The Cracks in the Eviction Lab Wall are Undercounting the Crisis

Anti-Eviction Mapping Project

New Orleans   When Princeton’s Eviction Lab came out with their national report on many jurisdictions court records of evictions, we had positive things to say about the project, but we were skeptical.  The report seemed to undercount the experience in the community of ACORN Home Savers Campaign.  A critical flaw seemed to be the very fact that only actual adjudicated procedures were part of the dataset, ignoring the vast number of informal evictions and pressured departures that are more common than court filings.

I was scratching my head, as I noted then, because Matthew Desmond, the prize-winning author of Evicted and founder of the Eviction Lab knew better.  In his book he had used a small informal survey of forced and informal evictions that was many times higher than what he was now reporting.  The actual stories from Milwaukee that were the backbone of the book’s attraction also highlighted the ways that high rent and bad conditions kept lower income tenants constantly moving between tenancy and homelessness in order to keep one step ahead of the landlord.

An article in Shelterforce by eight veterans of tenant and housing activism along with extensive experience in data collection called “Eviction Lab Misses the Mark” details that there was a bonfire beneath the smoke I was smelling.  Their point-by-point critique is so devastating that it calls into question whether the data from Eviction Lab is a tool for landlords and policy apologists, rather than a step forward in looking at the impact of soaring evictions on impoverished communities.

Among the points the authors make are these:

  • The Lab resisted collaboration with established data centers from housing activist groups by not sharing policy goals, protocols to protect tenants and confidentiality of data, and offering fair attribution for assistance, much less being willing to pay for the time and trouble of acquisition of the data sets to other nonprofits.
  • The Lab instead in known cases contracted with private business groups involved in “tenant screening” for landlords paying one such group in California over $100,000 to assemble data for the Lab.
  • Where data had been rigorously collected in the community in places like San Francisco, Eviction Lab’s figures undercounted the reality by 50%!
  • Where the Eviction Lab performs a service by trying to establish a national baseline, they fall short in falling to integrate local regulations that impact and potentially distort their numbers, retarding policy changes for the poor, rather than advancing them.

The authors tell one horrific story where tenant groups and others paid $20,000 for Desmond to come to Portland, Oregon to speak on evictions.  The groups were trying to advance a campaign they were waging to replace no-cause evictions in favor a just-cause eviction policy.  They had already won some relief in extending notice up to 90 days even under existing policy.  Because Oregon allows no-cause evictions without court filings, the Eviction Lab figures were drastically undercounting the reality on the ground.  Desmond refused to listen to explanations of flaws in the Lab’s numbers when he was there, and in defending the erroneous numbers from the lab, actually complicated the authorities saying that the fabricated numbers proved they “were doing something right” and naysaying whether no-cause evictions were even a problem.

Hey, anyone can flub up and miss the nuances of local situations when they are parachuted into town, but not even asking or listening, and then weighing in as an expert on something as serious as local policy prescriptions and housing conditions for lower-and-moderate income tenants facing fierce forces of gentrification, that’s a level of hubris that discolors not just the inadequate data and summary of the Eviction Lab, but the entire project.

Desmond and the Eviction Lab need to either get this right or get as far away from this field as possible.


Real Estate Wealth Taxes as a Anti-Gentrification Tool

New Orleans   Recently I listened to an interview with a prominent local developer on WAMF in New Orleans as he was asked about gentrification.  He tried to walk the line between his self-interest and progressive values.  He was against displacement on one hand, but he opposed inclusionary zoning that would require developers to create affordable units in their properties.  He claimed it would sacrifice three units for every one that it created without mentioning that most of the three units built would be for high-end customers.  He opposed a tax on developments that would fund affordable housing or homeless programs.  He claimed the city and state had no money, so the real solution to gentrification had to be federal.

In some ways his argument was breathtaking in its chutzpah.  He was claiming to believe that gentrification was in some ways a pejorative term for a natural process, while opposing displacement, protecting his self-interest, and at the same time presenting himself as an advocate of a national remedy.  Unsaid was the fact that given our Developer-in-Chief president and the current situation in Congress and HUD, the chance of a federal remedy is much less than that odds Vegas would give a snowball in hell.

Chuck Collins, director of the Program on Inequality at the Institute for Policy Studies, in a commentary in YesMagazine made a much stronger, more realistic case for local action, saying:

Municipalities should move with due haste to enact high-end real estate transfer taxes, requirements for the disclosure of beneficial ownership, and regulations aimed at the disruptive impact absentee-owner-investors are having on our cities.

Collins doesn’t claim this will stop gentrification but makes the case that it will discourage “rapacious global capital” from exacerbating displacement and artificially increasing ownership and rental prices by discouraging the kind of offshore wealth capital “parking” that has been so destructive in Vancouver and London.  As an example, he cites the situation in San Francisco, another favor of “ultra-high net worth individuals” with over $30 million in assets, where voters passed a high-end real estate transfer tax on residential and commercial properties with $5 million price tags and higher.  According to Collins, the tax…

“…the tax expected to generate $44 million a year, which has been allocated to fund free tuition for residents at San Francisco Community College and help pay for the city’s tree maintenance program.”

That’s not the same as building affordable housing, but it’s moving in the right direction.  Furthermore, there’s no reason it could not leverage other funds to construct affordable housing or provide city-based rent subsidies.

We can’t wait for Washington.  We have to act now, and whether a real estate tax on $5 million or $1 million or whatever, if such a tax builds local equity by creating affordable housing or other programs that fight displacement, it’s worth a fight.