How Do Americans Lose Their Homes?

What we know about housing loss, and why we know so little
Blog Post
A single family home in poor physical condition situated next to a new, luxury apartment building.
Alex Millauer /
Aug. 15, 2023


From foreclosures following the subprime mortgage crisis in 2008 to sudden displacement after California wildfires and Florida hurricanes and swift evictions after a single missed rent payment, it is estimated that 10 to 20 million Americans lose their homes every year.

These traumatic events are similar in that they all involve the loss of a home, but the way in which someone loses their home matters. Different types of housing loss result in different impacts for affected individuals, families, and communities. Different types of housing loss also have different causes, and therefore different solutions. For these reasons, a critical piece of solving America’s housing crisis is understanding the multitude of ways in which housing loss happens.

And yet, we know shockingly little about the ways in which Americans lose their homes. The federal government and local governments do not track housing loss nor do they enumerate the multitude of ways in which home loss occurs. In fact, as a country we have no standard definition of what constitutes housing loss.

The purpose of this blog is to start a conversation about what we mean by the term “housing loss”, and identify the vast gaps in knowledge that must be filled if we are to truly understand the ways in which families around the country lose their homes.

The Challenge of Defining Housing Loss

Part of the challenge in understanding housing loss lies in defining it.

Should the term “housing loss” only include homes lost through legal action, like an eviction or foreclosure? Or, should it also include homes lost as a result of economic pressures, like rent increases and gentrification? Should all instances of “losing a home” be deemed home loss? Is a home lost through legal action, but for which an owner is compensated, like eminent domain, still considered a home loss? Should only permanent loss of a home be included in this definition, or does the temporary loss of a home, as in the case of hurricane damage, also count?

A possible starting point is a typology of moves developed by Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted, based on whether the primary motivation for the residential move is forced, responsive, or voluntary. Forced moves are defined as those pushed by landlords and city officials, and include eviction and foreclosure, whereas responsive moves are defined as those brought on by housing or neighborhood conditions, including rent increases, deteriorating housing quality, crime, and domestic violence. Voluntary moves are often undertaken for upward economic mobility or other changes in life circumstances.

To date, most discussions of housing loss, including by New America, have focused on forced moves. But given our nation’s affordable housing crisis, we must ask, “Should certain responsive moves be considered forced?” Not a single state in the U.S. has an adequate supply of rental housing for the lowest income renters, and a recent US Census Household Pulse Survey found that one in five renters feel pressured to leave their home, 40 percent due to rent increases and 22 percent due to lack of repairs.

Beyond differing motivations for moving, the processes through which families lose housing in the U.S. are varied and complex. The way in which we define housing loss can lead to vastly different measures of the problem, and to different solutions, which is why a further conversation on what we should include under the housing loss umbrella is critical.

Forced Moves

Forced moves often produce distressing images: an eviction notice at the door, a foreclosure auction of someone’s long-time home, and government demolition of someone’s apartment. But it is important to assess what we really know about these forms of housing loss and how we know what we know.


Evictions, or the forced removal of a tenant by a landlord or government official, are perhaps the form of housing loss most synonymous with the term. And rightfully so–it is estimated that 3.7 million evictions are filed each year–impacting almost 7 percent of rental households. Further, a history of discriminatory and segregationist housing policies have resulted in significant gender and racial disparities in who faces eviction: Black women are evicted at significantly higher rates than other groups. This compounds existing disparities, and contributes to keeping people unhoused and job loss.

What we know about evictions comes primarily from civil court records generated in eviction lawsuits. Though courts collect information on evictions, they often do not store it or share it such that the public can easily keep track of evictions in their communities. There is also no standardization in the way courts collect, store or share this information across jurisdictions, leaving a patchwork of data collection and access across the country. There has been growing interest in addressing this, including from the federal government. (New America is also spearheading efforts to improve, standardize, and share this data with the public.)

But even if we could access every eviction court record, we would only have insight into about one-third of all evictions nationwide. That’s because for every one eviction that runs through the courts, 2 to 5.5 informal evictions occur informally outside the court system. Because there is no mechanism to collect data on informal evictions, they happen largely in the shadows, leaving millions of families scrambling to find new homes in a market with few affordable options.

Mortgage Foreclosure

Despite the prevalence of foreclosures during the Subprime Mortgage Crisis of 2008, this form of housing loss tends to receive less media attention than evictions.

Mortgage foreclosures typically occur when homeowners either fall behind or are unable to pay their mortgage payments. After several months of delinquency, mortgage lenders can file a court case to either take ownership of the home or sell it in an auction, depending on the state. According to ATTOM, a private data aggregator, 2.9 million foreclosures occurred in 2010, the peak number of foreclosures in America. Yet in 2022, approximately 324,237 properties received a foreclosure filing, impacting nearly 1 million people.

While homeowners lose the rights to their home, foreclosures have ripple effects on the surrounding community, too. Research shows that the property values decrease by almost 1 percent for each foreclosure within one-eighth of a mile of a property. Beyond losses in home values, mortgage foreclosure contributes to higher violent crime rates and poorer mental health.

Similar to evictions, we do have some understanding about and data from mortgage foreclosures. However, data on foreclosures may be housed by different local agencies, including sheriff offices, county courts, county GIS offices, and county treasuries, meaning access to this data varies from county to county. ATTOM likely has the most comprehensive database on foreclosures in the country, but it is costly to obtain. While some public databases exist, they are often specific to one location, like Chicago, or are representative samples, as provided by the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s National Mortgage Database.

Tax Foreclosures

Tax foreclosures are less publicized and less studied than mortgage foreclosures, and yet we know that in some cities this form of housing loss is incredibly wide spread, and impacts a population that may be spared from mortgage foreclosure. Loss of a home through tax foreclosures occurs when property owners do not pay the full amount of state or local property taxes on their property, and the government either sells the lien or property deed to the highest bidder or gives the property to a land bank.

Most data on tax foreclosures comes from city and county courts, but no national database exists. However, local tracking of tax foreclosures in select locations indicate that it’s a problem. Efforts by local non-profits to map every tax foreclosure auction in Detroit show just how widespread housing loss through tax foreclosures has been: between 2002 and 2016, over 140,000 tax foreclosures auctions were held, which equates to approximately 36.8 percent of all properties in Detroit and is partially why the city went bankrupt in 2013. In cities and counties across the country, tax foreclosure could be a small problem, or it could be massive, like in the case of Detroit. It also has the potential to disproportionately impact older residents who may have paid off their mortgage loan, but who struggle to keep up with rising property taxes.

Eminent Domain

Eminent domain seizures occur when a government takes land for public use, presumably compensating the landowner for the seizure. However, beyond seizing land for public use, the Supreme Court has deemed it legal for governments to take land and transfer it to private ownership if it results in “economic development” for the region.

Historically, a significant amount of housing across urban America has been seized, without compensation, through eminent domain from poor and minority landowners, including for the purposes of interstate construction, urban renewal developments, and Japanese internment in WWII. Today, eminent domain is most commonly used for the construction of state and local infrastructure and demolition of “blighted” properties.

The primary source of information on eminent domain comes from court records. According to a 2006 Government Accountability Office report, while the agency found multiple uses of eminent domain, “no centralized or aggregate national or state data exist on the use of eminent domain, thereby precluding GAO from any national or statewide assessments of, among other things, how frequently eminent domain is used for private-to-public or private-to-private transfer of property and purposes of these transfers.” Although this report is from 2006, there has been no effort to create a larger database since.

Heirs Property Partition Sales

An estimated one-third of Southern Black-owned land, likely worth more than $28 billion, is owned through a collective tenure arrangement referred to as “heirs property”. This type of property, often rural and agricultural, but also present in urban areas, came about when a property owner left no will. As a result, this land passed from one generation to another and was split amongst all of the owner’s heirs without any clear title. Generations later, the families living on heirs property are vulnerable to forced partition sales by third parties.

Wake Forest University’s Law Clinic’s estimates that 4 percent of all property in North Carolina, valued at $2 billion, is held as heirs’ property. However, efforts to document and reform this problem largely remain elusive to study. Increased attention has been paid to heirs property loss and sales, but little data exist on the location and size of heirs property parcels, the prevalence of forced partition sales and the outcomes for dispossessed property owners. The USDA Forest Service has attempted to identify some potential heirs properties in North Carolina, Texas, and Georgia using county-level tax data and computer-assisted mass appraisal (CAMA) data. However, there remains no database on these property types, and many families may be at risk of losing their generational places of residence. Without further research and data on heirs property sales, we stand to perpetuate a long history of Black property loss in America.

Responsive Moves

Evictions, foreclosures and other court-mandated moves dominate headlines and policy discussions. But for every family whose belongings are placed on the curb by the sheriff’s department, untold others are coerced into leaving their homes by economic, health, safety and climate factors. Matthew Desmond terms these “responsive moves” but the reality is that many people who fall into the responsive moves category have little say in their move. Below we discuss two of these.

Post-Disaster Displacement

As climate change rapidly changes the world around us, climate-driven disasters, including floods, fires, hurricanes, and other extreme weather events, displace millions of Americans from their homes each year. Many of these displacements are temporary, lasting anywhere from several weeks to several months. However, thanks to a byzantine patchwork of insurance coverage, post-disaster housing, and reconstruction aid that is neither timely or sufficient to meet the needs of impacted communities, a substantial number of post-disaster displacements become permanent.

To measure how many people moved following disasters, researchers have used a host of techniques including USPS address changes, FEMA applications, IRS records, and face-to-face or internet tracking. In December 2022, the Household Pulse Survey began asking about household displacement due to disaster, and found that in the prior year, 1.9 million households had been displaced due to disaster, over a third of which were renters. But that same year, a different census-run survey found that nearly twice that number, 3.4 million households, had been displaced.

Despite these concerning statistics, we have no measure for post-disaster displacement. Tracking individual instances of post-disaster displacement with public data is difficult, as this information is often not public or restricted, if it is even tracked at all. Net migration, the difference between emigrants and immigrants, is easier to see, but requires merging innovative techniques with various data sources, and is something researchers are still figuring out how to do.


While the word gentrification has come to describe the dynamics in places like Williamsburg and Oakland, the term means more than the construction of coffee shops, breweries, and apartments. Like housing loss, gentrification lacks a cohesive definition or quantitative measurement. Sharon Zukin and Neil Smith, two prominent urban scholars, defined gentrification as the changing characteristics and built environment of a neighborhood located near the central city via rising rent and property values, leading to housing loss of poorer, long-time residents by middle-class residents.

Despite challenges in creating a gentrification measure, we have the data to track overall trends in displacement, race, and income as a result of gentrification. On the census tract level, the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School mapped Low Income Displacement and Concentration by highlighting the number and percentage of low-income people in a neighborhood in 2000 versus 2016 to measure migration trends of low-income people, where people are being displaced, and where they are moving to. Yet, this gives us no information on their reasons for moving, which could be beyond rent increases.

As rents increase and the affordable housing stock shrinks, housing loss as a result of gentrification is bound to happen as low-income renters, disproportionately Black and people of color, are left with few viable options than to move. However, these moves, specifically related to rising rent and property values, are not being tracked.

Where do we go from here?

The types of housing loss we have discussed here are by no means exhaustive, but rather an illustration of how varied and complex – and how poorly tracked — this problem is. Not only do we lack data and research to understand the many types of housing loss, but we have not accepted the fact that responsive moves are as much a form of housing loss as forced move. The implication of including these less researched and less accepted forms of housing loss paints a dark picture of displacement, one that is much more widespread than we realize.

Because we know housing loss disproportionately impacts communities that have historically been denied housing and land, the lack of understanding the full scope of housing loss serves to perpetuate this troubling trend. In order to truly understand housing loss in America, we need to define it, but also understand its various machinations, including differences in who is most impacted and why, then build out better ways to collect this data. Without doing so, we risk leaving out many Americans who experience housing loss.

Related Topics
Eviction and Foreclosure Data