Voices of the Virus

The Looming Eviction Crisis

Housing expert and best-selling author Matthew Desmond tells Democracy what’s coming. It isn’t pretty.

By Matthew Desmond

Tagged affordable housingChildrenEducationHousingInequalityPovertyRacism

The pandemic has both magnified and brought to the fore America’s housing crisis, too long overlooked by the media. It has also highlighted just how intertwined housing is with every other major social justice issue we face including health, education, racial discrimination, and, of course, poverty. Since the federal eviction moratorium ended on July 24th, while a number of state moratoriums are likewise expiring—if they haven’t already—experts are anticipating a potentially catastrophic “avalanche” of evictions.
Matthew Desmond is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of the 2016 book Evicted, where he chronicled the experiences of tenants and landlords in Milwaukee’s most low-income areas. A professor of sociology at Princeton, he currently heads the university’s Eviction Lab, the first nationwide database of evictions, which he and his colleagues hope will assist policymakers in truly addressing this long-enduring crisis. Associate Editor Sophia Crabbe-Field spoke with him on July 28.

Sophia Crabbe-Field: Since the federal eviction moratorium just ended on July 24, what should we expect? Are we really about to see as many as 28 million become homeless in the near future? And can we glean anything of what’s to come from looking at cities where state-wide moratoriums have already ended like Milwaukee, where there’s been this huge increase in the number of evictions already? 

Matthew Desmond: There have. So when COVID hit, this is a big question in a lot of people’s minds, and there’s no data infrastructure to answer that question actually at a national level. And so we built a tool called the Eviction Tracking System. Other folks have built other tools to try to keep an eye on it. And so the big two signals we received so far are, first of all, the eviction moratoriums worked, they really did work. And I know that sounds obvious, but you might remember when this whole thing started people didn’t even think we could get eviction moratoriums.

And in places like Cleveland and Milwaukee, where the moratoriums have expired, we have seen eviction rates 40 percent above normal rates. And even in places like Cleveland that don’t have that level of relative increase, they’ve had absolute increase since the moratorium has lifted. So it’s scary. The federal moratoriums covered about a third of all renters in the country. And so I think we should be very concerned for renters that were covered. I think it’s very hard to estimate how big of a surge we’re going to get. But even before the crisis, it was really scary anyway: 3.7 million evictions filed in the most recent year we had every year, that’s seven evictions filed a minute. It’s like the population of Seattle being at risk of eviction every month. That’s before COVID. And I do think we’re putting a lot of renters in unnecessary harm’s way with these eviction moratoriums expiring.

SC-F: Even if we did have legislation that extended the moratorium, which I’m not sure how optimistic you are that that might happen, what happens at the end of the moratorium when renters have the accumulated debt to pay back? 

MD: So I think there’s a few ways to attack that question. One way is to just recognize that eviction isn’t going to solve the renter’s problem certainly, and it’s not going to solve the property owner’s problem. The property owner is expecting a certain level of income and so it’s not like someone throws a family out and then sometime turns around and hands the property owner a thousand bucks. And so eviction is not a solution right now, it’s only a problem and it’s only going to spread more poverty and death. But then you have this other problem, arrearage buildup. So some states have taken some steps to address that. I think Hawaii is allocating $85 million to renters, Massachusetts put some money in the pie, but we really do need serious federal investment. We need federal investment at a scale that’s commensurate with the problem.

SC-F: Are there certain laws in the works either on a state level or federal level that you think would be the best in terms of tackling this problem right now? 

MD: The federal government could issue a nationwide moratorium much more widely than it did at the beginning of the crisis. That’s a lever they could definitely pull. They could take programs that they have like housing choice vouchers and expand it drastically. This is something they should do anyway. And so I think those are things that could happen. We could invest more in legal aid, in legal assistance. In some housing courts around the country, 90 percent of landlords have lawyers and 90 percent of tenants don’t. We could try to balance the scales out more by investing in things like LISC [Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a social enterprise which provides support for community development projects around the country]. I think there’s quite a lot at our disposal.

SC-F: Unemployment is obviously tightly correlated with housing. On July 31, the extra $600 for unemployment insurance runs out. Do you expect that to have a big effect on eviction and ability to pay rent as well?

MD: Yeah. It’s hard to see that not. So what was it like before the crisis? So, before the crisis, we’ve had 20 years of basically income stagnation for many Americans, especially those without a college degree. And, over that time period, rents and other housing costs like utilities have really soared. Median rent has doubled within the last 20 years, and median income has not. And so today median rent is about $1,002. So if you think of that extra $1,200, that extra $600, if you’re living in just a typical apartment in America, it really is not going very far. And so taking away those kinds of just necessary help that got us through this so far, and also not delivering rent relief, and also take away the moratoriums, that seems to be a recipe for a real crisis, a real homelessness crisis.

SC-F: We’re seeing right now a lot of emphasis being put on the housing crisis, the eviction crisis, the rent crisis, and it’s become more and more evident how deeply tied this issue is to other socio-political issues: health, education, racial disparities. But it feels like compared to some of these other issues, housing wasn’t really big on the agenda even in many progressive circles for a very long time. And so I’m wondering, why do you think this is and do you think that the COVID pandemic will have a lasting impact on changing that? 

MD: I think from a grassroots level, housing has been something that’s so much on the forefront of people’s minds. Since the 2008 crisis, we’ve seen more and more tenant organization, tenant mobilization, and folks recognizing that just because the media moved on, the housing crisis didn’t go away for renters. When I went on a book tour after Evicted came out, I met so many people for whom this issue was their issue. They’ve been working on this issue for a long time. But you’re right, often that work that’s on the local level wasn’t really translating into large federal policymaking. So compare the platforms of the democratic candidates that were running this year, even Joe Biden’s housing platform—that housing platform is so much more aggressive and encompassing in recognizing the deep need of so many Americans paying 50, 60, 70 percent of their income on housing costs.

And so I think that the work at the local level has really paid off. I think that federal policymakers are recognizing that public investment in housing didn’t fail because it was a bad idea. It failed because we disinvested massively during President Reagan’s Administration and we recognize now the centrality, as you so eloquently put it, of housing to all these other problems that keep us up at night. It’s hard to speculate on why something isn’t getting done. But I do think we’ve definitely seen a sea change now where housing is more out on top of the national agenda.

SC-F: We’re also talking a lot right now about Black Lives Matter and racial discrimination. Evidently housing is already hugely racially discriminatory in the United States. And so I’m wondering to what extent you think the COVID crisis will perpetuate that kind of housing discrimination and inequity?

MD: Yeah. It’s huge. So according to a report by the Urban Institute, most Black businesses didn’t survive the last recession. And so you could think of this, up the income scale, resulting in things like foreclosures and the bleeding of Black wealth and Latino wealth, like we saw massively in 2008 and 2009. And then when you think of renting families, you’re actually thinking of most Black families and most Latino families. Most white families are homeowners, but that’s not true for most Black and Latino families because of our systematic dispossession of people of color from the land. And so they’re going to be disproportionately exposed to this in general. And so we already know that eviction affects low-income Black and Latino communities disproportionately, especially women in those communities with children.

And so then the question is: Well, what does eviction do to you? Is it just a really crummy thing to go through? Or does it have these longer lasting effects? And the research is saying it has these longer lasting effects. So you lose your home, which is traumatic enough, but families often lose their stuff, which are taken by movers and piled on the sidewalk. If your eviction is processed through civil court, you get this mark, you get a blemish, which can affect your credit, it can affect your housing searches, and it can even affect if you can get into public housing. Public housing authorities often see that mark and they say “No, thank you.” That’s why studies show that families, after they get evicted, move into worse housing and worse neighborhoods. So housing is more dangerous and undignified and the neighborhoods have higher levels of crime and poverty. We know those can have deeply lasting effects on kids.

We have studies that show that eviction causes job loss because it’s such a consuming, traumatic event. It can make you lose your footing in the labor market. Then there are these health effects that stick around. Eviction has been linked to suicide. Moms who get evicted experience higher rates of depression two years after they got evicted. That’s going to affect their parenting. We have a study that’s under review right now that shows that moms who get evicted when they’re pregnant, it can affect the baby’s health, low birth weight, literally being born with low birth weight has lifetime and generational effects on things like graduating high school and if your baby’s going to have these problems. And so it’s not just a condition of poverty, eviction is a cause of poverty. And so those problems are going to be disproportionately borne by the communities where eviction disproportionately visits. 

SC-F: So you were talking about the effects on children of poor housing. I’m wondering, particularly this year, when a lot of children are going to be doing their schoolwork from home, when schools might be closed, is the effect on children going to be even stronger?

MD: There’s a lot more possible scenarios, but there’s two to think about. One is: Are we going to have a wave of evictions? And how big is that wave going to be? So the previous research suggests that that wave is going to crest down on kids and families with kids. When I started studying this, I felt like surely there’s protections against kids and evictions, maybe kids will shield families from eviction. But it’s actually the opposite: Kids exposed families to eviction. And so we surveyed a bunch of folks in eviction courts. We were trying to figure out why does this person get evicted, but this person doesn’t, even though they owe the same amount of money and the big finding was it wasn’t gender that did it, or race that made the difference, it was kids.

So kids basically increase your chance of getting evicted in court by three times all else equal. What you’re seeing in that finding is landlord discretion. So if we want kids to be able to get through the school year with teachers they know, with classmates they know, with guidance counselors they know, in a school system they know, there’s a lot of middle-class families right now that are freaking out because they don’t know what their school is going to do. So take that level of anxiety and pretend like you don’t know where you’re going to live, let alone where your kid’s going to go to school. That’s going to matter.

Then you have concerns about: What does it mean to keep children in homes, especially low-income homes, for an extended period of time? And when I lived in Milwaukee I saw a door fall on a kid because it just came off its hinges. I saw plumbing backed up in bathrooms and the landlord just unwilling to fix it. I saw ceilings fall down. I myself lived in a mobile home without hot water for most of the time I lived there and I told the landlord, “I’m a writer I’m going to write about you.” So I think that it means more exposure to these really unhealthy conditions, including through the winter. And then there’s all this stuff about schools being these antipoverty service delivery systems where food and safety and shelter are coming through schools because we’ve abdicated responsibility to just make sure all families that live here have a safe place to sleep at night and enough food on the table.

SC-F: So there’s one question I wanted to ask you sort of from personal experience. My mom works in Montreal for a community organization that assists in tenants’ rights, and one thing that she’s noticed in her work is that, over recent years, there’s more and more large real estate corporations that have become landlords to regular tenants, as opposed to just businesses. And she’s seen a lot of evictions coming out of these corporations that are trying to push their tenants out so they can increase rent. I’m wondering if, in the United States, that’s something that’s played a role in recent evictions?

MD: So I think the state of the data makes me have to answer: We don’t know. When I went on evictions in 2008, 2009, you’d be like, “What’s happening?” And they’re like, “I’m getting evicted. My landlord is Mr. Johnson.” There’s a clear story, not clear in terms of who’s telling the right story, but just the story kind of made sense. I went on evictions in 2014 in Milwaukee and I’d be like, “What’s happening?” And the tenants were confused. And it was these stories like, “Well, I paid my landlord, but then the landlord sent the check back me saying, he’s not my landlord anymore. SunTrust LLC is my landlord. So I sent my check to them and they sent it back.” So there was all this massive confusion just about who owns the city.

And so I saw things similar to what your mom is seeing. And there are indications in the data that 2008 might have precipitated a concentration of ownership into fewer and fewer hands. Now does that matter? And how does that matter? And those are questions that are really hard to answer because of the corporate shell of business ownership. And so if you were to ask me who is the biggest evictor in Baltimore or New York City, no one knows because I can own a thousand properties in Baltimore and be under a thousand different LLCs. So we’re trying to figure that out. This is top of our research agenda now. It does seem that corporate owners are more likely to file for eviction but fewer of their evictions go to actual judgments, which means that for corporate owners it seems eviction is a disciplinary technique, it’s a rent collecting technique, and it’s something that actually increases profits because they can transfer costs of court and eviction filings onto the tenants themselves.

SC-F: There’s been a lot of talk about how many people could end up homeless, but I’m wondering if in your work you’ve also looked at the situation of those who are already homeless, and how the pandemic has impacted them in terms of COVID, in terms of ability to find shelter? What is already going on among the homeless population?

MD: My answer to that has to be anecdotal. When [COVID] started, I wrote a profile on a homeless outreach worker in Chicago for The New York Times Magazine. And one thing she was saying is a lot of homeless folks were encountering this just closed-offness of public space, or even private space, that kind of functions as homeless safe havens, like McDonald’s lobbies or Starbucks, places you can wash your hands, go to the bathroom, get something warm to eat. As those places closed down, it was an inconvenience for most Americans and a life-changing thing for homeless folks. The lack of running water, and just the ability to wash your hands, seemed to be an issue. And then the shelter system is the anti social distancing thing, right? You sleep next to people, you eat right next to people. And so it suggests that this part of the safety net that is really important, that you set up to catch homelessness in an eviction wave, is just going to promote more disease spread. It’s hard to see it not doing that. 

SC-F: So my last question to you is: Among all the policy tools we’re looking at right now, both on a short-term, but also on a longer-term basis, to combat eviction, to combat inability to pay rent, what do you think the priority should be right now? And what role do you see the data that you are collecting at the Eviction Lab playing in policymakers’ ability to enact change?

MD: I think our data are part of the story. They’re not certainly the whole story or definitive, but they’re part of the story that’s going to show the hurt that families are experiencing and the size of that hurt if we see an eviction wave. I think it’s important that federal policymakers do three things. One: Institute a national moratorium on eviction. They understand that home is medicine now, and safety. Number two: Take care of that rent arrears problem. You know, there’s been a significant investment in America in big companies like the airline industry. There should be a significant investment in renting families that need not only safety, but also just think of the level of anxiety. Everyone’s level of anxiety is raised since COVID, but think of, “Am I going to be able to stay in my apartment this month?” “Will my children be okay this month?” I mean just to relieve them of that. And then the third is to invest in legal services to make sure that if evictions are being processed through COVID that families have a fair shot at staying put and that we balance the scales in eviction court.

Read more about affordable housingChildrenEducationHousingInequalityPovertyRacism

Matthew Desmond is the is the Maurice P. During Professor of Sociology at Princeton University. He is the author of four books, including Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016), which won the Pulitzer Prize, among many other prizes. He is the principle investigator of the university's Eviction Lab, which has built the country's first nationwide database of evictions.

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