Thursday, July 16, 2020
At Virginia Commonwealth University, researchers have been launching projects to address and assess the impact of the novel coronavirus. Their work ranges from vaccine development and building biobanks to study the virus to examinations of how the pandemic is affecting food access in vulnerable communities. These are some of their stories.
The RVA Eviction Lab, housed at Virginia Commonwealth University within the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, provides data and analysis about housing evictions in the Richmond region, which has been found to have the second-highest eviction rate in the United States.
Now, as a moratorium on evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic has expired in Virginia, the lab’s work in support of policymakers, nonprofit organizations and housing advocates is needed more than ever.
“COVID ultimately exacerbated existing inequality. It exposed what was already there and made it really painfully obvious. And I think it’s going to make the ripple effects of eviction within COVID really intense,” said Kathryn Howell, Ph.D., co-director of the lab and an associate professor of urban planning in the Wilder School. “We knew that more people would need this data and more people would need this research. So we’re like, ‘OK, let’s figure out how do we do this in a bigger way.’”
Howell and RVA Eviction Lab co-director Ben Teresa, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Wilder School, received a grant from VCU’s COVID-19 Rapid Research Funding Opportunity to expand their work to Petersburg, Hopewell and Hampton Roads.
The project, “Data for Prevention of Eviction and Proactive Engagement with Tenants and Landlords,” is one of 31 to be funded by the program, which is led by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation with support from the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research. The program aims to further VCU research that addresses the impact of the coronavirus.
As part of the project, the RVA Eviction Lab is adding the new localities to its database on evictions, which can provide information on the owners of multifamily housing buildings, who financed certain apartment buildings, the eviction history of owners and properties, and more.
The database is filled with information collected from public documents, such as city assessor records, deeds records, mortgage documents, housing code violations and circuit court eviction records.
“What we’re really interested in overall with the lab is building out data for communities, advocates, housing advocates and attorneys to be able to tackle the eviction problem,” Teresa said. “We know that there’s a dearth of information available for tenants and advocates about where evictions are taking place, subsidy programs that may be covered and so forth. And COVID and the [federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security] Act made this data even more important.”
The CARES Act, passed in late March, halted evictions of renters living in single-family and multifamily properties financed by federally backed mortgages, such as Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Department of Urban and Housing Development, as well as those living in federally assisted housing. The federal moratorium is set to expire July 25. A state freeze on eviction hearings ended June 29, following an order by the Supreme Court of Virginia.
After the CARES Act was passed, the RVA Eviction Lab played an important role in providing data to local organizations that help residents facing possible eviction.
“We were able to run a list immediately for our Richmond partners to say: These are the buildings we know are covered under the CARES Act,” Howell said. “It became data for action.”
The team also provided valuable information from its Richmond-area evictions database.
“[Our] database has allowed us to respond when community organizations say, ‘Hey, we’ve got this landlord and he seems to be in a couple of different places. What other buildings does he own?’” Howell said. “The data on what buildings are owned by whom is often not readily available, [because] each building is an LLC. And the ownership of that LLC is kind of hidden and you have to do some digging to figure out who owns it. So that’s been something we’ve been able to respond to.”
The idea is that with more information about evictions, better policies can be enacted at the local level, Howell said.
An issue of racial justice
As part of its COVID-19 Rapid Research Funding Opportunity project, the lab’s student researchers have been pulling together eviction data amid the pandemic.
“Where were we at coming into this COVID crisis in terms of the data, those sort of filings? And where have we been in the first five months of the year? And what is the prognosis based on what we’re looking at in the docket of cases moving forward?” Howell said.
In recent weeks, the lab has been sharing various data from its research on Twitter. Among the findings:
- There are currently 1,055 eviction filings pending a court hearing across 108 properties covered under the federal CARES Act in Henrico, Chesterfield and Richmond, 131 of which were filed after the moratorium began in March.
- Though it is difficult to predict the rent problem in Virginia brought about by COVID-19-related job losses, the lab estimates a coming statewide rent shortfall of $239 million to $313 million.
- In Richmond, the majority of evictions are pursued by 23 owners who hold 22% of rental housing.
- Majority Black ZIP codes are six times more likely to have eviction filings that are pending court hearing than majority white ZIP codes in Richmond.
One key research question will investigate the racial disparities in housing instability and eviction.
“It’s important to understand and really treat this problem as an issue of racial justice,” Teresa said.
The lab has partnered with the nonprofit Housing Opportunities Made Equal to get a closer picture of evictions at the individual level, particularly its impact on women, Black tenants and other tenants of color.
The researchers are also aiming to measure the cost of evictions at the local level.
“We want to try to quantify exactly, what does it cost to have someone evicted? For example, what is the cost for local governments in terms of the sheriff’s cost, or whatever else it might be,” Howell said. “What else could that money be used for in terms of keeping someone in the home?”
‘It’s got to stop somewhere’
At its fundamental level, Howell said, the lab’s work is about stopping reproduction of inequality.
“Not addressing eviction is just reproducing inequality in our communities. Eviction is just one piece of a much longer series going back more than 100 years of displacement and dispossession of African American communities and African American households. It’s got to stop somewhere,” she said. “And to really do that, we have to understand this at a deeper level, and really dig in because people don’t necessarily buy it, right? Evictions are framed as this kind of individual one-time problem. But we know it’s not. We know that it has ramifications in the long term in terms of instability and inability to find housing.”
The problem of evictions, she said, can affect generations’ ability to live in a particular community, can destroy the finances of a family for a long time, and can harm mental and physical health, often among already the most marginalized people in a community.
“From a deeper level, it’s really about voice and power and that’s part of why we’re doing the data. Landlords know everything about their tenants, tenants know nothing about their landlords,” she said. “And so that inequality in knowledge sort of perpetuates these kinds of inequalities. You don’t know like, Oh, wow, this landlord apparently evicts 30% of their tenants every year. That would probably be good to know if you were going into this situation. I would want to know.”
Evictions, she added, are an issue that has economic ramifications far beyond the individual or household level.
In the pandemic, she said, the economic fallout from the coming wave of evictions will reverberate for a long time. If households owe money from an eviction or are homeless, they are not spending in the economy for necessities or discretionary goods and services.
“This is not going to be over when we reopen, when we get to phase four,” she said. “People still are going to owe money and they’re going to be under mountains of debt and businesses aren’t necessarily going to come back. Power, racism, economics, these are all things we need to be dealing with. [We need to ask] how do we not evict people?"
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