poverty and evictions-2
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Does Poverty Explain Evictions?

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In Homelessness is a Housing Problem, author Gregg Colburn offers a striking analysis of poverty and homelessness in U.S. cities. Contrary to the common assumption that poverty causes homelessness, Colburn’s analysis reveals relatively low poverty rates where homelessness rates are relatively high. In fact, the analysis finds a negative, albeit weak, correlation between rates of poverty and homelessness.

Detroit, Michigan, is a case in point. In 2012, 42 percent of Detroit residents were living below the poverty level. Yet, Detroit’s per-capita homelessness rate is one of the lowest in the country, dropping from 4.4 homeless people per 1,000 in 2011 to 2.6 homeless people per 1,000 in 2018. In contrast, San Francisco has the lowest rate of poverty in Colburn’s sample and one of the highest rates of homelessness in the nation.

While Colburn’s ultimate takeaway – captured in the book’s telling title – that homelessness is solved by creating housing is debatable, the book’s analysis of data can help us sift through factors, distinguish between causality and correlation in the data, and analyze individual and city-level trends. Understanding what variables are, and are not, related to homelessness at a high level is, as Colburn argues, important for addressing the narratives that dominate the public’s perception of homelessness. If poverty explained homelessness, we would not expect to see the negative association between rates of poverty and homelessness that the book presents.

There is a parallel dominant public perception that housing evictions are primarily driven by economic factors. As the narrative goes, a tenant is struggling financially, can’t pay rent, and is forced to leave their home. If this were the case, we would expect to see a strong, positive correlation between poverty and eviction – that is, high eviction rates in areas with high poverty rates.

In King County, the Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project provides data on the number of evictions filed and number of people in poverty in each zip code in the county from 2013 through 2017. The data is now seven to ten years old and precedes a marked change in eviction policy in the region, but it still provides a useful pulse on the association between poverty and evictions.

Plotting the per capita rate of eviction filings against the rate of poverty reveals a weak correlation between eviction and poverty. In Seattle’s 98105 zip code, 241 people per 1,000 are living in poverty and 1.17 evictions were filed per 1,000 people. In Auburn’s 98047 zip code, 71 people per 1,000 are living in poverty and 3.63 evictions were filed per 1,000 people. The Seattle zip code has more than three times the rate of poverty and yet less than one-third the rate of eviction filings.

The data reveals substantial variation between zip codes when it comes to poverty and evictions. Just as poverty may play a role in an individual’s becoming homeless, poverty may be a factor in an individual’s being evicted. But the data, at least in King County, simply doesn’t allow us to make a strong correlation argument, let alone a causal one. In King County, someone’s economic status isn’t a good indicator of their likelihood of being evicted.

Princeton University’s Eviction Lab corroborates the King County data on a statewide level. A comparison between counties in Washington State in 2018 reveals a negative, very weak correlation between rates of poverty and rates of eviction filings. The association at a county level is far weaker than at a zip code level in King County.

Both sets of data comparing poverty and evictions are important, because they tell us that efforts to decrease evictions focused merely on economic relief are not the cure-all many would like them to be. Likely, most evictions are surrounded by complex circumstances—a mix of personal and environmental factors, some within and some outside a tenant’s control. Since poverty alone can’t explain a prevalence of evictions, money alone can’t be the answer. Without accounting for this fact, housing policy and eviction aid will be, at best, unsustainable, and at worst, harmful to all parties involved.

Caitlyn McKenney

Program Coordinator, Center on Wealth and Poverty
Caitlyn (Axe) McKenney is program coordinator for Discovery Institute’s Center on Wealth & Poverty. Her work has centered on government fiscal accountability, political rhetoric, and addiction with a focus on human dignity ethics. Caitlyn is a graduate of the University of Washington, has interned for a political advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., and has participated in the Vita Institute at the University of Notre Dame. She is published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, has contributed at the Federalist, and has made local and national media appearances.