- Matthew Desmondprofessor of sociology at Princeton University, where he runs the Eviction Lab.
A new project called the Eviction Lab examined more than 80 million eviction records going back to 2000 and found that in 2016 alone there were nearly four evictions filed every minute. More than 6,300 Americans are evicted every day. Studies show that eviction can lead to a host of other problems, including poor health, depression, job loss and shattered childhoods. Having an eviction on one’s record also makes it far more difficult to find decent housing in the future. Now the Eviction Lab’s database is being shared with the public in an interactive website that allows people to better track and understand evictions in their own communities. We speak with Matthew Desmond, who runs the project at Princeton University, where he is a professor of sociology. It grew out of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we end today’s show looking at a new project called the Eviction Lab, that looked at more than 80 million eviction records going back to 2000 and revealed, in 2016 alone, there were nearly four evictions filed every minute—more than 6,300 Americans who are evicted every day. Studies show being thrown out of one’s home can lead to a host of other problems, including poor health, depression, job loss, shattered childhoods. Having an eviction on one’s record also makes it far more difficult to find decent housing in the future.
Well, now the Eviction Lab’s database is being shared with the public in an interactive website that allows people to better track and understand evictions in their own communities. To learn more, we go to Washington, D.C. We’re joined by its founder, Matthew Desmond, who runs the project at Princeton University, where he’s professor of sociology. It grew out of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.
We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Professor Desmond. Can you talk about this first national data set of court-ordered evictions in America? You have gone through, seven researchers, more than 80 million records. Talk about how many people are being evicted. What are the causes? What are the solutions?
MATTHEW DESMOND: So, we know, in 2016, which is the most recent data we have, because it’s comprehensive, there were about 2.3 million people that received an eviction judgment. That’s a giant number. And let’s just try to put that in perspective. That’s twice the number of people that get arrested for drugs every year in America, for example. We heard a lot about the opioid crisis last year, and for good reason. There were 63,000 overdose deaths last year. There were about 2.3 million people evicted from their homes. So, for every overdose, tragic overdose, there’s 36 people that receive an eviction judgment. This is a problem of colossal importance and scope, and it’s affecting not only big cities and expensive cities on the coast, but it’s affecting midsize cities and small towns all across America.
AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can talk about eviction itself as a cause of poverty?
MATTHEW DESMOND: Right. So we’re in the middle of a housing crisis. Incomes have flatlined. Housing costs have soared. And most people that need housing assistance don’t get it. So the majority of poor working families today are spending at least 50 percent of their income on housing costs. One in four are spending over 70 percent of their income just on rent and utilities. So we’ve pushed millions of families to the brink of eviction.
So, what does that do to a family? Well, it causes loss. Families lose not only their homes, but children often lose their schools. You often lose your things, which are piled on the sidewalk or taken by movers. And eviction comes with an official mark or a blemish, and that can prevent you from moving into safe housing in a good neighborhood. It can also prevent you from moving into public housing. So, after families are evicted and they go through a spell of homelessness, they often relocate into worse housing, into worse neighborhoods. Eviction can actually cause you to lose your job. And for those viewers out there who have been evicted, you know exactly why this is. It’s such a hard, consuming event. You can make mistakes at work, lose your footing there.
And then there’s health effects, like depression. We have a study that shows that moms who get evicted experience high rates of depression two years later. So, you add that all up, and I think we have to conclude that eviction isn’t just a condition of poverty, it’s a cause of poverty, too.
AMY GOODMAN: So talk about the numbers, Matthew Desmond. I mean, it is hard to understand. Four every minute?
MATTHEW DESMOND: Four evictions are filed every minute in America. So the number of evictions filed in 2016 is equivalent to the number of foreclosure starts in 2009 at the height of the crisis. So it’s as if renters are facing foreclosure-level crisis evictions every single year. And this is not just a problem that’s in New York or San Francisco or Boston—cities we often talk about as being hotbeds of the affordable housing crisis. If you go to Wilmington, Delaware, one in 13 renter families are evicted every year. If you go to Tucson, Arizona, or Tulsa, Oklahoma, Albuquerque, New Mexico, you see very high eviction rates. And so, it means that the affordable housing crisis is much more deep and spread out than we originally thought it was.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to turn to a clip of a demonstration last October, organized by Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, to protest against Blackstone Group, a massive private equity firm that’s become one of the nation’s biggest landlords.
PROTESTER 1: Blackstone Group has long owned imitation homes.
PROTESTER 2: Right on!
PROTESTER 1: They are the ones of the investors backed by the same Wall Street banks—
PROTESTER 2: That’s right!
PROTESTER 1: —that caused foreclosure crisis.
PROTESTER 2: That’s right!
PROTESTER 3: That’s right!
PROTESTER 1: Blackstone Group purchased thousands of foreclosed homes at a cheap price and began to rent them out.
PROTESTER 2: That’s right! That’s right! Crooks!
PROTESTER 1: You will hear today that this business model is brutal!
PROTESTER 2: Very brutal!
PROTESTER 1: These companies are about raising rent to the maximum that they can.
PROTESTER 2: Making money!
PROTESTER 1: These companies charge tenants outrageous fees, like a $100 fee to renew your lease.
PROTESTER 4: Boo!
PROTESTER 2: Shame on Blackstone!
PROTESTER 1: These companies invest as little as they can to get away with in maintenance, which means some serious health and safety problems often go unaddressed.
AMY GOODMAN: So, if you could talk about, for example, the Blackstone Group, these kind of organized protests making what often is invisible visible, Matthew Desmond?
MATTHEW DESMOND: So, when I spent—I spend a lot of time with tenants facing eviction, and I’ve seen dozens and dozens of evictions. And when I would go out with the sheriffs on eviction moves in 2009, 2010, I’d say, “What’s happening to you? Who’s evicting you?” And the tenant would have a very clear answer: “You know, Mr. Johnson’s evicting me. This is what happened.”
So, when I started going out on eviction moves in 2014, 2015, I’d ask a tenant, “You know, what’s happening? What brought you to this situation?” And their answers were very confused. They’d say, “Well, I got a letter from this company, and I sent my check there. They sent it back. They said my property is owned by another property.” So, it gave me the impression that property is flipping hands very quickly and maybe being consolidated in fewer hands in some cities.
We have ownership information for the eviction records, and we’re looking into that right now to give us a better sense of, you know, which properties are responsible for the most evictions. Are evictions concentrated in housing authorities, for example, or in larger or smaller landlords? These are questions we don’t really know yet.
AMY GOODMAN: A tenant has no right to an attorney in eviction court except in New York City? Is that right? Which just recently changed its laws.
MATTHEW DESMOND: That’s right. And this is surprising to a lot of people. You know, if I get arrested in this country for committing a criminal act, I have a right to an attorney, if I’m indigent. But no such right exists for families facing eviction. And so, you know, if you go all around the country and you sit in eviction court, which I invite your viewers to do if they haven’t done, you just see hundreds and hundreds of people coming in with zero attorneys and trying to defend themselves. Most tenants who get evicted, they don’t show up in court, because they know that they can’t afford an attorney, one will not be provided for them, and they have to face off often with their landlord’s attorney. You know, I have a Ph.D. I don’t know if I would go to eviction court if I had to face off with someone with a J.D. And so, many folks just don’t show up.
So, New York City has decided to change that. Just recently, they passed a right to counsel in housing court. That means every person that’s facing eviction in New York City will have a lawyer by their side. I think that’s an incredibly effective move. It is investing resources upstream to prevent evictions so we don’t face the fallout from evictions downstream, in the face of rising homeless shelter costs or rising healthcare costs, these costs that we currently incur because of the crisis.
AMY GOODMAN: Are evictions going up?
MATTHEW DESMOND: They’re going up some places, and down other places. They have remained fairly constant over the last 15 years in America, as far as we can see. They certainly have gone up in a longer perspective. If you read history books, you know, you read accounts of evictions, and they were weird and rare and scandalous, and people used to protest them. And we went from a place where evictions were kind of an odd thing to a place where evictions are transforming the lives of low-income families and communities and being kind of commonplace in those areas of America.
AMY GOODMAN: And the number of evictions in red versus blue states, in rural versus city, and the racial connection, if there is one?
MATTHEW DESMOND: So, the legacy of racial discrimination in America is deeply connected to the eviction crisis. One of our big findings for the data that we’ve just released is the concentration of evictions in the Southeast, especially in counties that have large numbers of African Americans in them. And I think that this is deeply connected to our legacies of systematically dispossessing African Americans from the land, which is a history that goes from slavery all the way up to the recent subprime crisis. And I think that it’s hard to disentangle what we’re seeing in the present day from that very troubled past.
And the question of red states or blue states, or big cities or little ones, it really varies from state to state. And this is one thing that we’re trying to get after. A big thing that I heard when I was talking about my book on the road were from service workers and politicians that were working in rural communities and suburban communities, saying, “This is affecting my city, too, and my community. What do we know about it?” And our answer is, we didn’t know much, because we don’t have a national database of evictions, which, in and of itself, is pretty scandalous. I mean, imagine if we didn’t know how many Americans had cancer every year, for example. And so, what this database does is shine light on a problem that was in the dark, so we could say, “Look, it is in rural communities, and it is in suburban communities, too.”
AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Desmond, I want to thank you for being with us, runs the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, where he’s professor of sociology. His Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.
That does it for our show. Democracy Now!'s Juan González will be speaking Saturday in Boulder at 6 p.m. at the First Congregational Church and on Sunday at 2 p.m. in Denver at the Tattered Cover Bookstore. I'll be speaking in Lincoln, Nebraska, on April 20th. You can check our website for details, as well as our link to all the data from the Eviction Lab.
Democracy Now! is produced by Mike Burke, Renée Feltz, Deena Guzder, Nermeen Shaikh, Carla Wills. A very happy birthday to Joe Parker, a landmark birthday here.