By Emily A. Benfer
Without a nationwide commitment to sustainable eviction prevention, the United States will fail the rising number of renter households at risk of eviction. Worse still, the country will set millions of children on the path of long-term scarring and health inequity.
A staggering 14.8% of all children and 28.9% of children in families living below the poverty line experience an eviction by the time they are 15. For children, eviction functions as a major life event that has damaging effects long after they are forced to leave their home. It negatively affects emotional and physical well-being; increases the likelihood of emotional trauma, lead poisoning, and food insecurity; leads to academic decline and delays; and could increase all-cause mortality risk.
In a recent study, researchers found that for young children, eviction was associated with significantly greater odds of fair or poor health, developmental risk, and hospital admission from the emergency department. Newborn infants whose mothers are evicted during their pregnancy are more likely to have low birth weight, preterm birth, neonatal intensive care unit stays, and extended hospitalization. In this way, eviction has negative effects across the life course.
The evidence is clear: child health and housing security are deeply intertwined.
Nevertheless, and despite the extensively documented harms, children remain at heightened risk of facing eviction. Families with children are more likely than those without to be evicted, according to a study led by Matthew Desmond, MacArthur Genius Award winner and principal investigator of the Eviction Lab. In fact, despite the Fair Housing Act’s prohibition of discrimination on the basis of familial status, families with children are three times more likely to be evicted than other households. Families of children born with adverse birth outcomes are substantially more likely to be evicted in the first 5 years of their child’s life. The highest risk of eviction falls among families with Black children, who are nearly twice as likely as white children to be evicted.
Compounding the harm, few jurisdictions shield infants and children from being named as defendants in an eviction lawsuit, leaving landlords with a ready intimidation tactic and weaponizing eviction. In some states, all members of the household must be named before a warrant of eviction can be executed. Only a handful of states allow sealing or expunging eviction records. Without this option, children and young adults named in an eviction case are practically excluded from the housing market well before they are legally able to enter a binding lease.
An eviction record can permanently scar a tenant’s rental history, even when the case is decided in a tenant’s favor. An eviction makes it more difficult and more expensive to find housing, obtain or maintain employment, borrow money, or purchase a home. Families attempting to recover from an eviction are often pushed to the outskirts of the rental market and into substandard housing in communities with higher rates of crime, poverty, and under-resourced schools.
According to Desmond, “All of these factors lead to reproduction of urban poverty.” In this way, eviction operates as a vehicle of subordination. Without swift and meaningful interventions, eviction will continue to trigger a cycle of perpetual harm that disproportionately affects historically marginalized groups and poses insurmountable barriers to opportunity for generations to come.
The United States is at a pivotal juncture: stay the course and push vulnerable children and adults through a system bereft of equity and justice or replace the eviction machine with affordable housing and the protections proven to work during the pandemic.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, widespread job and wage loss put millions of families on the brink of eviction and at heightened risk of COVID-19 infection and mortality. Yet a series of evidence-based interventions — including equitably distributed Emergency Rental Assistance, diversion programs, and right-to-counsel laws and programs, along with over $12.9 billion in American Rescue Plan funds budgeted for state and local housing development and preservation needs — created an exceptional period that bolstered pillars of resiliency. For the first time in history, millions of renter households had the necessary resources to fend off eviction and homelessness on a nationwide scale.
In part due to the deliberate strategies and guidance adopted by the White House American Rescue Plan Implementation Team and the U.S. Department of the Treasury, eviction filing rates fell to 50% of historic averages in 2021, instead of doubling during the pandemic, as economists Jim Parrot and Mark Zandi projected. Majority-Black communities saw the largest reduction in evictions. Even against the backdrop of the worst housing crisis in a century, where affordable housing is out of reach in every state, the country prevented the looming eviction cliff and its devastating consequences to health and stability for adults and children.
However, these successful outcomes will only last as long as the protections. As the $46.55 billion in Emergency Rental Assistance dries up and pandemic reforms lapse, eviction filings can be expected to return to or surpass their pre-pandemic levels, when 7 evictions are filed every minute and 3.6 million eviction cases are filed annually.
The approach to housing policy in this moment will dictate both the status of health equity and the extent of childhood well-being across the country.
To start, Congress should create a permanent Emergency Rental Assistance program and dedicate resources for pre-filing eviction diversion programs, like those elevated by the White House and urged by the U.S. Department of Justice. Equally important, states and localities should adopt just cause eviction standards, tenant right to counsel, laws that automatically seal or expunge eviction records and regulate the use of eviction records, as well as prohibitions on harmful practices like nuisance ordinances and naming minors in eviction.
At the same time, Congress must increase resources for chronically underfunded federal housing programs, invest in the development of — and equitable access to — affordable housing to increase the nation’s safe and decent housing supply, and ensure the full implementation of the Biden-Harris Administration’s Housing Supply Action Plan. Most importantly, policy makers must give deference to and create opportunities for the communities most affected by the crisis to develop and exercise political power as leaders in problem solving. These immediate interventions, rooted in principles of health justice, will enable the country to increase housing stability and avoid the profound human costs of eviction.
Ultimately, our undeniable responsibility at this critical moment is to eliminate the longstanding patterns of housing and health inequity. Our ability to lay a path of health, well-being, and opportunity for all children depends upon it.
Emily A. Benfer is a Visiting Professor of Clinical Law at the George Washington University School of Law and a Visiting Research Collaborator at The Eviction Lab, Princeton University.