The wonderful fivethirtyeight.com, which many of us obsessively check multiple times a day for its magnificent (and frightening) election projection results, has just put up a very important article on the under-counting of the eviction problem. The title tells it all: How We Undercounted Evictions By Asking The Wrong Questions. It has to be great that this is now getting public attention through a website very popular with the policy and political folks. (Overall, this is the 188th most popular website in the US. That puts it slightly less visited than American Airlines and T-Mobile, but better than icloud.)
As the post explains:
Millions of Americans are forced to leave their homes every year, and experts see housing instability as a major contributor to a host of other problems that poor households face. But getting more precise than “millions” is impossible because of a lack of good data. The federal government does a poor job of tracking evictions, and the sources that do exist, such as court records, are incomplete and lack detail.
Then the really good news, describing a door to door survey project that aims show how to fill the gap.
But that may be starting to change. The survey that Williams was part of, the Milwaukee Area Renters Study (MARS), may be the first rigorous, detailed look at eviction in a major city. Interviewers like Williams spoke to about 1,100 Milwaukee-area tenants between 2009 and 2011, asking them a battery of questions on their housing history. The survey has already fundamentally changed researchers’ understanding of eviction, revealing the problem to be far larger than previously understood. Now the survey is going national: The Census Bureau recently agreed to add some of the MARS questions to its massive, biennial housing survey.
As to methodology and results:
Informal evictions were twice as common (48 percent of all forced moves). In these off-the-books evictions, a landlord might, for example, give a tenant $200 to move out by Thursday. Or they might take the door off. Regardless, it happens without a legal paper trail. (To round out the other reasons, the MARS survey found that about 23 percent of forced moves were because of landlord foreclosure and 5 percent because of a building condemnation.)
No matter the reason, the MARS researchers found that when people were forced to move, they often didn’t see it as an eviction. So instead of just asking, “Have you ever been evicted?” the MARS survey posed a roster of questions about a tenant’s housing history — when and where they had lived and why they left. This “moving module” was the centerpiece of the MARS study. By asking more than 250 questions, interviewers like Williams gathered data on every place a respondent lived for at least 30 days over the previous two years. Small wording details made a big difference. Rather than “Where do you live?” people were asked, “Where do you spend most nights?”
In the aggregate:
In the two years before being surveyed, more than 1 in 8 Milwaukee renters were forced to move, whether because of a formal or an informal eviction, foreclosure or condemnation. Also, Desmond’s follow-up research using MARS data has found a strong connection between eviction and subsequent residential instability, even after factoring in the tenant’s income and race. Eviction is linked to substandard housing conditions. And eviction also has serious negative health consequences, particularly for children.
As to the involvement of Census and HUD:
“It’s fair to say we have not collected good data in the past on evictions,” said Shawn Bucholtz, the director of the division that runs the biennial survey at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which administers the survey in conjunction with the Census Bureau. The results of the 2015 survey — which will be released next month — won’t contain much data on evictions, but starting with the 2017 survey, things will change. That’s because HUD is adopting the MARS questions “pretty much verbatim,” Bucholtz said. “It was a pretty easy decision to make.”
Its just impossible to overstate the impact act starting to incorporate true access to justice need and other measures into the census and beyond. I will soon be blogging about an overall analytic model that might measure access to justice using numbers like this as the start of the analysis, and then moving through the process all the way to compliance with orders, and then impact on outcomes such as economic mobility. Looks like we should start with housing security.