Spotlight Exclusives

New Study Finds Families Are Most Threatened by Evictions

Peter Hepburn Peter Hepburn, posted on

Researchers at Princeton University’s Eviction Lab have long suspected that families were disproportionately impacted by evictions. But a new study by the Lab in conjunction with the U.S. Census Bureau has produced the first-ever documentation of just how stark the impact on families from eviction is. Children under 5 make up the largest group by age of those whose households have had an eviction filed against them, adding significant psychological, emotional, environmental and educational obstacles to their healthy development. Peter Hepburn, a Statistician and Quantitative Analyst at the Evictions Lab and one of the co-authors of the study, spoke with Spotlight recently about the results. The transcript of that conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Peter, tell us how this study came about?

This came about because at the Eviction Lab, we have been compiling millions of court records of eviction cases from across the United States. That has allowed us to understand this sort of geography of eviction across the U.S.—where these cases are concentrated, both between states, and then within states, which communities are most impacted. But the court records themselves offer really thin data, so that there’s not much that we actually collect about the households that are facing eviction in this country. When you look at a court record of an eviction case, you see the defendant, which is the renter in this case, you see their address, you see when they were filed against and in some cases, there’s the amount of how much back rent they owe.

But you don’t really know anything about them. And in Matt Desmond’s earlier work in Milwaukee, he had gone in and done this ethnographic field work of talking to people, following families as they were going through this. And two of the things that really came up over and over again in that work were that he was seeing a lot of Black women going through this process and he was seeing a lot of mothers going through this process—there were a lot of kids who were losing their homes. But the court records don’t allow us to see that, and we wanted to find a way where we could understand really who was being exposed to this problem.

It’s been several years now that we’ve been building out this collaboration with the Census Bureau that has allowed us to gain access to this additional range of data that just wouldn’t have been available otherwise. Through this partnership, we were able to match about 38 million eviction records to what are called Protected Identification Keys that the Census Bureau holds that allow us to see household responses to various surveys that the Census conducts, including the American Community Survey and the decennial census, which is what we rely on this study. When you have access to those data, you see things like what someone’s gender is, what their self-reported race and ethnicity is, and who else is living in those households. So, we suddenly see not just the person who is listed on the eviction case, but everybody else who’s living with them at that time.

And this is a national sample?

Yes. We have eviction data from across the United States. There are certainly states where we have more or less data, but we’re covering the full country and we’re also building on previous work that we did at the Lab, estimating the total number of households. We’re able to use those estimates of households affected to make our individual level estimates more precise.

And what’s the timeframe, Peter? And how does COVID and some of the eviction bans that came into play their factor in?

The study that just came out looks at the years 2007 to 2016, so it’s entirely pre-COVID. One of the slightly striking findings that doesn’t get a lot of attention is it that we just don’t see a lot of variation from year to year in the results, despite the fact that the great Recession is in the middle of this study period. It just wasn’t really that big of a crisis for homeowners, and it doesn’t seem to have affected the eviction rates all that much.

The work that we’ve done during the pandemic has demonstrated that eviction filings were cut dramatically in response to eviction moratoria, and thanks to emergency rental assistance. We have done some initial work trying to understand who was best protected as a function of those policies. And what we’ve seen is that the reductions in eviction filings were largest in some of the neighborhoods that are normally the hardest hit. So, especially low-income, majority Black neighborhoods were the places that saw the largest reductions. There are some good initial signals there, but I think there’s a lot more work to be done.

But at the same time, given the consistency of this data, you would assume that as those supports come off, it goes back to the same patterns.

Right. And that’s what we’re seeing in the eviction filing numbers overall is that right now we’ve returned to the status quo that we had before the pandemic basically. Some places are worse than they were.

So, talk a little bit about the top-line findings, and particularly this surprising notion that families are impacted more than anyone.

In terms of top-line findings, we find that about 7.6 million individuals are living in households that are threatened with eviction every single year. And of that 7.6 million people, about 40% are children—2.9 million people here are under the age of 18.

And were you surprised by that? Was that higher than you thought?

I mean, the scale of it is kind of shocking. Based on the previous research, we had come to believe that children were probably a risk factor for eviction. But the sheer number of kids whose housing stability is threatened every year is still startling and disturbing.

And I assume that there has been work on the psychological and educational impact on a kid of being evicted?

We know that going through an eviction is hard for everybody involved. For parents, that loss of a home can also can lead to job loss, can lead to negative effects on income. It increases the risk of homelessness and making use of homeless services. For kids, there have been findings on long-term negative health effects, such as increased exposure to environmental hazards.

For the whole family, eviction often sets off a chain of instability that follows. Once you get evicted, you need to find somewhere to live. And when you have an eviction on your record, it’s going to be that much harder to do that. And that means that you’re going to have to settle for worse housing in a worse neighborhood. And so, your kids are going to be more likely to be exposed to rundown housing conditions, more dangerous neighborhoods, just a whole host of factors that would adversely affect them.

And were there other surprising findings, either in terms of demographics or other factors?

We had done some previous work to try to estimate racial disparities in eviction, just based on those people whose names were listed in eviction filings. And so, we had a pretty good sense that Black renters were disproportionately targeted for eviction and that they were at higher risk of eviction, but we didn’t know how precise those estimates were. And what we’ve found here is that we were underestimating the scale of the problem, and that really, Black renters are facing a shockingly high share of all eviction filings in this country. We’re talking about over half of all eviction filings are against Black individuals despite Black renters making up less than 20% of all renters.

And also more in single-parent households?

We don’t have breakdowns on single-parent households specifically. What we have found in previous work, and I think is backed up here, is that women are more likely to be listed on an eviction filing than men. Men may still be living in the household, but they’re not necessarily the ones against whom the case is brought. They’re still facing housing instability, but not having the mark of the eviction on the record still means that that’s not something that’s going to be following you down the road.

What comes next? Is there follow-up work that you want to do?

There’s a ton of follow-up work we want to do here. This is just the first study to come out of this partnership with the Census Bureau. But having access to those data means that we have available just a much richer picture of these households and these individuals and what happens to them over time. We’re hoping to use these data to develop a better sense of both the causes of eviction and the consequences.


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