New Eviction Lab Closes Data Gap For Policymakers

By Sarah Wang

San Gabriel, Calif.

I could hear the distinct rumble of Baba’s construction truck approaching. He came home every day with cuts from glass, calluses on his hands and an aching back, but he always greeted me with a warm smile.

When my father moved to America, he didn’t know any English, so he worked as a laborer. It didn’t pay much, so we frequently moved around.

One day, as Baba washed the rice for steaming, I finally asked the question I’ve been wondering for years. “Why do we move so much?”

“That’s just how it is,” Baba said.

My father’s hopelessness is not uncommon. According to collected data from the Princeton University Eviction Lab, displacement and poverty is a way of life for those immersed in the eviction crisis. Joe Fish, a research specialist at the facility, said that between 2000 and 2016, there were 84 million eviction cases in the U.S. That estimate does not take into account the number of evictions left unfiled. “In reality, that number should be higher,” Fish said.

Before the work of the Eviction Lab, estimates like this simply did not exist. Federal and local representatives, journalists, and the general public did not have access to clear data about the crisis occurring in their communities. It takes immense resources and time to sort out documents that provide valid evidence of the issue, Fish said. Due to this, individuals living in these communities endured a cycle where reform was not a priority. No one was aware of how immense the eviction crisis was. “[When] you don’t know, you don’t think about it,” Fish said.

Princeton sociology professor Matthew Desmond founded the Eviction Lab after writing “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.” To close the knowledge gap, the team analyzed millions of eviction records and published the first-ever nationwide dataset of evictions. Their findings showed that there is a direct relationship between poverty and housing. Yet that doesn’t necessarily mean eviction causes poverty. The housing system in America keeps low-income individuals in unstable economic conditions. This can eventually lead to their eviction because they are no longer able to afford rent.

The Eviction Lab’s work extends beyond providing the public with information. “Most everything we do is an attempt to sway policy,” Fish said. On a grassroots level, Fish emphasized the need for communities to start pressuring local officials with the facts. Now that Americans have tangible evidence, representatives must listen. “[We need to] protect what we have and push for what we don’t,” he said. “It’s about holding power accountable.”

Ultimately, uplifting those in poverty is like a construction site. The Eviction Lab holds the nail and hammer, restructuring broken communities one fact at a time.

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