Eviction Statistics are Tricky, so Be Careful of First Impressions

Eviction Labs. Chart of cities with highest eviction rates.

Detroit    I was scratching my head.  Everything the ACORN Home Savers Campaign knew from our experiences in building committees in cities around the country and talking to renters and land purchase contract signers indicated that evictions and the threat of evictions were soaring.  In fact, in no small measure that was what was driving families into the hands of often predatory contracts.  Yet, this week looking at the national database from the Eviction Lab directed by Matthew Desmond, now a Princeton professor, but earlier well-known for his powerful book, Evicted, about life for lower income families desperate for affordable housing in Milwaukee, it almost seemed to indicate the opposite of what we were seeing in the field.  What’s up with this?

First, let’s look at the huge database from the Eviction Lab.  Many states are actually included on their site, like Texas and Louisiana for example, that were excluded in the mapping report in The New York Times.  What’s surprising is the charting.  Over and over again, state by state, and nationally, the trend line on evictions decreases after a peak in the several years after the real estate bubble popped in 2008 and foreclosures were mammoth.  Furthermore, these numbers are mirrored in the Eviction Lab’s reporting on state levels as well.  If you dig deeper and look at specific cities, they are still trending higher, but the data is an aggregate, so the horror of evictions is actually diluted on average as the geography expands.

Perhaps that is statistically true, but it isn’t really helpful or a reflection of reality.  The Times map was in some ways a correction, because it showed county-level numbers that were rising or falling.  The actual Eviction Lab numbers though would seem to arm the industry and landlords with an argument that, “hey, it’s no big deal.”

This is part of the false truth of big data.  Only the numbers that are officially reported can be crunched.  Most evictions and apartment abandonment are never reported.  The Census Bureau only agreed in 2017 to begin assembling counts that could create a national database.  A similar problem exists in the shadowy world of land contracts where there is also little accurate data and less accurate reporting, and where the Census Bureau inexplicably stopped counting during the Obama years.  There is every indication that the reported numbers are only the tip of the iceberg.  Landlords and Desmond know this regardless of the Eviction Lab database.

City Lab for example in a report six months ago found what we are seeing.  As they indicate,

“A new report from Apartment List aims to more accurately estimate the scope of the population at risk of eviction, building on data from its 8 million users, plus answers to 41,000 surveys on rental security. The scope, they found, is wide, and growing: One in five renters recently struggled or were unable to pay their rent, and 3.7 million renters nationwide have experienced an eviction in their lifetime as a renter.”

City Lab quotes from Desmond’s own 2016 work saying,

According to data collected in Milwaukee by Matthew Desmond, author of the Pulitzer-winning 2016 book Evicted, more than one in eight renters in that city experienced a forced move between 2009 and 2011. Only 24 percent of them were due to formal evictions. Another 48 percent were informal—instances where the landlords offered money for tenants to leave, or they removed doors from their hinges, or the tenants themselves got up and left.

If the same ratios held that would indicate only about one-quarter of evictions were formal, and it is still likely higher, especially in the South where even the Eviction Lab found rising levels and reporting is laxer and incomes even lower, then the national eviction rates would be closer to 12-13% than the 3+% that the Eviction Lab was reporting on formal evictions nationally.  Let the data be a wakeup call rather than a guide.  Evictions are soaring especially in lower income and racially diverse and minority areas.  This is a national crisis, so the numbers can’t be massaged to make them look any better, especially while so many are fighting for real solutions for tenants.

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National Eviction Crisis Finally in the Headlines

New Orleans    In the ACORN Home Savers Campaign we’ve learned a lot about the contemporary issues for lower income families struggling with the potentially predatory nature of land contracts as a route to home ownership, but in doing the organizing we have been constantly confronted with the reality that the real trigger for forcing people into these arrangements is the shortage of affordable rental units and the soaring eviction rates.  Thanks to a mammoth data project spearheaded by Matthew Desmond, author of the critically important book, Evicted, in 2017, and now a sociologist at Princeton, we now have some snapshots at how broadly distributed this crisis is in various parts of the country.

Desmond and his team looked at 83 million property records, and where the data was accessible, they found over 900,000 records of evictions.  His book focused on families in Milwaukee.  In truth the rates are high in that city and many other urban corridors, but they don’t lead this terrible league.

A map in the New York Times demonstrated the horror that lower income tenants are facing particularly in the Southeast and Midwest.  The majority of counties in South Carolina were in the highest percentile with Columbia the capital ranking number eight in the top ten cities in the country with the highest rates of eviction at 8.2% and North Charleston, South Carolina claiming the dubious title of number one with a rate that doubled Columbia’s at 16.5%.  North Carolina was hardly an improvement with most of its counties in the dark zones as well.  Virginia was right there in the bad zone alongside the Carolinas.  Greensboro, North Carolina was their only city with over 100,000 population in the top ten at number seven, while Virginia scored across the board with Richmond in the second slot with an 11.4% eviction rate, Hampton in third place at 10.5%, Newport News in fourth with 10.2%, Norfolk in sixth with 8.7%, and Chesapeake in the tenth spot with 7.9%.

Add northwestern Alabama counties as well as Mississippi counties south of Memphis, in the Delta, and along the Gulf Coast, and if you’re a lower income tenant you need to leave Dixie behind.  Statistics weren’t available, probably because they were either not recorded or not accessible online in Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas, but looking at the map in Oklahoma, I’d put money on the fact that they would give the rest of the south a hard run in the terrible eviction rate sweepstakes.  Tenants shouldn’t move to the Midwest though either.  Michigan is part of the new south in this sense and West Virginia and parts of Indiana and Ohio were ugly as well.  Warren, Michigan managed to make the top ten list of evictor cities with an 8.1% rate for the ninth spot.

Everyone knows that these numbers are an undercount.  Tenants falling behind often just move.  Landlords are able to evict far more tenants without legal action just with a note on the door or a call for the last month’s rent to be paid.  In some states the law encourages court evictions because predatory landlords can lard up fees and fines by using the court as their collector.  Federal Reserve studies have indicated that eviction rates in corporate properties put Atlanta in the lead with an eviction rate over 22% and Detroit, Memphis, and similar cities relative pikers in corporate evictions at over 8%.

So, the data is now under-girding what organizers find daily on the doors.  That’s good news.  Whether or not anyone, high or low, is willing to try and do something about supporting lower income families in affordable rental housing either under law or public policy is a longshot though.

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