Kicked to the Curb: How Eviction Can Make Poverty’s Impacts Even Worse

Danish artist Erik Henningsen’s painting, “Eviction.” (1892). Collection of the National Gallery of Denmark.

Matthew Desmond won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for “Evicted,” his devastating and densely researched narrative of those who profit from — and those whose lives are indelibly affected by — the business of forcefully removing residents from their homes for non-payment of rent, among other infractions. As Desmond, a professor of sociology now at Princeton University, explains, not all evictions even pass through the court system. Many are handled informally, as landlords tell tenants they’ve had enough and it’s time to go. Formal evictions create a paper trail, however, and on the research side give us a sense of how frequently this paperwork is filed, allowing us to compare parts of the country against one another.

Evictions can traumatize families, causing their situations to go from bad to worse across many indicators, from social and emotional health to becoming the last stage on a path to family homelessness. An eviction can prevent families from benefitting from public housing, and affect their credit rating for years, making future renting situations difficult — even if the eviction were for other reasons than falling behind in rent. The impacts can be so stressful that even years later, “families who experienced forced removal from housing report significantly higher levels of material hardship and depressive symptoms,” according to Desmond, by now the nation’s leading eviction expert.

Unlike much other data about individuals and families, such as that collected by the every-ten-years U.S. Census and estimated yearly or every five years by the American Community Survey, eviction data has historically been hard to come by, because it’s held privately not publicly — and has to be laboriously collected at individual courthouses. Consequently, while there may have been businesses collecting this data for commercial purposes, very little of it was making its way to the public — except occasionally via advocacy groups in some parts of the country who were assembling their own versions of this data, including informal evictions, by reaching out to clients who were affected.

Desmond did the bulk of his eviction research in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area — and because of the dearth of comparable material said he was unclear at the time whether Milwaukee was any strong contender for “Eviction Capital of the U.S.,” given that it was the only site he had really had access to. Later on, after he received the Pulitzer prize, he set up a sociological research firm, Eviction Lab, now housed at Princeton, which has underwritten the collection of much more eviction data across the country, enabling us to finally compare rates. As it turns out, Milwaukee is not particularly high though it is now, thanks to Desmond, quite well-documented. But other patterns emerge.

Eviction rates across the U.S., using EvictionLab data, with Texas and Bexar County highlighted.

One is that the Southeast is the clear leader in evictions, with some of the highest eviction rates in the nation. The East Coast, between the Mid-Atlantic and the Southeast, is highest for eviction filing rates — paperwork filed that may or may not result in actual evictions.

L-R Hubs for high eviction rates in the U.S., as well as high eviction filing rates. The Southeast and the Mid-Atlantic predominate. Source: EvictionLab.

Thanks to the publicly available data provided by the Eviction Lab, we can also narrow in on a local area and see where it falls, provided data has been collected.

Source: EvictionLab.

We’ve written quite a bit lately about San Antonio, Texas and Bexar County, where San Antonio is located, so it made sense to look at its data as an example. (You can replicate much of this for other parts of the country.)

In San Antonio, “affordable housing” has become a hot topic lately — the subject of a Mayor’s Housing Policy Task Force, which recently concluded its yearlong work with a series of housing recommendations, as well as a now-annual Mayor’s Housing Summit, to be held this year on September 17 and 18. How and why eviction folds into the ongoing conversation about affordable housing may still be needed.

Unexpectedly, San Antonio, with a population of approximately 1.4 million, is #5 among large cities in the U.S. in terms of sheer number of people evicted on an annual basis (Houston is #3) — but it doesn’t even rise to place in the top 20 in terms of high evicting rates, which are figured based on population. (In fact, it’s #68.)

Instead, the much smaller Killeen, Texas — less than 10 percent the population size of San Antonio, and where the Army’s Fort Hood is located — is highest in Texas by eviction rate, and #12 in the nation. (The maps Eviction Lab provide allow you to hone in on where high eviction rates are within Killeen, or any other city or region about which data is available.)

Source: EvictionLab.

In the above chart it’s important to notice that rent burden, a factor associated with inability to pay rent and hence eviction, is roughly the same for San Antonio, Bexar County and Texas — despite varied eviction rates. (San Antonio’s and Bexar County’s are roughly parallel, and neither are much like Texas’.) For more data visualizations about eviction in Texas counties, based on EvictionLab’s data, click here.

Tableau data visualization by the author, using EvictionLab’s data.

San Antonio accounts for about 75 percent of Bexar County’s population, so a quick comparison of the two, using EvictionLab’s results, show that they are roughly on par — and apparently stay on par — with each other over time, in terms of eviction rates, but they are quite different from Texas as a whole.

Source: EvictionLab.
Source: EvictionLab.

27 Households a Day

As EvictionLab’s figures indicate, San Antonio evicts approximately 27 households a day. Why this matters is a case of needing to fill in the blanks.

While we have customarily, perhaps unconsciously, associated eviction with job loss — you lose your ability to pay for housing, so you end up losing your housing —urban sociologists including Desmond and Kathryn Edin have some pointed observations that may increase our understanding of the problem.

More than 20 years ago, Edin and Laura Lein published a book called “Making Ends Meet: How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low-Wage Work,” which Edin says is the single most popular book academic press Russell Sage ever published. For the book, they interviewed 400 low-income women in four sites across the country — Boston, Chicago, Charleston, South Carolina and San Antonio. All four of the sites had unique attributes, and residents in San Antonio reported problems with low-quality public housing and low wages. But eviction for non-payment of rents affected residents in any of the four sites, averaging about eight percent — or one in 12 working mothers and their families in the study per year. Edin and Lein’s work focused on all the challenges low-income women faced in these cities, not just eviction. Desmond’s work, focused initially just on Milwaukee’s low-income population, centered exclusively on eviction. What he found, especially through his academic research, may go far towards explaining how eviction folds into the affordable housing matrix.

Funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, as part of their “How Housing Matters” initiative, Desmond undertook broader research into how involuntary displacement of renters in Milwaukee happened. Because the term “eviction” can be a loaded concept for some people to acknowledge, Desmond constructed a series of questions to survey low-income residents about the reason(s) why they left a residence over the past two years, whether by choice or as an involuntary move, including eviction.

What his research found was that fully one in eight renters in Milwaukee had experienced eviction or another forced move in the previous two years. And when residents moved, they were typically experiencing downward mobility — moving to a worse situation, in a worse neighborhood, often with higher poverty, higher crime, and remarkably, usually paying no less in rent than where they had moved from. Single mothers, people of color, and families with children seemed to experience higher rates of eviction. And eviction increases geographic mobility, already implicated in students’ low educational attainment and ultimately low lifetime earning power. (For more on this, see “Moving On: Why Poverty Means You Move More, and Why That Matters.”)

A surprising impact of eviction can be job loss, not just the other way around — job loss predating eviction, according to Matthew Desmond, a pre-eminent eviction scholar.

Psychosocial Impacts on Children and Families

Desmond’s academic research is full of striking observations that contribute to a better understanding of eviction. In “Unaffordable America: Poverty, housing and eviction” he writes, “Two-thirds of poor renters today do not benefit from federal housing programs.” In 2013, he explains, one percent of the nation’s renting poor lived in rent-controlled units; 15 percent in public housing; and 17 percent received some form of government voucher, often reducing rent. “But the remaining 67 percent received nothing.”

These often working poor are spending more than half of their income on housing costs — and one quarter are spending an astonishing 70 percent or more on housing, according to Desmond. We’ve recently written about “energy burden” and the need for utility assistance for those in deep poverty. Desmond connects the dots there too. In a different paper, also produced as part of his MacArthur foundation-funded research, he mentions how rising utility costs contribute to increases in housing cost burdens.

Housing cost burden is a concept whereby ideally housing costs take up no more than 30 percent of an individual’s budget, with anything more pushing you into the “burdened” range. But as wages have stagnated and housing costs (and utility costs) have continued to increase, more and more people have found themselves housing cost-burdened, hence the need for more affordable housing.

Just as with utility assistance, which remarkably can be linked to better maternal mental health, we can find in the research literature various ways that eviction affects individuals’ and families’ health and wellbeing.

A quote from Matthew Desmond in an interview about his work.

Some take-aways from Desmond’s and other’s research:

  • Residential instability creates other forms of instability — in families, schools and communities — “compromising life chances of adults and children.”
  • Families with children are at greater risk of housing discrimination and eviction. In fact, Desmond suggets that “children do not shield families from eviction, but rather they often expose them to it.” (You’d have to read his work to see why that is, but ihart has to do with larger families create more nuisances for landlords, who are eager to get rid of them in favor of smaller families, or ideally childless couples.)
  • Job loss can predate eviction, but eviction — with its stress and the concentration at work difficulties it creates — can also be the reason for job loss, further exacerbating an individual’s or family’s difficulties.
  • Eviction is negatively associated with mental health. In the year following eviction, mothers are 20 percent more likely to report depression that their non-evicted counterparts, according to the national Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study.
  • Eviction also increases a family’s material hardship, which in turn affects their health and wellbeing. (See previous article for more on this.)
  • And low-income women of color, including single mothers, already experiencing a high proportion of hardships, are particularly at risk for eviction.
“We know very little about the effections of eviction and other forms of involuntary displacement on children and adults’ physical and mental health, material hardship, economic well-being and social support,” writes Desmond. “We know equally little about how forced mobility affects neighborhoods and schools. These questions remain unanswered even as the need to answer them grows more pressing with the rapid decline of affordable housing.”

Editor’s note: If you want to read more of the articles in this series, they’re curated at www.UnpackingPoverty.org. For a more in-depth data visualization about eviction in Texas counties, based on EvictionLab data, click here.