by Noldy Belizaire, Phillip Carnell and Colin Delargy
Maps are a popular tool used for tracking evictions (for example here, here, and here). Mapping provides an accessible, attractive and easy-to-use way of communicating information to a wide audience. While evictions have always been a chronic problem in Atlanta, COVID-19 has put the limelight on this topic as housing insecurity has skyrocketed with the economic fallout from the pandemic. It is more and more important get critical information out to advocates who are assisting renters facing eviction. Our group met up with one tenant advocacy organization in Atlanta, Housing Justice League (HJL) to dialogue about how well available mapping tools for Atlanta help them accomplish their goals. From this meeting, we took some of the feedback and gaps raised by HJL to create an updated mapping tool better suited to their needs. In this post, we talk about the considerations that have gone into the development of this tool and outline some of its features. We tried to create a tool that can be used to achieve a broad range of HJL’s goals and be used by various stakeholders that HJL works with. Our map builds off of others by being able to auto-populate new eviction data as it comes in, by focusing on useability and by providing evictions data at the hyper-local building level (rather than aggregating by census tract).
Background – Evictions and evictions data
National and local media outlets have given attention to a current and impeding eviction crisis. Although this crisis is most acutely due to the COVID-19 economic crisis, its roots extend back at least to policy and market responses in the years following the 2008 mortgage crisis. The response of the federal government to this crisis has been sloppy, shallow and inconsistent. Although some policies for preventing widespread eviction have been issued by federal agencies, there is no coordinated national program or practice to act on those policies, nor any guarantee of their longevity. This action, and by extent the processing of evictions themselves, is instead largely handled at local, county and state levels (Benford, Greene & Hagan, 2020). This means that effective tenant advocacy must focus on the needs, legislative context and practices at the local level, rather than dealing with broader national strategies (Graziani & Shi, 2020).
Activist and advocacy groups have a long history of assisting tenants facing eviction in Atlanta, where eviction rates have been among the highest in the country for years. The current crisis has impacted their approaches, however, by forcing them to act more swiftly and more comprehensively in recent months. Organizations have had to update their operations to deal with the scope and speed of COVID-caused evictions. In addition, they have had to untangle – and help tenants untangle inconsistent and confusing government mandates regarding eviction moratoriums. Community organizations find themselves checking whether evictions are legal or illegal, formal (through the courts) or informal, and isolated or structural. The strategies that local advocates then pursue also have to encompass the particularities of each of a broad range of contexts.
Both evictions and evictions data are complicated, messy phenomena that take on a variety of forms. Formal evictions filed within county courts, for example, only represent a small, legally documented subset of evictions. The reality of eviction is that both informal and illegal evictions go undocumented and organizing data-driven interventions for these types of displacements is very difficult. Evictions data themselves are not perfect indicators for displacement either, because different types of landlords use eviction fillings for different reasons. While large, corporate landlords regularly file for evictions as a pro forma warning sign to tenants, these filings do not always signify an intent to remove evictees. On the other hand, smaller landlords who might be willing to work with tenants on a personal level to arrange rent payments will choose eviction as a last resort to get an actual removal (Garboden & Rosen, 2019; Immergluck, et al. 2020). It is important to recognize the limitations of evictions data because it informs the limitations we face in trying to map that data. Although mapping tools can support activists, they must be accompanied by other actions to get to the problems at the heart of the eviction crisis.
Nevertheless, eviction trends in Atlanta – in both the subset of formal filings and generally – are concentrated spatially and demographically in neighborhoods with high rates of black and indigenous people of color (BIPOC) residents (Immergluck, et al. 2020). Housing insecurity affects BIPOC disparately and is most rampant in areas of the city with higher concentrations of BIPOC (Immergluck, et al. 2020). Other spatially determined variables affect the rate of evictions in an area, including landlord type, rate of tenure and income level, all of which also have a spatial component. Literature suggests that the causes of eviction extend beyond just not being able to pay rent and that evictions contribute to a self-perpetuating cycle of housing insecurity in areas where they are most widespread.
To facilitate eviction advocacy during the COVID-19 pandemic, HJL reached out to a faculty member at Georgia Tech’s School of City and Regional Planning. Our group responded to this request and are collaborating together to effectively mobilize our resources to the needs of HJL.
What resources and goals are we actually talking about here? HJL has worked for years advocating for tenants mostly in Fulton County. Their work has included both the ground work of mitigating current evictions as well as broader organizing strategies to help tenant groups form, self-advocate and work with one another. HJL has enjoyed recent success in outreach efforts that were hyper-local in targeting tenants threatened by evictions (canvasing and distributing flyers at the block or building-level). At the same time, a central tenet of their work is providing strategic assistance across the county to renters (see their Eviction Defense Manual).
Tenant organizing and activism practices are often seen in conjunction with planning and planning researchers throughout communities in the US. One inspiring example for us has been the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (AEMP) in the San Francisco Bay area (Maharawal & McElroy, 2017). In addition to using mappings to do eviction advocacy, AEMP has focused on addressing issues that often accompany collaborations between academia and activist initiatives. Researchers have widespread means of mobilizing resources, but they have also been accused of coopting or ignoring the knowledge generated “on the ground”, retaining a monopoly on knowledge production, prioritizing their own work over others’ and actually undermining or sidelining advocacy efforts of other organizations (Graziani & Shi, 2020). Obviously, we want to avoid these traits where we can. One approach we took was that rather than predefining our resources, we met with HJL in order to identify an inventory of resources would be most useful to them. These wound up being:
▫ Access to data on formal evictions and property ownership across Atlanta’s five county region
▫ Knowledge of broad eviction trends (both across space and time)
▫ Access to data processing programs (some of which are quite expensive/require expert knowledge to use)
▫ Access to IT professionals with a concentration in spatial data analysis
▫ Use of online resources including server storage (for storing/hosting databases and interface) and this blog!
Housing Justice League, on the other hand:
▫ Has extensive knowledge and practice in organizing and protecting tenants
▫ Practical insight into what approaches and tools are most effective for reducing the total number of evictions and removals
▫ A strong networks of tenant organizations throughout the county
▫ Existing effective advocacy tools to inform and give meat to new efforts
In light of these resources and limitations that each group is faced with, we have decided to develop a beta-model of an online interactive mapping of evictions as a first output of our collaboration. More information on this model will be presented in future posts.
Initial evictions data has been gathered for this project and a request for a prototype map has been sent out to the Center for Spatial Planning Analytics and Visualization (CSPAV) at Georgia Tech. In the next phase of the project, we will continue to work with and between CSPAV and HJL to ensure the product that is developed is actually useable. In addition to collecting more data and collaborating on the design process, we are planning two feedback rounds between HJL and CSPAV before launching the tool.