In Richmond, Virginia, one in nine renters were evicted in 2016. It’s a staggering figure, born of a new analysis of 900,000 eviction records taken from 83 million court documents that shows just how widespread eviction is in a subsection of cities around the United States. The research, by Princeton University professor Matthew Desmond, points to a deeper problem: a downward cycle of poverty that eviction exacerbates.
It’s one thing to name a statistic; it’s another to see the people behind it. A new exhibition at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., uses photography and recordings to tell the human side of these statistics. Based on Desmond’s 2016 book Evicted, which was cited by both President Obama and Bill Gates as one of the best books they’d read that year, the exhibition presents eviction–defined by when residents are removed from their homes because of a court order–within a larger context. People don’t just lose their homes when they’re evicted; they can also lose stability in other aspects of their lives, from their jobs to their mental health.
The exhibition’s searing photographs capture that personal toll. Black and white images by photographers Michael Kienitz and Sally Ryan depict the moment people are forced out of their homes. In one photograph, a woman sits on her former front steps, looking up at a police officer as two young men carry belongings out of a house. It’s clear who’s in power. In another, a police officer leans against a doorway in a nearly empty home, his figure mostly in shadow. Gloria Rhodes, age 64, sits on a chair near the officer and next to a pile of trash, her face in profile, the body language of her taut frame suggesting fear as employees of Eagle Moving and Storage Company empty out the apartment she shared with her daughter.
In a third image, a sheriff supervises as a man carries his things and sets them in a giant pile on the curb: mattresses, boxes, laundry baskets filled with clothes, a fan. There’s a moving truck in the background, but it’s empty: It’s unclear where this man will end up.
Based on Desmond’s work and reporting by the New York Times, people who are evicted face a serious challenge to finding a new place to live, as landlords are often much more hesitant to rent to them in the future. At the homeless shelter Coalition for the Homeless in New York City, the most common reason for people ending up there is eviction–not drugs or mental illness. When evicted, children in families might have to change schools. If the families are on food stamps or another kind of government support, they may lose that too because there’s no place to send renewal notices.
Tenants can fight their evictions. But the deck is stacked against them, and most tenants don’t show up in court to plead their case. In Richmond, people who receive eviction notices aren’t guaranteed access to a lawyer (studies have shown that tenants who have legal representation in housing court are 80% less likely to be evicted). Those who do show up to defend themselves can’t bring their cell phones inside the courthouse, forcing those who’ve arrived using public transportation to stash them in the bushes outside of the courthouse where it could be stolen. The median amount people owed landlords in the county in 2016 was $686.
In the exhibition, visitors can gain deeper insight into the cycle of eviction through short video documentaries, featured within steel structures built to resemble houses. The outsides of these structures reveal yet more shocking statistics, like the fact that three-quarters of low-income families in the U.S. spend 50% of their income on rent.
But eviction rates can be mitigated by policy. In Virginia right now, laws favor landlords over tenants, according to Richmond’s mayor Levar Stoney, a tradition that goes back to the days when the state was dominated by plantations. For instance, Virginia tenants don’t have the right to deduct repair costs from their rent. Nor do they have access to legal aid or have protection against rent hikes.
By pairing hard data with human stories, Desmond’s work–through the exhibition and otherwise–hopes to encourage change.