April 20, 2021
Data is a double-edged sword. U.S. housing policy proves it.
Redlining, public housing, and suburban development housing policies were the result of data-driven, state-sponsored decisions intended to solve the post-war housing crisis. Yet those solutions only intensified a racist legacy and hardened segregationist housing policies across U.S. cities and suburbs. Data is not free of ideology.
Data can also be used as a distraction. Policy decision makers sometimes leverage a need for “more data” to delay or avoid acting on problems the public knows to be real, persistent, and destructive. Public calls for action are too often met with the formation of commissions and working groups tasked with collecting and reviewing data, all while the current housing crisis worsens.
If decision makers can use data to perpetuate inequities through bad policy or to delay real remedies and positive action, why then is data necessary to staving off one of the most visible and tragic manifestations of today’s housing crisis--evictions?
One third of all U.S. counties have no available court eviction data, even topline figures of how many people are being evicted each year. And this is to say nothing of more granular data showing the hardest hit neighborhoods and demographics, or data on informal evictions, which don’t run through courts but are more common than court-ordered evictions.
If we don’t have a true understanding of how many renters are being evicted each year, we cannot begin to know whether we’re looking at solutions that fit the size of the problem, or whether we’re just tinkering at the edges.
Are emergency rental assistance and eviction diversion programs that adjudicate payments between landlords and tenants the best tools at local government’s disposal to mitigate evictions and prevent homelessness? Or should we expand our understanding of eviction prevention to include the provision of living wages, strengthened tenant protections, and shared-equity homeownership models?
A lack of quality eviction data also denies us the ability to evaluate the success of existing policy interventions and solutions. We may know how many renters are served by rental assistance and eviction diversion programs, but the ability to look at a program and know whether they are helping mitigate evictions over time is another question altogether. Absent quality data, we don’t know how local eviction processes, like the cost of filing an eviction and required notice periods before filing an eviction, facilitates housing instability.
And even if we do know, it is hard to prove. In the same way that access to good data can be used to delay action, data can also help advocates force the issue to justify the allocation of resources and push for systemic changes. In cities and counties across the U.S., tenant organizers, legal aid providers, and housing advocates do not need granular eviction figures to know who is being evicted, where and how often. Years and years of lived experience working to keep communities at risk of housing loss in their homes amounts to a kind of institutional knowledge that is as detailed, if not more so, than any spreadsheet.
Lastly, eviction and the devastation it causes have become such a pervasive and intractable challenge across the U.S. that we need every weapon available to fight it. According to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, nearly 1 in 4 renters in the U.S. don’t believe they will be able to pay rent next month. And of those who are behind on payments, roughly 40 percent anticipate being evicted in the next two months. Experts estimate that the number of renters that may be evicted will grow tenfold due to the economic fallout of COVID-19.
So how do tenants and others closest to the issue show the rest of us what they’ve long known to be true--that evictions are a cause and a consequence of a carefully calibrated system that traps tenants in a cycle of poverty and housing instability? And that this system is present in every town and city across the country?
We need to be able to show where within the country evictions are happening, how eviction rates change over time, and who is most at risk. In short, we need access to comprehensive and quality eviction data.
Today, New America, in partnership with the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation, Eviction Lab, Georgetown’s Civil Justice Data Commons, January Advisors, National League of Cities, National Low Income Housing Coalition, Stanford Law School Legal Design Lab and UNC Greensboro Center for Housing and Community Studies are releasing eight recommendations for creating a better eviction data infrastructure.
These recommendations provide a framework for improving the eviction data landscape, and creating local eviction databases that feed into a national one. The recommendations include the supports that will enable local governments to build a data infrastructure, including dedicated funding, robust technical assistance, and uniform data standards. This framework will need to be operationalized, and the work to do so is what lies ahead.
Yet, even access to the most ideal eviction data landscape, with aggregated figures, will not mean that every city and county in the U.S. will suddenly prioritize housing justice, and it doesn’t mean that those in power will suddenly decide that housing is a human right.
Data is not a silver bullet for more just housing policy. But without it, we don’t stand a chance.