In 83 Million Eviction Records, a Sweeping and Intimate New Look at Housing in America
by: Emily Badger and Quoctrung Bui
RICHMOND, Va. – Before the first hearings on the morning docket, the line starts to clog the lobby of the John Marshall Courthouse. No cellphones are allowed inside, but many of the people who’ve been summoned don’t learn that until they arrive. “Put it in your car,” the sheriff’s deputies suggest at the metal detector. That advice is no help to renters who have come by bus. To make it inside, some tuck their phones in the bushes nearby.
This courthouse handles every eviction in Richmond, a city with one of the highest eviction rates in the country, according to new data covering dozens of states and compiled by a team led by the Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond.
Two years ago, Mr. Desmond turned eviction into a national topic of conversation with “Evicted,” a book that chronicled how poor families who lost their homes in Milwaukee sank ever deeper into poverty. It became a favorite among civic groups and on college campuses, some here in Richmond. Bill Gates and former President Obama named it among the best books they had read in 2017, and it was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
But for all the attention the problem began to draw, even Mr. Desmond could not say how widespread it was. Surveys of renters have tried to gauge displacement, but there is no government data tracking all eviction cases in America. Now that Mr. Desmond has been mining court records across the country to build a database of millions of evictions, it’s clear even in his incomplete national picture that they are more rampant in many places than what he saw in Milwaukee.
Mr. Desmond’s team found records for nearly 900,000 eviction judgments in 2016, meaning landlords were given the legal right to remove at least one in 50 renter households in the communities covered by this data. That figure was one in 25 in Milwaukee and one in nine in Richmond. And one in five renter households in Richmond were threatened with eviction in 2016. Their landlords began legal proceedings, even if those cases didn’t end with a lasting mark on a tenant’s record.
For landlords, these numbers represent a financial drain of unpaid rent; for tenants, a looming risk of losing their homes.
In Richmond, most of those evicted never made it to a courtroom. They didn’t appear because the process seemed inscrutable, or because they didn’t have lawyers to navigate it, or because they believed there is not much to say when you simply don’t have the money. The median amount owed was $686.
Inside the courtroom, cases sometimes brought in bulk by property managers are settled in minutes when defendants aren’t present.
“The whole system works on default judgments and people not showing up,” said Martin Wegbreit, director of litigation at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society. “Imagine if every person asked for a trial. The system would bog down in a couple of months.”
The consequences of what happens here then spread across the city. The Richmond public school system reroutes buses to follow children from apartments to homeless shelters to pay-by-the-week motels. City social workers coach residents on how to fill out job applications when they have no answer for the address line. Families lose their food stamps and Medicaid benefits when they lose the permanent addresses where renewal notices are sent.
“An eviction isn’t one problem,” said Amy Woolard, a lawyer and the policy coordinator at the Legal Aid Justice Center in town. “It’s like 12 problems.”