By Aminata Touray
East Orange, N.J.
I woke up to banging on my door. I thought it was the kids my mom babysits. Instead, it was my landlord. He barged into our apartment in East Orange, N.J., where my family had lived for 17 years.
“You guys have to leave. Now,” he said.
I will never forget the look in my mom’s eyes: anger and embarrassment.
“You’re gonna do this in front of my kids?” she said. The landlord ushered us out. I was still in my pajamas.
Between 2000 and 2016, more than 84 million evictions happened in America—and that’s almost certainly an undercount. Communities of color, like mine, have been the hardest hit.
These statistics come from the Eviction Lab at Princeton. More than a dozen researchers there are gathering data about evictions to raise awareness and change public policy. Professor Matthew Desmond created the lab after the publication of his book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” which vaulted the eviction crisis into the national conversation. Joe Fish, a research assistant at the lab, said, “If you don’t have a home, then kind of nothing else matters.”
Fish began working at the lab this summer. He decided to study evictions after seeing a close friend in his hometown of San Francisco kicked out of his place. He was surprised to discover that eviction wasn’t just a symptom of poverty—it was a cause.
There’s an imbalance of power between landlords and tenants, Fish said. Some landlords turn away renters with kids; others reject renters with housing vouchers. Even if you get the apartment, your lease is often larded with clauses that allow a landlord to easily break it if, for example, you have a pet or make too much noise. Because renters are often not aware of their rights, they can fall for discriminatory tactics. Then, once they’ve been evicted, it’s harder to rent a new apartment.
The Eviction Lab researchers hope their findings lead to new laws and more stability for renters. “Housing should basically be a right,” Fish said. People who’ve been evicted aren’t lazy or con artists; in many cases, he said, they’re working people struggling to navigate a system that’s rigged against them.
As for my family, we soon found a new apartment. But within a year, we were threatened with eviction again.