Housing is a human right that plays a crucial role in supporting health and wellbeing. No one should have to wonder where they will sleep at night. A secure home is fundamental to everyone’s mental and physical health, and especially vital to a child’s healthy development.
Yet every year, millions across the country face the ordeal of eviction and the accompanying instability, which can destroy their employment opportunities, access to health insurance, and longstanding community ties.
People like Alexys Hatcher, who was featured in the compelling FRONTLINE documentary Facing Eviction. Partially funded by RWJF, this poignant, powerful documentary examines the lasting damage the country’s affordable housing crisis is doing through the experiences of families facing eviction, landlords, and law enforcement—and some of the promising solutions put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hatcher was among the first to be evicted after Texas successfully challenged the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) pandemic-related eviction moratorium. A single mother of a five-year-old, she lost her job as a shoe store manager and fell behind on her rent. During her journey from a relative’s couch to temporary hotel accommodations, Hatcher protected her daughter, Aliyah, by positioning their home search as a shared adventure. “One thing she knows is Mommy is always there,” said Hatcher, fighting back tears. “She doesn’t know we don’t have a home because to her, wherever I am is her home.”
Eventually, Hatcher overcame numerous administrative hurdles and delays and accessed the rental assistance she needed to secure a new apartment. But that outcome is all too rare, said her attorney, Mark Melton. “We’ve got other families that are right now living in their car with their two kids. We’ve got other families that we’ve had to put in shelters, that are still in shelters. These are the more typical stories when we’re talking about eviction.”
Targeting Solutions to Help Those Most at Risk
“The greatest indicators of an eviction are being Black, being a woman, or having children,” explained tenants’ right attorney Emily Benfer, who appeared in the documentary.
ZIP codes also predict eviction’s likelihood. Until COVID hit, notification and allowable cause requirements, court processes, and other housing policies were established almost exclusively at the state and local levels. Predictably, low-income communities of color were hardest hit, reflecting our nation’s history of discrimination in housing and lending practices. Even during the pandemic, race remained a key risk factor for eviction. This risk increased as individuals who had been stably housed lost jobs, fell behind in their rent or mortgage payments, and faced the prospect of losing their homes.
Facing an escalating crisis, Congress and the CDC responded with a series of eviction moratoriums that spared millions from being displaced. But contradictory court decisions, inconsistent enforcement, and knotty paperwork requirements limited their reach. And when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the CDC’s blanket eviction moratorium, decisionmaking again reverted to the local level. At that point, said Benfer, “Whether or not you stayed in your home depended entirely upon whether your landlord was going to comply with the CDC moratorium… what judge you appeared before, what sheriff showed up on your door.”
A Shared Pain
The toll falls not only on tenants but also on small landlords and on the law enforcement officials charged with carrying out court orders. FRONTLINE humanized some of their stories.
Sandra Stanley and her family own eight rental properties in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. “Local landlords have up-close and personal relationships with their tenants,” said Stanley, knocking on the door of one tenant to thank him for his partial payment and ask how he was managing. “We know our tenants. We know their children. We know what’s going on with them and their situations.”
During the pandemic, the Stanleys managed to pay their mortgage, but rental shortfalls forced them to tap savings and retirement funds to afford property taxes and repairs. She pursued government support but didn’t change her fundamental commitment to compassion. “We try to work with people and charge low rent so they can pay their rent. I’d rather have somebody pay their rent than have eviction. I hate doing evictions.”
In the Dallas County constable’s office, the deputies charged with escorting individuals from their homes, placing their possessions at the curb, and padlocking their doors don’t like it any better. With emotions running high at an eviction scene, they are never sure if they will face danger or the anguish of a family whose children are about to be displaced. “That was a good day,” sighed one constable after entering a home that had already been vacated. “I didn’t have to encounter the tenant being there, and seeing the look on their face, or anger, or whatever the case may have been. It’s kind of heartbreaking at times to do it, but it is part of the job that I signed up to do. So much as I hate it, I have to do it.”
Beyond the individual trauma, eviction has broader societal impacts, pulling productive workers out the labor force, reducing the local tax base, and shattering neighborhood cohesion. Fortunately, there are pathways to change.
“Losing your home and possessions and often your job; being stamped with an eviction record and denied government housing assistance; relocating to degrading housing in poor and dangerous neighborhoods; and suffering from increased material hardship, homelessness, depression, and illness—this is eviction’s fallout,” writes sociologist Matthew Desmond in his Pulitzer-Prize winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.
It need not occur. During the pandemic, officials made investments and put public policies in place to protect both tenants and landlords. Combined with $46.5 billion from the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program, eviction rates fell below historical norms, despite the job losses and hardship the pandemic caused. That outcome was a hopeful reminder that the government can help shape and advance solutions.
Recognizing that effective action begins with information, the Eviction Lab tracks displacement patterns by state, county, and selected cities and ZIP codes. The Lab also pairs its data with Census findings on race and ethnicity, average rents, household income, and family rent burden because eviction is so often the endpoint of an affordable housing crisis that falls disproportionately on people of color. The Lab’s publicly available dataset serves community activists, policymakers, researchers, journalists, and anyone else interested in understanding the causes and consequences of eviction.
As a nation, we are clearly at a crossroads—with affordable housing in increasingly short supply and communities across the country organizing in response. The Eviction Lab and other research helps give us the data and experiences that tell us what needs to be done.
Progress may depend on understanding the underlying causes of eviction and homelessness and coming together to develop and promote policies and practices that create much more stable, affordable housing. We can all commit to driving that change.