and consequences of eviction,” is making headway and has created a national database that “represents the largest accumulation of U.S. court records related to eviction ever compiled.” To date, the Eviction Lab—founded by Desmond and housed at Princeton—has culled 80 million records, 2000 to 2016, and has concluded that an estimated 900,000 evictions, impacting 2.4 million people, took place in 2015 alone. It’s a staggering number, but Desmond and his Eviction Lab colleagues concede that it is likely an undercount since numerous states lack a central repository where data on evictions is collected. What’s more, the number neglects “informal evictions”—the thousands of women, men, and children who “voluntarily” vacate their homes after receiving a court summons but before a sheriff or marshal arrives to remove their belongings.
Still, Desmond concludes that whether it is the result of a formal or informal proceeding, eviction is a national crisis, with broad ramifications for a wide swath of political concerns. As he writes, “the lack of affordable housing sits at the root of a host of social problems, from poverty and homelessness to educational disparities. Understanding the eviction crisis is critical to effectively addressing these problems and reducing inequality.”
Boosting understanding is key, and Desmond’s latest venture, Evicted—a powerful, immersive exhibition at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.—is a step in that direction. The show, which will be on display until May 19, 2019, combines hard data; still photographs by Sasha Israel, Michael Kienitz, and Sally Ryan; and video interviews with people who have lost their homes. Some have ended up in homeless shelters or on the streets, while others live doubled up with family or friends. A small number have been able to get back on their feet and find a new residence for themselves and their kids.
As you’d imagine, their stories are intense, and the exposition takes visitors through several steps in the eviction process, from the crisis of receiving a notice to vacate, to an often-chaotic housing courtroom, to the actual moment in which possessions are removed following a final order of eviction—sometimes to a storage facility and sometimes to the curb. Quotes from Desmond are painted on the exhibition’s walls and offer his analysis and reflections for viewer consideration. “America is supposed to be a place where you can better yourself, your family, your community. But this is only possible if you have a stable home,” one reads. “If you want more family stability, more community stability, we need fewer evictions,” says another.
There are also numbers, with statistics on eviction filings in every state posted on a large white wall. The range is enormous, from a low of 266 filings in Wyoming to a high of 208,190 in Georgia. Additional facts are presented without commentary: For example, in 2015, six evictions an hour were filed in Harris County, Texas; that same year, 72 evictions a day were filed in Miami-Dade County. In addition, viewers learn that in Arkansas, failure to pay rent can lead to a criminal conviction, while in Virginia landlords can sell any property left behind by an evicted tenant. This regulatory hodge-podge, while seemingly inconsistent, has several commonalities: The evicted tend to be female, of color, and poor. One particularly sobering wall poster hammers this home by informing viewers that those most vulnerable to eviction are low-income, Black and Brown single moms.
“Poor Black men are locked up; poor Black women are locked out,” Desmond concludes.
The upheaval caused by this is profound since the after-effects of an eviction spill into nearly every aspect of a person’s life. In one video, a teenager named Rosemary describes falling through the academic cracks after becoming homeless as a 14-year-old, a reality that began to turn around after a caring guidance counselor noticed that she was floundering and reached out to help. Others describe a cascade of losses following an eviction—from jobs and friends, to physical and emotional health. “You lose your dignity; you lose your independence,” one woman tells the camera.
Destiny, a single mother of a three-year-old son, is a case in point. Although she worked as a case manager in a New Jersey Department of Health and Human Services office—ironically helping families on the cusp of homelessness—when her hours were cut in late 2017 she fell behind in her rent and utility payments. The rent, she told the videographer, was due on January 1; by the 5th, a $50 late fee had accrued; by the 12th, a Notice of Eviction had been filed. “Home,” she says in a voice cracking with despair, “is supposed to be a place of serenity, an escape from the outside world, where you can come in, breathe, relax.”
Needless to say, for Destiny and others like her, it is anything but.
It’s also no mystery why evictions take place. Rents, Evicted reports, keep rising, wages are generally stagnant, and government programs no longer provide housing to the neediest among us. “This crisis threatens 11 million Americans, extremely low-income renters who often work but do not earn enough to pay rent in most markets,” the exhibition explains.
A report published by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition in March 2018 bears this out, documenting a shortfall of 7.2 million affordable rental units throughout the 50 states. It further notes that the conventional wisdom that people should pay no more than 30 percent of their income on housing and utility costs has become a pipedream, with 84 percent of seniors, the disabled, and low-wage workers paying more than half their earnings on rent, electricity, and gas. Small wonder that an unanticipated expense, a sudden death, or a reduction in work hours can be a direct route to eviction.
Evicted, however, goes one step further and elucidates another reality: The federal government favors middle- and upper-income homeowners over renters. To wit, although 4.8 million households receive poverty-related housing assistance through the Department of Housing and Urban Development—vouchers, subsidies, or apartments in a public housing complex—in 2015 the mortgage interest deduction taken by private homeowners cost the government a whopping $71 billion.
Evicted lays out its facts without judgment or editorializing, but the implications and disparities are nonetheless obvious. It might be depressing were it not for a small exhibit area that points to a number of successful activist efforts that prompted policy changes. For example, the New York City Rent Wars following World War I led to rent controls that limited how much housing costs could be increased; mobilizations during the Great Depression led to a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures in North Dakota and elsewhere; and rent strikes organized by the Young Lords in the 1960s led to improvements in building and apartment conditions in several U.S. cities.
“Eviction reveals people’s vulnerability and desperation,” Desmond writes, “as well as their ingenuity and guts.”
Indeed, it is impossible to walk out of Evicted and not be outraged that landlords toss people from their homes with nary a concern for their well-being. Similarly, it’s impossible not to be enraged by government inattention—at the state, local or federal levels—to the needs of the poor.
Overall, Evicted is by turns sad and infuriating, but it also compels action. While its message is unlikely to reach Ben Carson or the Trump administration, Desmond and the Eviction Lab have issued a loud, clarion call to the rest of us, reminding us that it’s again time to talk about the intersection of poverty, housing policy, gender, and race and build programs that support families and, once and for all, end inequality and social injustice.
For more information go to nbm.org/exhibition/evicted.
The National Building Museum is located at 401 F Street NW, Washington, D.C.; 202.272.2448. It is open Monday through Saturday from 10-5 and on Sunday from 11-5. Admission is free.