On the screen, the numbers spin inexorably upward: red digits representing tens of thousands of American families in danger of losing their homes in a time of pandemic and recession.
The scrolling counter on the website of the Eviction Lab, a University-based research team, tracks eviction cases filed in 17 American cities since March. The number, updated weekly, forms part of the lab’s latest effort to collect, analyze, and disseminate data about the nation’s rental-housing crisis, a longstanding catastrophe whose precise contours nevertheless can seem elusive.
“We live in a Google age, where we can think, ‘What’s the distance to the moon?’ and we can know that immediately,” says Princeton sociology professor Matthew Desmond, who launched the lab’s website in 2018. “But when you’re asking how many people in Tucson got evicted last week, that’s not data that we have readily available.”
The federal government doesn’t collect information about evictions, and state- and county-level data can be patchy, expensive to access, or unavailable to the general public. The information the Eviction Lab posts online — eviction numbers and rates for nearly every state, stretching back to 2000 — is largely harvested from commercial databases and typically lags at least two years behind.
But last spring, as pandemic lockdowns began threatening the financial viability of low-income households, lab postdoctoral fellow Peter Hepburn argued that the unprecedented situation demanded a nimbler turnaround. “We didn’t want to wait until 2022 or 2023 to understand what was happening now,” says Hepburn, currently an assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers-Newark.
The resulting Eviction Tracking System, based on data scraped from the websites of court systems or collected by academic researchers and community organizations, maps the impact of pandemic-driven housing policies from Boston to Phoenix. The data show how the partial eviction moratorium enshrined in last spring’s federal CARES Act helped hold down eviction filings — and how, once the moratorium expired over the summer, those filings rose rapidly, except in communities with robust local eviction bans. In Pittsburgh, for example, eviction filings jumped from 23 the week before state and federal moratoriums lapsed to 276 the week after. Meanwhile, those same two weeks saw a total of only 25 filings in Austin, Texas, where a local moratorium remained in place.
Like everything the lab does, the tracking system aims to provide researchers, policymakers, and citizens with the raw materials needed to understand — and, ultimately, to mitigate — the nation’s affordable-housing crisis.
“The Eviction Lab’s work is unparalleled and groundbreaking,” says Wake Forest University law professor Emily Benfer, an Eviction Lab collaborator. “If Eviction Lab wasn’t collecting this data, we wouldn’t even know that there was an eviction crisis in our country.”
Most recently, the Eviction Tracking System data have suggested that an unprecedented new national eviction moratorium, announced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September and scheduled to last through Dec. 31, has not had as strong and uniform an impact as expected.
Although eviction filings across the tracked cities dropped sharply right after the announcement of the moratorium, falling from nearly 3,200 the week before the announcement to more than 1,600 the week after, filings in the last full week of September had partially rebounded, rising to more than 2,300. “We appear to be moving back in the wrong direction,” Hepburn says. “If the effect of this policy is much more limited than ... intended, that’s crucial information that we need to have and that policymakers need to have.”
Policymakers are also among the intended audience for another recent Eviction Lab initiative: the Policy Scorecard, directed by Benfer and compiled by a team of volunteer law students, which measures each state’s COVID-19 housing policies against a set of best practices and then grades the results on a five-star scale. (Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., with four-star ratings, currently lead the pack; New Jersey’s two-star rating ranks it above 41 other states.)
“We wanted to know how good the protections are,” says Desmond, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, chronicles the lives of low-income tenants in Milwaukee. “And we wanted to give Americans a clear understanding of their rights, in a way that you don’t have to have a Ph.D. from MIT to understand.”
Even in ordinary times, stable housing is a crucial prerequisite for well-being, researchers note. “Without housing, nothing else is possible,” Benfer says. “Eviction is tied to so many barriers to opportunity, as well as to severe negative health outcomes that are long-lasting and that start the cycle of economic and housing hardship for families.”
But as the CDC noted in announcing its eviction moratorium, housing stability is especially crucial during a pandemic. Unable to shelter at home, evicted families may double up in relatives’ apartments, couch-surf from place to place, or end up in crowded homeless shelters. Each step along the way increases the danger of catching and transmitting the virus.
Before the pandemic, Desmond was already drawing on the lab’s work in his policy advocacy, testifying before Congress in support of bills to increase the number of housing vouchers and launch a federal effort to collect eviction data. The lab’s findings, which make clear that low-income renters face burdensome housing costs even in heartland cities not known for their high cost of living, also spurred state and city efforts to understand and combat evictions.
In the months since the pandemic raised the stakes, however, the Eviction Lab has redoubled its efforts to spread the word. In June, a segment on John Oliver’s television show Last Week Tonight quoted Desmond and cited statistics compiled by the lab. Buried in the footnotes of the CDC’s moratorium announcement were further mentions of Eviction Lab findings.
Lab researchers are unsure whether the new attention to evictions heralds a new approach to housing policy, or whether the country will return to business as usual once the pandemic passes. The CDC moratorium has “shown us that the state can do this,” says Renee Louis ’19, an Eviction Lab research specialist. “Now there is a precedent for the federal government to intervene.”
But the near future will bring a further reckoning, Desmond notes. Imperfect though it may be, the CDC’s eviction moratorium is “a big deal,” he says. “That’s going to save lives, and it’s going to release a lot of people from the deep stress of trying to figure out where rent’s going to come from. The big, living question from a renter’s point of view is what’s going to happen in January.”