Eviction is typically thought of as a symptom rather than a problem in and of itself. It’s an issue that easily gives way to a familiar discussion about rising rents and stagnant wages—discussions in which cities like New York and San Francisco are sure to be mentioned ad nauseum. But for all the affordability problems that such cities may suffer, eviction is not one of them. According to a 2017 study from Apartment List, San Francisco actually had one of the lowest eviction rates in the country (1.6%), second only to San Jose (1.2%), another Bay Area city. New York City ranked 7th (1.9%) with less than a third the rate of Memphis, Tennessee (6.1%)—the same city that CBS News included in its list of the “10 cheapest places to live in the U.S.”
Misconceptions about where and why evictions happen in the United States were among the chief concerns that motivated the development of this map, which visualizes data gathered by the Eviction Lab, a Princeton-based team led by sociologist Matthew Desmond. Desmond is probably most famous for writing Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, an award-winning work of non-fiction that tells the stories of eight families from the poorest neighborhoods in Milwaukee. After studying the relationship between poverty and eviction in just one American city, Desmond saw the need for analysis at the national level. To make that possible, Desmond and his Lab sifted through 83 million court documents to create the first nationwide database of evictions, and then developed a map that displays eviction rates by state, county, or even block, alongside statistics like median gross rent, poverty rate, or rent burden.
On the same website, the Eviction Lab also posts rankings of the cities with the highest eviction rates for large, mid-size, or small cities. At number one for large cities is North Charleston, South Carolina.
The map also allows for the comparison between cities of a number of statistics. Below you will find those listed for the first, fiftieth, and hundredth large city ranked by eviction rate.
The Eviction Lab has also released a Teacher Guide to accompany the map. The guide recommends questions and study activities designed to foster structured engagement with the data, with the focus largely put on increasing students’ familiarity with local trends in eviction.
The data that the Eviction Lab has so far gathered certainly provides the opportunity for new insights into the nature of eviction in the United States, but there is still much work to be done. However dazzling, the Lab’s map is incomplete. Many states have incomplete eviction records, or don’t release their records publicly. In some cases, this is done to protect tenants; for instance, California seals the records of eviction filings to keep the information from future landlords.
Another information gap exists for informal evictions, in which tenants leave after landlords threaten them or offer them money. Currently, there is no official record of the incidence of informal evictions in the United States, but Desmond has worked with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to include a question asking about them in the next iteration of the American Housing Survey.
Eviction is a fact of life for many Americans, but it is one which researchers have only begun to understand at the national level. At the same time, groups like the Eviction Lab have already made wider discussions possible through the visualization of the data that is currently available—discussions which will hopefully better represent the manners in which poverty and income insecurity manifest across the nation.