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What’s driving evictions in Richmond?

The RVA Eviction Lab at VCU’s Wilder School has received a Ford Foundation grant to understand the causes — and the impact — of Richmond’s eviction rate, the second highest in the country.

Overhead photo of Richmond, Virginia.
Richmond has the second-highest eviction rate in the United States. (File photo)

Richmond has the second-highest eviction rate in the United States, and five of the top 10 cities in the country with the highest eviction rates are in Virginia, according to an analysis of millions of eviction court cases by the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.

But what is behind those statistics? What exactly leads to tenants being evicted from their homes? Who are the populations most affected? What kind of buildings are they being evicted from? And what does eviction mean for families? What does it mean for neighborhoods and the community?

To answer these questions, Kathryn Howell, Ph.D., and Benjamin Teresa, Ph.D., assistant professors in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public AffairsUrban and Regional Studies and Planning program and co-founders of the RVA Eviction Lab, are launching a new project to build a database on Richmond evictions at the ground level.

Howell and Teresa have received a $30,000 grant from the Ford Foundation. The project, "Co-Producing Strategic Knowledge: Evictions, civic engagement and policy change,” aims to build civic infrastructure and produce knowledge that will foster the development of long-term, durable coalitions for community organizing and political advocacy that can address housing and community development needs.

“We’ve looked at things like census data that have given us a sense of the potential factors driving evictions on the large scale,” Howell said. “But what we really don’t know is what’s driving evictions at the household level. And, more importantly, not just what policies do we need, but how do we make those policies happen? How do we develop the political will? How do we get people engaged in the conversation?”

To build the database, the researchers will collect information from a variety of public documents, including city assessor records, deeds records, mortgage documents, housing code violations, circuit court eviction records and more.

They expect it will require a bit of detective work. For example, determining who owns a particular apartment complex can be tricky if it’s owned by a limited liability corporation that can obscure the landlord’s identity.

“We want to be able to take this data set and say, ‘OK, it looks like we’ve got three or four big buildings that happen to be the root of so many of Richmond’s evictions. What do we know about those buildings?” Teresa said.

“And then we can ask: Is there something else we should be knowing about other buildings?” he said. “Because then you can start to build out indicators of problems moving forward with other buildings. And it can help us start to understand some of the pathways to eviction, some of the reasons that buildings get into trouble, and some of the reasons tenants get into trouble.”

Alongside the data collection aspect of the project, the researchers also will build and strengthen networks with community partners.

“We’ll be taking this out into the community and asking: How do we co-produce this right from the ground up and the top down and meet somewhere in the middle to create something that’s actually useful for residents, for policymakers, for decision makers [to] understand more than just there are evictions. But what does eviction look like? What kind of buildings are we evicting people from? What's that impact on neighborhoods? What's the bigger picture?” Howell said.

The project is part of the larger work of the RVA Eviction Lab, which was created in 2018 to study evictions in the Richmond area and support the work of local government, community-based organizations, elected officials and other advocates.

In recent months, the lab has produced qualitative and quantitative research reports on topics such as eviction and rental housing markets across Virginia, eviction and education instability in Richmond, and the factors beyond poverty driving eviction rates — notably including neighborhood racial composition — in the Richmond area.

The goal, Teresa said, is to generate data and knowledge that will have a practical effect in reducing eviction in Richmond. That’s important, he said, because housing instability impacts jobs, health, education, transportation, economic inequality and the overall health of the region.

“Eviction plays a role in a cycle of displacement for people and it has a demobilizing effect and it exacerbates economic and political inequality,” Teresa said. “If you don't have stable housing, if you’re displaced, both the community suffers from that instability as well as families and individuals.”