The American Jobs Plan, President Joe Biden’s proposal to bolster U.S. infrastructure and modernize the economy, is also a plan to fulfil the administration’s commitment to affordable, safe, and fair housing. In terms of housing, the centerpiece of the proposal is $213 billion to produce, preserve, and retrofit houses and apartment buildings. If well-managed and strategically invested, these funds could go a long way toward increasing the supply of affordable housing in this country, a desperately needed change. But improving housing stability and addressing the ongoing eviction crisis—only temporarily held in check by an unprecedented array of federal, state, and local protections for renters—requires more: an investment in the data infrastructure necessary to root out discrimination, ensure tenants’ rights, and target hazardous housing conditions.
In 2016, with the economy growing and the unemployment rate below five percent, 3.7 million eviction cases were filed across the U.S. To put that in perspective, there were 2.8 million mortgage foreclosure starts at the height of the Great Recession. If these millions of eviction filings were strictly an economic phenomenon—the inevitable result of rents that were too high and wages that were too low—then increasingly the supply of affordable housing would play a key role in reducing eviction rates. That perspective, however, misses the other dynamics that drive the eviction crisis. A federal eviction database is critical in addressing those factors.
Social inequalities and racial and gender discrimination profoundly shape eviction patterns. For example, 70 percent of eviction filings in Boston originate from neighborhoods in which the majority of residents are people of color, yet only half of Boston’s rental housing is in these neighborhoods. Nationwide, we have shown that Black renters—especially Black women—are far more likely to be evicted than their white peers. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibits racial discrimination in housing. Yet, to our knowledge there have been no attempts to hold landlords accountable for disproportionately targeting Black tenants with eviction. Without data, lawyers struggle to make the case that this is a systematic problem and to prove discrimination in court.
Landlords routinely turn to housing courts to outsource basic tenant management. They use eviction as a tool for rent collection, as well as a way to exert power over tenants and to escape their own obligations. As Phil Garboden and Eva Rosen argue, “the daily threat of eviction subjugates poor tenants, stripping them of their consumer rights.” Constantly at risk of being kicked out of their homes, tenants are less likely to report landlord abuse or substandard housing conditions—thereby making property management that much easier. Renters who speak up or exert their rights to withhold rent until repairs are made often face eviction, at which point the landlord slaps on a fresh coat of paint and finds a new tenant. Building code enforcement agencies that would be able to address unsafe or substandard housing conditions are blind to the problem because they lack the data necessary to identify a pattern of abuse.
Many of the renters who become homeless because of eviction pass through a very small set of neighborhoods, blocks, and even buildings. In recently published research, we demonstrate that a small percentage of buildings account for a wildly disproportionate share of evictions, and that these buildings evict large numbers of tenants year in and year out. To take one example, 295 buildings in Tucson, Arizona, routinely account for two thirds of all evictions in the city. The other third come from 8,752 buildings that evict much less frequently. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, just 69 buildings in Columbus, Ohio, have accounted for fully a quarter of all eviction filings in the city. Organizations that provide rental assistance or re-housing services can stem the tide of eviction and homelessness if they target resources to these concentrated hotspots. But again, they lack the data needed to create that type of efficient and precise intervention.
All of this suggests that a small number of landlords routinely abuse the legal system to intimidate and displace a large number of tenants, especially Black and brown tenants. If so, part of the solution has to be more robust enforcement of fair housing law and targeted interventions against large-scale evictors. It’s encouraging that the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau has signaled their intention to enforce the current CDC eviction moratorium. The Biden administration needs to extend this effort beyond the current crisis if they are serious about furthering fair housing and ensuring stable, safe homes for more Americans.
What would that require? To start, the federal government needs to begin collecting eviction data. At this point, an almost-total lack of data collection at the federal level stymies any attempt to address the eviction crisis. Problems that can’t be measured don’t get solved. The CFPB may want to aggressively enforce the CDC moratorium, but they don’t currently have any way of assessing who may be violating it.
What we do know about eviction in America is largely thanks to organizations such as the Eviction Lab, a research group led by Princeton University sociologist Matthew Desmond (we are both affiliates). The Eviction Lab has assembled a national database of eviction records between 2000 and 2016 and also tracks eviction filings in real time. Other organizations collect eviction data around the country, including but not limited to the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, the Urban Displacement Project, the Richmond Eviction Lab, the Atlanta Region Eviction Tracker, and the Housing Data Coalition in New York City.
What all of these groups have in common is that their data collection is incomplete. County courts typically handle evictions, but these courts vary in terms of what data they systematically record, whether they digitize data, and how they archive or make the data publicly available. Research by New America found that one in three counties have no publicly available eviction data.
The process of developing a federal eviction database won’t be easy, but we know how to do it. It requires sustained and robust federal funding and technical assistance aimed at improving state and local capacity to systematically collect and assemble eviction data. That involves the creation of eviction data standards, assistance to jurisdictions with limited technical capacity, and clear incentives for the collection, standardization, and distribution of data. These data also need to be properly safeguarded so that the records of previous eviction cases do not continue to be used to deny renters future housing.
Building a federal eviction database entails the creation of state and local eviction databases, which potentially provides even the smallest city governments and local organizations the tools to promote stability in their communities. A clearer picture of eviction patterns would allow aid organizations to better tailor outreach efforts, and state attorneys general and local housing departments to target enforcement actions.
Strong bipartisan support for a federal eviction database already exists. Sens. Michael Bennett, Rob Portman, Sherrod Brown, and Todd Young introduced the Eviction Crisis Act—which would produce such a database—in December 2019, and the idea has support in the House of Representatives as well. Congress could take up legislation independent of the infrastructure debate, but the space for bipartisan policymaking is limited, and most meaningful federal legislation this year appears likely to be streamlined into a small number of large spending bills. It would be a mistake on the part of Congress and the Biden administration to miss the opportunity that the American Jobs Plan represents to improve housing stability. Doing so requires an investment in housing data infrastructure.
American renters need more affordable housing options. They also need enforcement of existing laws, an end to abusive landlord behavior, and empowerment of tenant support groups. The Biden administration can advance equity, safety, and affordability in rental housing if they work with the existing coalition of housing advocates, legal aid attorneys, service providers, and tenants. All too often, these groups are playing catch-up as they attempt to make the most of limited resources. More data would go a long way toward allowing them to target communities in greatest need and ensure that people aren’t falling through the cracks.