It seems obvious that a place to sleep and put your stuff is fundamental to getting ahead. A place to shower and eat your meals. All the necessary vanities of professional life depend on some form of stable housing. The idyllic American childhood takes place in the suburban home.
So, of course, we spend some time thinking about housing and housing policy. We know about the lack of affordable housing in our big cities and the persistent socioeconomic effects of redlining. Maybe we wring our hands about widespread misinterpretation of the broken windows theory of policing. Homelessness is a familiar issue. But what about eviction?
Matthew Desmond, a professor of sociology at Harvard and the author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, calls eviction “perhaps the most understudied process affecting the lives of the urban poor.” In a study of eviction in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Desmond collected data from court eviction records in Milwaukee from 2003 to 2007. Of an estimated 15,983 evicted adults and children who were evicted in that period, nearly half lived in housing units in black neighborhoods. The yearly average eviction rate for all black neighborhoods was roughly five times the rate in white neighborhoods; the difference in the averages for high poverty neighborhoods is even greater. Most strikingly, “[w]omen from black neighborhoods made up only 9.6% of Milwaukee’s population but accounted for 30% of evicted tenants.”
These numbers are startling, and they have real implications for people’s lives. Landlords often refuse to rent to prospective tenants who have been evicted. Eviction reduces the likelihood that an applicant will secure housing assistance or qualify for an affordable housing program. It might lead to homelessness. In most cases, it means a move to a worse neighborhood or substandard housing.
These data, of course, come from one city. Desmond’s findings conform to a number of our present-day assumptions about society—race is not a proxy for income, poor single mothers bear a disproportionate domestic and economic burden—but we need more data to come to conclusions about eviction as a national phenomenon. We don’t even know how common evictions are nationally.
We can draw on existing longitudinal data from national surveys like the Urban Institute’s American Housing Survey or the Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP). These databases have their limits. The SIPP, for instance, relies on self-reporting for eviction data, but according to Desmond, many tenants he interviewed did not recognize that they had experienced an eviction, even though court records indicated that they had. Another possibility is that an analysis of court records would miss informal evictions—the removal of tenants from a rented property without formal eviction court proceedings.
Regardless, such research would give us a better picture of who gets evicted. With longitudinal data, we can measure some of the effects of eviction, and that information is necessary to understand the mechanisms that reproduce poverty in America. A small, unexpected expense can cause a tenant to come up short on rent for the month, or the heating bill might take priority. In Milwaukee, if a tenant avoids her landlord after receiving an eviction notice, or if she’s been consistently late with rent payments, or if she refuses to trade sex for extra time—whatever the reason is, the landlord can initiate formal court proceedings, refuse to accept late payments, and have the sheriff’s department clean out the unit. That eviction will follow her around, transforming the effect of brute social conditions into a visible ethical failure on a piece of paper. It’ll make it harder to get help. In short, it will punish her and her family for being poor and thereby reproduce their poverty.
We have identified inequality as one of the great problems facing our country. Many of us are taken with big policy proposals that aim to address it, from raising the minimum wage to eliminating student loan debt. Some of those proposals may begin to address the root causes of inequality, but we’re also beginning to recognize that the roots are deep and tangled. Eviction is an illustration of that: at least in Milwaukee, it’s often the result of a nexus of interconnected material factors. Being a single mother working in a low-wage job, or having a criminal conviction that limits your possibilities for finding formal employment, or being disabled and living on a meager disability benefit—all of these make it difficult to meet rent, which can get you evicted, making it harder to find a place to live, which could cost you a job or make it difficult to find a better one, and so on. We know that stable housing is fundamental to getting ahead. In order to address inequality, we have to address inequalities in housing policy, including eviction.
Kevin Seney is a 1st year MPP student at the College of William & Mary and an Associate Editor of the William & Mary Policy Review.