A lifetime of personal belongings piled on the curb or crammed in a car. Locks changed by the landlord. A sheriff forcing tenants from their home. Across the United States, millions of people receive notices of eviction every year, more than one every nine seconds — and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic, with all its economic upheaval.
Evictions are life-altering catastrophes with impacts that extend far beyond the immediate loss of a home. They are often the catalyst for a chain reaction of calamities, pushing tenants into poverty and homelessness, disrupting education and employment, and spurring a host of health problems.
"Eviction is an incredibly traumatizing experience that affects every aspect of a person's life," says Emily Benfer, a housing and health law expert at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. "Nothing good comes out of eviction."
Just a decade ago, evictions were an understudied area of social research. But now, growing interest from law, social science, and public health experts has led to a clearer understanding of their devastating fallout, as well as effective approaches to preventing them.
The route to the streets
The true extent of the eviction problem was unknown until 2018, when sociologist Matt Desmond of Princeton University launched Eviction Lab, the first national eviction database. By collecting records from across the country, Eviction Lab revealed that at least 3.7 million evictions were filed in 2016. The most common reason was that the tenant had fallen behind on rent — and often, the shortfall was just a few hundred dollars, according to the lab's data. In Virginia, for example, half of evictions in 2016 were for less than $940. One in 10 was for less than $355.
"It might just be that someone's kid broke their arm on the playground and they had to take them to the ER, or the car broke down," says Alieza Durana, a media strategist for Eviction Lab. "And that set off a series of events that quickly became a poverty trap."
The impacts fall most heavily on marginalized communities, Durana says. Native American, Black, and Latino households, LGBTQ tenants, and tenants with disabilities are more likely to be extremely low-income renters, and evictions exacerbate existing inequities. In 17 states, Black women were evicted at twice the rate of white renters, the lab's data show.
Children, too, suffer disproportionately. Households with children are three times as likely to receive an eviction notice, Desmond's team found. Landlords may believe that children damage property, disturb neighbors, or bring scrutiny from child welfare agencies, Desmond's team says, and thus discriminate against families. Nearly 15 percent of children are estimated to experience an eviction by the age of 15.
Most families have less than $2,000 in savings that they can draw on after a job loss or other crisis. Almost a quarter have no savings at all. As a result, even a tiny setback like a child's broken arm can lead to missed rent payments and start the slide to eviction.
COVID-19 is likely to make the country's eviction crisis even worse. Roughly 21 million people were already struggling to scrape rent together before the pandemic hit. Now, with unemployment at record highs, only a temporary government moratorium on evictions keeps many from losing their homes.
"Many of these households were already living one paycheck away from disaster," says Corianne Payton Scally, a researcher who studies affordable rental housing at the Urban Institute, a think tank in Washington D.C. focused on economic and social policy. "With COVID-19, that disaster has struck."
Homelessness, then years of struggle
Evictions are a leading cause of homelessness not just immediately, but for years afterward. Evictions stay on tenants' rental history as a "scarlet E," Benfer says, and disqualify them from receiving public housing. Landlords often use tenant screening services and can refuse to rent to tenants with eviction filings, even overturned ones.
In one study in Milwaukee, Desmond's team found that evicted tenants who are able to find new homes tend to relocate to poorer, higher-crime neighborhoods. That may be because, under pressure from the eviction, they move into the first affordable apartment they can find. "From there, it's really hard to climb back up," Benfer says.
In another study, low-income, working renters in Milwaukee who lost their homes were also up to 20 percent more likely to later lose their jobs. Evictions may consume workers' time, force them to relocate farther away, or leave them homeless, causing them to miss work or be late. Increased stress could also lead to mistakes on the job, Desmond's team says.
Household income has not kept pace with rising rents over the past two decades. Most low-income families now spend at least half their income on housing.
Stressful changes for children
Children suffer from the sudden change of home and school. "Your home is the place in your life where you're supposed to be able to exercise control," says Jim Dunn, an urban geographer at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. "And where that's lacking, it's going to be a source of stress." Unstable or unhealthy housing conditions can harm child development, from physical health to communication skills to maturity, as Dunn described in the 2020 Annual Review of Public Health.
In one study of 20 large U.S. cities, young children who experienced housing instability were more likely to have behavior problems that could interfere with their school readiness. And a national study of children in the welfare system found that housing insecurity threatened their cognitive development. Older students who switch schools due to housing instability are also more likely to struggle academically, experience behavior problems, drop out of high school, and earn less as adults.
Indeed, losing your home can be harmful to all aspects of health, researchers are now finding. In a study of more than 2,600 mothers and their children across the country, Desmond's team found that those who had been evicted in the last year were more likely to report poor health for themselves and their children.
In the two years after an eviction filing, the probability of being hospitalized for a mental condition increased by at least 68 percent, and emergency room use increased by 70 percent, according to an analysis of New York hospital and housing court data. Another study following 22,000 Swedish households in the wake of the global financial crisis a decade ago revealed that people who had received an eviction filing were four times more likely to commit suicide.
A new focus on prevention
As the lifelong impact of evictions becomes better known, advocates and experts are turning their attention to how to keep tenants housed. No single intervention will end all evictions, Benfer points outs, and a combination of financial, social, and legal strategies is most effective.
Given that many evictions involve shortfalls of less than a month's rent, emergency rental assistance could make a big difference. Longer-term fixes include expanding federal rental assistance, such as Section 8 housing choice vouchers. Currently, only one in four eligible low-income renting households receives any federal rental assistance, and the waiting list can span decades.
Some state and local governments have also tried bolstering safety nets in order to reduce eviction rates. For example, Kalamazoo County, Michigan, began an eviction diversion program in 2010 to offer emergency rental assistance and connect at-risk renters with social services, community health providers, nonprofits, and legal aid. These organizations help tenants to address the circumstances that led to their housing crisis, whether it was unsustainable rent costs, a temporary loss of finances, or some other bind. The program also involves outreach to landlords, stressing the benefits of avoiding costly eviction proceedings. In 2013, the program prevented more than a thousand adults and children from losing their homes. A similar program was implemented statewide during the pandemic.
Legal aid for tenants may also help. One two-decade-old study that randomly assigned lawyers to some tenants in New York City's housing court found that those who were assigned lawyers were only about a quarter as likely to have an eviction warrant issued. Yet approximately 90 percent of tenants appearing in eviction court do not have lawyers, while 90 percent of landlords do.
"Work needs to be done in balancing out the power dynamic between renters and landlords," says Mary Pattillo, a sociologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Right-to-counsel laws helped reduce evictions 11 percent in the first year after implementation in parts of New York City in 2017. San Francisco and Newark, New Jersey, have since passed their own right-to-counsel laws.
But none of the interventions solve the root causes of the eviction crisis — a shortage of affordable housing and a lack of living wages, Pattillo says. Not a single county in the country has enough rental housing for low-income residents. Most low-income renting families spend at least half of their income on housing and utilities, while nearly a quarter spend more than 70 percent.
Back in 2013, Pattillo examined the debate on whether housing is a commodity or a right in the Annual Review of Sociology. Her own view is that it's a right — and that treating it as such could go a long way to solving the eviction crisis.
"Shelter," she says, "is a human necessity."