Princeton Eviction Lab Chronicles National Challenge

By Natalee Litchfield

Molalla, Ore.

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.

For One Reporter’s Family, Eviction Experience Is Personal

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.

Residents Confront Gentrification

By Sabrin Sultana

Brooklyn, N.Y.

Shirley Satterfield’s family has been living in Princeton for six generations. She was born in Philadelphia but was raised in Princeton’s Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood. After college, she moved away, and when she came back in 1981, everything had changed.

Satterfield said she felt like “African Americans were not recognized in the community” for their hard work, and she worried that Princeton was “losing its history.” Outsiders started coming to this neighborhood, which forced African Americans to leave Witherspoon- Jackson for areas they could afford to live in.

Satterfield has created a tour for the Historical Society of Princeton to memorialize the neighborhood and the town’s extensive African American history. During the Great Migration, African Americans moved from the Deep South looking for jobs. They settled near the University, but much of that neighborhood was later demolished to make way for Palmer Square, a collection of high-end restaurants and shops.

African American Princetonians then moved to the Witherspoon- Jackson neighborhood. Witherspoon-Jackson included Princeton’s first integrated lower school, the “Colored Cemetery” where prominent African Americans are buried, and Miss Vann’s Ice Cream Parlor, one of many businesses run out of private homes.

Eventually, however, prices in the neighborhood began to rise. Now many properties cost as much as $1 million — far beyond what many families can afford.

Satterfield said she “wants the town’s history to stay forever.” But historical houses are either being renovated or knocked down in favor of more modern structures. In the meantime, the high prices are forcing people out.

Sharon “Nini” Campbell’s family has lived in Princeton since the 1930s. “People who grew up here can’t afford it,” she said. Campbell, 70, lives in a one-bedroom affordable housing unit in the Waxwood building, which used to be Princeton’s first integrated lower school.

Witherspoon-Jackson was too expensive for Debora Lapointe, who spoke to a reporter at a park in the neighborhood. So was every other area near the University. The 44-year-old had little choice but to live in Griggs Farm, a low-income community in Princeton.

Area Programs Aim To Address Child-Care Crisis

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A teacher reads to children at the Princeton Nursery School. Photo courtesy of Princeton Nursery School

By Amoni Hinton

Essex, Md.

On Leigh Avenue, in between the aging homes, housing construction sites, and un-level sidewalks, you stumble upon a two-story home that has more to it than meets the eye. As you walk up the faded yellow wooden steps, you enter into a land of opportunity for the next generation. Located in the John Witherspoon community—once the heart of the African American population in Princeton—is the Princeton Nursery School.

The school, which recently celebrated its 90th anniversary, is a resource for low-income families in need of daycare. From 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, children between the ages of 2 and a half to 5 years old are fed breakfast, lunch, and a snack.

Executive director Rosanda Wong has been leading the school for two years. During that time, she saved the nursery from possibly closing down, started a program that provides each child with hygiene necessities called Bubbles and Brushes, and began a program that allows students to take home meals for the weekends called Send Hunger Packing.

Wong continues to raise money to renovate the roof and playground and for any other possible needs for the children and the school. Wong said that even though all of the staff at the nursery are underpaid, they love their jobs. Their mission is to provide an exceptional preschool education and childcare for low-income families.

Not far from the Princeton Nursery School is another building that houses opportunities for young children. Head east on Leigh Avenue to Clay Street, and you’ll find the Henry Pannell Learning Center, which is supported and run by the YMCA’s Princeton Young Achievers Program.

The center provides after-school homework assistance, tutoring, and literacy support for children from kindergarten to 5th grade. Pannell prepares students for the next day in the classroom and gives them skills to expand their resources.

“All of the parents are thankful from the beginning,” said Leigh Zink, who has been working with the YMCA for 12 years and has tremendous experience dealing with children in low-income neighborhoods.

Running non-profit organizations like these are not for the faint of heart. They have to fight and go above and beyond in ways they never imagined. Even for families receiving assistance, parents need to work long hours, and children walk around in tattered clothing. The kids can suffer from depression and bullying.

“The more you can give them,” said Zink, “the more successful they can be.”

Local Nursery School Provides Relief to Low-income Families in Princeton

By Diana Padron 

McAllen, Texas

There are two worlds in Princeton. Walk out of the front gates of the University, and you are transported to a land rich with booming businesses, beautiful late-Victorian buildings, and clean-cut grass. High-end bookstores, a small independent theater, and quirky gift shops dot the downtown strip. No one can deny it: Princeton is the perfect place to raise your children.

However, in every community, there are pockets of people who live outside the majority. Walk farther from campus, and the landscape changes before your eyes. Suddenly, dignified white pillars become decaying columns with chipped paint. Plastic lawn chairs and broken flower pots litter the porches of the modest white houses that line the streets. The neighborhood radiates a warm familiarity, as if saying, “It’s not paradise, but it’s home.”

Rosanda Wong tends to the children of the other Princeton. She is the executive director of the Princeton Nursery School, a daycare center for minority and low-income children. The average cost of tuition to a child-care center is around $1,500 a month. The nursery serves countless struggling families, 95 percent of whom live below the poverty line. Wong provides aid to these families when no one else will.

Cost of tuition is based on a sliding scale that considers all aspects of every family’s living situation. Wong and her staff help prepare children for public school by teaching kids in both English and Spanish, incorporating the sciences into everyday learning, and practicing real-life skills such as gardening, among other activities.

Wong helps kids outside the classroom, too. Programs like Send Hunger Packing and Bubbles and Brushes provide students with food and personal hygiene products over the weekend when parents have trouble making ends meet. She once even bought shoes for a girl whose only pair were wrapped in duct tape. For parents who can’t afford tuition, Wong created the Angel Fund, a program that connects parents to “angel donors” who are ready to hear families’ stories and help with their cause. For three to six months, the Angel Fund covers the child’s tuition.

“They’re doing everything right,” Wong said of the families helped by the Angel Fund. She understands that sometimes life deals people a bad hand.

Without Wong, the children of Princeton’s working class would be greatly affected by steep child-care costs. She may not be an angel straight from heaven, but she comes pretty close.

Princeton Organizations Combat the Rising Cost of Child-care

By Daniela Bolanos

Miami, Fla.

Finger paintings, pictures of smiling kids, and a colorfully decorated reception area greets anyone walking into the Princeton Nursery School, which serves mostly low-income families. Its house-like architecture and gray carpeting creates a sort of coziness. Inside a classroom is a young girl who is crying. The teacher eagerly goes to her side and asks what’s wrong. The girl looks down and a teardrop falls on her duct-tape covered shoes. Her parents had wrapped her old shoes in duct tape to keep them from falling apart. Her mom’s work hours had recently been cut and they couldn’t afford to buy their daughter a new pair of shoes.

This story—recounted to a group of reporters recently by Rosanda Wong, the school’s executive director— provides a glimpse into the lives of Princeton’s low-income community. While many see Princeton through a lens of affluence and status, the town separates two different communities through an invisible ivy-covered wall of socioeconomic status. On the one side, you have the wealthiest of the wealthiest who drive Porsches; on the complete other side, you have kids who are wearing shoes that are only being held together by old pieces of duct tape.

Wong—the kids call her Ms. Rose—understands the child-care crisis in Princeton, and she has made impressive efforts to do something about it. But she isn’t the only one. There is also the work of the Henry Pannell Learning Center, which partners with the Princeton YMCA to run an after-school program for low-income students called Princeton Young Achievers.

Leigh Zink, the Youth Development and Outreach Director at the Princeton YMCA, puts the challenge this way: “Cost of daycare is killer.” It is a silent killer, one that infiltrates homes and suffocates them until they have nothing left to give.

Princeton Nursery School and Princeton Young Achievers are making progress in addressing this problem, but they still face challenges of understaffing and funding. The institutions rely heavily on grants and donations to stay up and running. Most parents of Princeton Young Achievers only have to pay $20 a month for their children to participate in the afterschool program. Wong said Princeton Nursery School fundraises up to $250,000 per year for scholarships. As a result, the minimum the parents have to pay for the students at the daycare is $20 per month, but even this is negotiable. Wong is very generous about waiving a fee for a struggling family. She is able to do so by reaching out to companies such as Mercedes-Benz and persuading them with pictures and stories of adorable little kids with the biggest dimples and warmest smiles. Who can resist that?

Yet even with the significant amount of money that they raise, there are still issues, such as a lack of special education teachers in the facility. “I cannot afford it,” Wong said. In general, they are understaffed and depend mostly on volunteers.

These problems don’t stand in the way of providing quality education to the children of low-income neighborhoods. In a way, “their enrichment programs are sometimes better,” said Zink, with a chuckle. The kids at Pannell can learn about STEM and coding. Westminster Choir College helps the students host two performances a year; the kids also have “Art Fridays,” where local artists come in and teach them art. These children, unlike the ones who go to traditional after-school programs that cost upwards of $300 a month, often do not have the chance to join a sports club or take private art classes, so PYA’s enrichment programs are meant to fill in the gaps, Zink explained.

Similarly, the Princeton Nursery School has “a very strict curriculum,” said Wong. It not only sticks to the HighScope Preschool Curriculum of New Jersey, but also incorporates a stronger science curriculum. The school even started a gardening program where kids can take home the plants they grow. It doesn’t always take a whole lot of money and resources to provide a child with an extraordinary education, but instead it takes a whole lot of heart.

Wong and Zink have been able to make a difference in the lives of these children. They are giving them the confidence they need to take on the world. Regardless of all the obstacles these kids face, getting an education isn’t one of them. It is because of people like Zink and Wong that even students whose families struggle to afford shoes will see a brighter tomorrow.

Police Work To Build Trust With Local Community

By Stacey Coleen Lubag

Las Vegas, Nev.

Some cops are in it for the thrill of the chase, but Lt. Johnathan Bucchere believes police also need to meet the emotional needs of their communities by acting as counselors, therapists, and social workers as needed. The almost 20-year-veteran of the Princeton Police Department urges officers to be “well-rounded” and promotes trustworthy, kind policing throughout the ranks.

Bucchere’s passion for law enforcement was born during his college years. As the younger brother of two, he found himself looking up to his siblings so much that, when his brother made the sudden switch from coaching basketball to serving as a New Jersey state trooper, Bucchere went in a similar direction. But he didn’t follow his brother to the state’s highways. Instead, he sought to help a community by joining the Princeton Police Department.

“I realized that criminal justice would be a good avenue [for me],” he said. “I learned a lot about the profession by watching my brother.”

Bucchere lit up when asked how he ensures a strong bond between the people and law enforcement. “The patrol division is required to do one community policing project per squad a year,” he explained. “At first we did Coffee with a Cop, but [then] we had to think outside the box.” Officers have bagged groceries on Senior Citizen Day, and recently the department hosted a “Bats and Badges” event, where officers brought hamburgers and hot dogs to the Princeton Little League, serving as coaches and helping the team. “Nobody was in uniform, but we were still representing the department,” he said. “It was unbelievable. That’s how you get external legitimacy, where the community values and trusts you.”

Bucchere is cheerful and outgoing, but even he can be frustrated by citizens who take their anger out on him after receiving tickets. His boss, police chief Nick Sutter, advised him to stay pleasant and polite in those situations, and Bucchere tries to put on a straight face and let incidents pass.

Bucchere said the department also tries to assist marginalized parts of the community, like undocumented residents. Princeton is a “welcoming community,” he said, and police do not cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“I think the community trusts us,” he said, “because we give them a reason to.”

Missing Teach for America

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Teach for America co-founder Wendy Kopp defends the value of the program. Photo credit: Sebastian Derungs

By Samanta Gonzalez Castro

Houston, Texas

A young, enthusiastic teacher stood in the middle of my seventh grade classroom, looking ready for whatever we threw at him. The teacher, a corps member with Teach for America (TFA), injected enthusiasm and liveliness into my class.

The image of a teacher has completely changed within the YES Prep Brays Oaks campus—my middle and high school— since 2016, when the Houston Independent School District ended its contract with TFA. The district cited, “among other reasons, its teachers’ relatively low retention rate,” according to an article in ProPublica. Education Dive wrote that “90 percent of TFA teachers reported they did not plan to stay in education long-term.” These criticisms are at the core of disputes over TFA and its role in educational systems.

Yet TFA leaders defend their system as bringing “academically able” but “nontraditional” teachers to the classroom. Anna Almore, a managing director for TFA in South Dakota, said the program’s goals include “bringing people who may not have typically, or traditionally, thought of themselves as a teacher” to the profession. They help corps members transition from college to teaching with a “rigorous five to six weeks” of extensive training, Almore said, where they learn “the art of teaching” with the goal of “equity.” Wendy Kopp, the co-founder and CEO of TFA, wrote that encountering low-qualified teachers motivated her to search for potential educators from non-traditional backgrounds who excel academically.

This plan has transformed American classrooms. A 2013 study by Emily K. Penner found that “students of TFA secondary math teachers outperformed students in comparison classrooms in 11 districts in eight states.” These conflicting views of Teach for America are what has made it a controversial organization. “No teacher is ready,” Almore says of her experience in South Dakota, both admitting their short preparation period and pointing out the complexity of the task at hand. TFA, in contrast to other programs, is “there during the process,” Almore adds. It’s that dedication that has made the TFA teachers’ absence so pronounced now that they’ve left YES Prep Brays Oaks.

Cops Prioritize Outreach

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The Princeton Police Department has prioritized community engagement. Photo Credit: Brian Rokus

By Farinna Izquierdo 

Hialeah, FLA.

Lt. Johnathan Bucchere wears a gun in his holster, a weapon that often makes people feel threatened. But in an interview with The Princeton Summer Journal this week, Bucchere was anything but threatening: He sported a small smile and a fresh sunburn around the bridge of his nose.

Bucchere said that increasing the number of positive interactions the Princeton Police Department has with the community is a priority. They focus on reaching out to residents and establishing relationships with those around them, ensuring the safety of their fellow residents while also being shoulders to lean on.

Bucchere, who has been with the department for two decades, said the department has made progress since he started. When he was a young officer, the department was less connected with residents. “We’ve made adjustments to how we do things,” he said. “The community trusts us because we’ve given them reasons to. We’ve grown a lot in the last several years.”

A Princeton native, Bucchere detailed how one of the main priorities of the police department is to try and build trust among the people they serve. Aside from typical police work, each of the department’s four squads carries out a community project every year. One of these projects was “Coffee with a Cop,” where officers drank coffee with residents. Although this project was a great start, it wasn’t sufficient. Officers felt as if they were only meeting people rather than establishing true connections with them. They decided to put additional efforts into deeper engagement.

One day, off-duty officers bagged groceries for older shoppers. They brought burgers and hot dogs and served them for a local Little League game. The department also paid for a pool night for Princeton residents, complete with an officer dunk tank. At all of these events, officers presented themselves not as law enforcement, but as members of the community.

Police officers come into contact with many people on a daily basis. These experiences can often be negative—even if it’s just issuing a traffic ticket. Bucchere doesn’t want all of those interactions to be bad ones. “It’s critical that you police with a guardian mentality and rehabilitate those encounters,” says Bucchere, “so that it’s a positive experience.”

ICE raids and police brutality have given officers a bad reputation and ignited fear and resentment toward them. According to Bucchere, police brutality is not an issue in Princeton. While police face criticism on front-page head- lines, Bucchere reminds residents that a corrupt minority does not represent them all. Rather, the Princeton Police tries to live up to a sign hanging in their headquarters. It reads: “Police like a champion today.”

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.