By Natalee Litchfield
On his first day as an intern for a legal aid office in Cincinnati, Ohio, Scott Overbey was feeling hopeful. His boss had invited him to witness an average day in court, where he thought he’d see the law making a difference in people’s lives.
But on this day, a grandmother was being sued by her landlord. Her apartment had become mold-infested and her granddaughter had asthma, which made the home a danger zone. The grandmother had been holding her rent in an escrow fund while waiting to get the mold removed from her apartment. But the landlord refused to remove it, and sued her for the money. While the judge was examining her nails and fiddling with her watch, the grandmother gave her testimony. Overbey was aghast at what he saw. He wanted to do something to help people like the woman in court. That’s why he joined sociologist Matthew Desmond’s Eviction Lab at Princeton.
This story is not an extraordinary one, as eviction is a widespread epidemic in the United States. Researchers at Princeton’s Eviction Lab are studying the problem, and trying to figure out precisely how to fix it.
Desmond, who founded the lab in 2017, began his work on eviction in 2008 by living alongside poor tenants in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Through studying the relationship between tenants and their landlords in poor communities, he became the first to recognize the need for a comprehensive set of data in order to analyze the crisis. In his acclaimed book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” he coined the idea that “eviction functions as a cause, not just a condition of poverty.”
“Between 2000 and 2016, the number [of evictions] we estimate is 84 million,” said Joe Fish, a newly hired research assistant at the Eviction Lab. That number accounts only for the cases filed in court, meaning the actual total is likely higher.
While there isn’t a singular cause for the eviction crisis, much of it can be attributed to a tremendous imbalance of power between tenants and landlords.
“Landlords definitely know what the rules [are] and what the laws are, but the tenants don’t always,” said Mary- Ann Placheril, an intern at the lab. Although there are restrictions to prevent landlords from discriminating against their tenants, the laws vary from one state to the next. In leases, landlords often use trivial fine print restrictions that are easily violated such as “no pets” or “no loud noises” in order to kick people out of their homes.
Fish and Overbey both hope that the work of the Eviction Lab will spur policy that changes the balance of power between landlord and tenant. In identifying the top 10 cities with the highest eviction rates, the lab was able to prompt community- based legislation that extends tenant rights throughout the United States.
“We have found that cities, when finding out they have high eviction rates, enact legislation,” Fish said. The fact is that the numbers the Eviction Lab are finding matter immensely. It is up to judges, legislators, home developers and landlords to fix the crisis. It means the difference between living and hardly surviving—for grandmothers like the one in Ohio, children, parents, and everyone else too.