American suburbs have changed dramatically over the last several decades. Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, suburbs were largely white, middle-class spaces. Over time, they’ve become poorer, more diverse, and—as we show in a new study published in RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences—the site of a growing share of eviction cases.
READ THE STUDY:
by Devin Q. Rutan, Peter Hepburn, and Matthew Desmond
We used millions of court records from across the country to track how common eviction cases are in cities and their suburbs, and how that has changed over time. Building on previous work, we focused on 74 of the largest metro areas in the U.S.—cities and their surrounding suburbs—where we had reliable data covering the years 2000 to 2016. Our sample included metro areas across the country, from Boston to Phoenix, Pensacola, FL to Olympia, WA.
In 2000, evictions were far more common in cities than in suburbs, but that gap shrank steadily over time. By 2016, evictions were in many metro areas nearly as frequent in suburbs as in cities.
In some metropolitan areas, this increase in suburban evictions played out more quickly and dramatically than in others. In the article we provide detailed case studies of Cleveland, Seattle, and Tampa to show what this looked like. In Cleveland, revitalization of the downtown core since the turn of the millennium pushed poor residents to the suburbs. Over time, a much larger share of eviction cases in the metro area came from these suburbs.
This process started even earlier in Seattle, where the tech boom of the ‘90s pushed poor and Black residents out of the urban core. By 2000, 61% of poor residents of the metro area already lived in the suburbs, and that share grew over the next twenty years. This led to similar results: a growing share of eviction cases in the suburbs, many of them far from the urban core. By contrast, eviction patterns were relatively stable over time in Tampa, showing that this suburban shift in eviction isn’t a given.
Overall, we find that the share of suburban evictions increased over time in 59 of the 74 metropolitan areas in our sample. We plot these changes over time in Figure 2. Cities at the top of this graph had a large share of suburban evictions back in 2000, while evictions were more heavily concentrated in urban neighborhoods in cities at the bottom of the graph. The arrows represent the change over time, an increasing (to the right) or decreasing (to the left) share of suburban evictions. By 2016, suburbs accounted for more than half of all evictions in 34 of these metro areas.
There are large racial disparities in eviction risk, with Black and Latino renters facing a disproportionate share of eviction cases in both cities and suburbs. We found that these racial disparities were particularly large in the West and tended to be smaller in Southern metropolitan areas. In most of the metropolitan areas we studied, racial disparities were larger in cities than in suburbs. That is, relative to white residents, Black and Latino renters often face higher eviction rates, and these differences are larger in cities than suburbs. But this wasn’t always the case. Especially when looking at Latino-white differences in eviction risk, many suburbs were more unequal than cities.
Low-income renters move to the suburbs for a variety of reasons: sometimes forced by financial pressures and sometimes looking for more affordability, safety, better schools, or economic opportunities. But in these areas they also face unique challenges, especially when they fall on hard times. Food banks, legal aid groups, and other social service nonprofits are often located in city centers, putting them out of reach for suburban renters. Inadequate public transit can make navigating suburban spaces difficult, and poor households who own cars have extra expenses for gas, insurance, and maintenance that may make it harder to keep up with rent. A missed bus or a flat tire may cause someone to miss work and lose their job, putting them into a suddenly precarious position. And, if a tenant is evicted, there are fewer shelters and a weaker safety net in suburban communities—families may simply have nowhere to go.
In order to effectively address the national housing crisis, we need policies that deliver relief to low-income tenants where they live, both in cities and suburbs. That can mean a variety of changes that recognize the vulnerability of suburban renters: