Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond has achieved a rare feat: he produced a work of academic literature that is vividly written and has helped address the problem it highlighted. Three years after its publication, his book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” continues to influence policy around the country as the city of Newark recently became the third city to grant low-income tenants facing eviction access to attorneys.
This decision, made by Newark City Council last December, comes two years after Desmond testified on behalf of the right to counsel in eviction court in New York City — the first city to introduce the program — and three years after Desmond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book brought renewed attention to the eviction crisis.
Desmond has frequently been asked to speak about his research. His next public event takes place Thursday, September 26, at Rutgers University’s Camden campus at 7 p.m. For more information, visit www.rutgers.edu or call 856-225-6026. Registration is required.
Central to his testimony was data from the Eviction Lab, his Princeton University-based group that maintains the first national database of evictions, with records of eviction dating back to 2000. Desmond acknowledges his hand in the legislative change, but he credits tenant organizers and others “who’ve been banging the drum on this for a long time.”
“It was the power of us generating the data and all these local interests carrying it through that helped elevate their voices,” he says.
Although Desmond’s team of a dozen researchers in the Eviction Lab relied on a staggering 83 million eviction records to build the database, Desmond’s study initially began with looking at the problem firsthand.
His knack for learning through immersing himself in the everyday life of a community and recording firsthand experiences began in college, where he was first exposed to the broader issues of racial mobility and entrenched inequality.
“When I’m confused or have trouble understanding something like this story of inequality in America, going to the street or to the sidewalk seems like a bit of an impulse I have.” Like his peers, Desmond went to the library, but when he wasn’t working, he would hang out with homeless people around Arizona State University, where he was studying.
That kind of impulse led him to ethnography for his master’s thesis, which resulted in his first book, “On the Fireline: Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters.” An Arizona native, Desmond had already spent three of the past four summers fighting fires to pay for college, so he decided to return to a profession that was familiar to him in order to complete his thesis work — “a hoop you jump through.” But when a fellow firefighter, Rick Lupe, died in a controlled fire, Desmond found a larger purpose behind his writing. “It kind of galvanized the study,” he says. Desmond ultimately earned his master’s and PhD in sociology at the University of Wisconsin.
Desmond’s work reflects a highly detailed and immersive method of research. For “Evicted” he spent four months living in a trailer park in a poor, predominantly white neighborhood in Milwaukee, and then nine months living in a rooming house in a predominantly black neighborhood on the other side of the city. Such proximity gave him an intimate look at how eviction plays out in people’s lives.
He writes: “I sat beside families at eviction court; helped them move; followed them into shelters and abandoned houses; watched their children; ate with them; slept at their houses; attended church, counseling sessions, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and Child Protective Services appointments with them; joined them at births and funerals; and generally embedded myself as deeply as possible into their lives.”
During his brainstorming phase he would draw an arc on a large block of butcher paper for each of the eight stories that make up the eight chapters of his book. Then he would add lines branching off from the arc, each representing a pattern or idea that he wanted to accentuate at that point in the narrative.
By inverting the regular method of having the narrative play second fiddle to the idea and putting the narrative and the people first, Desmond allows the reader to embrace people’s complexity and own his or his own emotional response to the story.
The first time you meet the landlord Sherrena Tarver, for example, Desmond describes her with “bobbed hair and fresh nails” delivering groceries to her tenant Arleen.
“I want readers to meet that side of Sherrena before seeing some other things, so when they leave, they feel a bit complicated or unsteady about her,” Desmond says. “That meant putting details in certain places in the book.”
“That’s what gives ethnography its emotional power and emotional intelligence, which shouldn’t be underrated,” says Desmond. “You drop a certain detail too early, and a reader will write a person off,” he says. “We don’t introduce ourselves on a first date with the worst thing we ever did or a really embarrassing moment.”
At book tour stops in Louisiana and Houston and California, people wondered about their city’s eviction rates — were they high or low? what kinds of policies were in play? — all questions that Desmond didn’t have an answer to.
That’s what prompted him to create the Eviction Lab, where visitors can search for data on almost any city or state, see how their region stacks up against others, look at maps of eviction rates, and much more. The lab originated at Harvard as a three-person team that made calls to court systems across the country to request eviction data through the Freedom of Information Act.
“It takes time to coax this data out of a system that isn’t necessarily designed to present this information for research purposes,” says senior research specialist James Hendrickson, who was a part of the original team at Harvard.
Over time, they were able to assemble, clean, and process data from more than 83 million court records to create the first-ever national database of eviction records, which went public in April, 2018.
They found that in 2016 — the latest year for which data has been published — about 2.3 million Americans lived in a home that received an eviction judgment. That same year, one in 10 evictions in Virginia were for delinquencies less than $340.
“It’s been a different engagement from what social scientists produce,” says Desmond. “The idea wasn’t just to build the database and analyze the crisis with the best biggest data possible but also to create a tool that everyone can use.”
The Eviction Lab will be publishing post-2016 data as it becomes available.