By Andrew Flowers
…. It wasn’t just the survey process that was tailored to the target population. The questions themselves were, too. Questionnaires used to interview poor people — what sociologists call “material hardship surveys” — tend to ask something like: “Have you ever been evicted?”
“That seems like a valid question,” Desmond said. “But when you spend time with low-income tenants, you realize that’s incomplete.” That’s because there are formal and informal evictions.
A typical image of an eviction may be when a sheriff with a court order and some tough guys move all a renter’s stuff to the sidewalk. But these formal evictions, Desmond found, were comparatively uncommon, making up only 24 percent of all forced moves, according to the MARS data.
Informal evictions were twice as common (48 percent of all forced moves). In these off-the-books evictions, a landlord might, for example, give a tenant $200 to move out by Thursday. Or they might take the door off. Regardless, it happens without a legal paper trail. (To round out the other reasons, the MARS survey found that about 23 percent of forced moves were because of landlord foreclosure and 5 percent because of a building condemnation.)
No matter the reason, the MARS researchers found that when people were forced to move, they often didn’t see it as an eviction. So instead of just asking, “Have you ever been evicted?” the MARS survey posed a roster of questions about a tenant’s housing history — when and where they had lived and why they left. This “moving module” was the centerpiece of the MARS study. By asking more than 250 questions, interviewers like Williams gathered data on every place a respondent lived for at least 30 days over the previous two years. Small wording details made a big difference. Rather than “Where do you live?” people were asked, “Where do you spend most nights?”
“When you say, ‘Where do you live?’ they’re thinking of something quite formal — like where they’re getting their mail or the address they’re registered for government benefits,” DiLoreto said. Where people live and whether they’ve been evicted are questions that aren’t as simple as they might seem.
Armed with arguably the most comprehensive data set on eviction ever collected, the MARS study produced a shocking finding: In the two years before being surveyed, more than 1 in 8 Milwaukee renters were forced to move, whether because of a formal or an informal eviction, foreclosure or condemnation. Also, Desmond’s follow-up research using MARS data has found a strong connection between eviction and subsequent residential instability, even after factoring in the tenant’s income and race. Eviction is linked to substandard housing conditions. And eviction also has seriousnegative health consequences, particularly for children.
Eviction also has a racial and gender bias: “Among renters, over one in five black women report having been evicted sometime in their adult life,” Desmond has found. “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women,” Desmond wrote in his book. “Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”
The MARS survey has drawn so much attention for its innovative questions that the federal government is adopting it into the American Housing Survey, a massive biennial survey on homes, housing costs and related subjects. The survey didn’t ask about eviction at all until 2005; now, it has one question on the subject.
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