Data Science Institute event focuses on eviction, housing inequality in Virginia

The talk featured a presentation from VCU researchers with data on housing issues in the state capital

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The talk featured data collected by a statistical research project run by Professors Howell and Teresa at VCU’s Center for Urban and Regional Analysis.

Lauren Yun | Cavalier Daily

The University’s Data Science Institute hosted Virginia Commonwealth University researchers Kathryn Howell and Benjamin Teresa Friday afternoon for a discussion on statistical approaches to eviction and housing inequality in Virginia’s major cities. While primarily aimed at Richmond, the presentation also touched on other urban areas with similar housing concerns, including Charlottesville and Norfolk. The event, which was held in Ruffner Hall, was co-sponsored by the DSI and the Northern Virginia-based Center for Innovative Technology, a non-profit aimed at creating partnerships between tech startups and advanced technology consumers in the state of Virginia. 

The first event this semester of the DSI’s Data Science Research Lunch and Learn series, the talk featured data collected by the RVA Eviction Lab, a statistical research project run by Professors Howell and Teresa at VCU’s Center for Urban and Regional Analysis. The initiative was started in the summer of 2018 and is currently a part of VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. 

According to their website, the RVA Eviction Lab’s data  is used in conjunction with the work of “local government, community-based organizations, elected officials, and other advocates.” Data presented by the RVA Eviction Lab found that of the top ten cities with the highest eviction rates in America, five of them are located in the Commonwealth of Virginia. 

DSI Associate Director for Research Development Claudia Scholz introduced the event, who described the talk not only as an important step in engaging with the data science research community outside the University but as a reflection of the DSI’s own commitment to social justice. 

“We have a mantra in the Data Science Institute that we’re looking at data science for the public good,” Scholz said. “One of the things we’ve been moving towards in the last six months or more is thinking about data for not just the social good but for social justice. What we want to do is think about ways in which data science can be deployed to right the social wrongs and to highlight and bring voice to social inequality.” 

The data in Howell and Teresa’s presentation provided evidence for a state of severe housing inequality in the state capital. The researchers’ current project is partially based on data published by the Princeton Eviction Lab, a team of academics, students and citizen researchers based out of Princeton University that aims to study and track national eviction rates over time and advocate for policies that more equitably address housing inequality in American cities. 

Founded by Princeton sociology professor Matthew Desmond in 2017, the group published a national ranking that named Richmond as a city with one of the highest eviction rates in the U.S. with an average of 11 percent or second overall out of 100 cities. However, some districts exhibit much higher numbers, ranging between 30 and 50 percent.  

For comparison, Charlottesville’s average eviction rate in 2016, based on the same Princeton data, was 1.7 percent in 2016, with a total of 196 evictions for that year. 

While eviction has many immediate causes, such as a failure to pay rent, excessive complaints by neighbors or visits from the police, Teresa argued that structural factors greatly affect the rate of evictions in certain neighborhoods, especially the ratio of white residents to non-white residents as opposed to simply poverty. 

According to Teresa, racial composition is twice as likely to affect eviction rates compared to other factors such as poverty rate, median property value and median household income and is therefore the strongest influence on eviction rates. 

“What we think that means is that there’s something about the structure of both labor markets and housing markets within those neighborhoods that lead to higher eviction rates and that we’re talking about not just how housing markets operate now, but how they’ve historically worked to maintain housing instability across generations,” Teresa said. 

Howell further developed Teresa’s point, adding that housing inequality between neighborhoods, in addition to differences in eviction rates, are frequently a legacy of entrenched patterns of racial discrimination. 

“What we don’t mean when we talk about race … is we don’t necessarily mean a landlord is looking at two tenants and saying ‘You’re in, and you’re out’. It’s much bigger than that,” Howell said. “There are some housing units … that are available to some people, and some housing units are not, and that has to do with historic patterns of discrimination that still persist in Virginia and across the country. And [it’s] also the stability of income and the stability of rental history, credit history, criminal history, that can limit the population that can access certain housing units.” 

According to Howell, high eviction rates in Richmond proper are also a side effect of an acute shortage of affordable housing, which most strongly affects individuals and families making only 50 percent of the area median income in Richmond and its surrounding counties. 

In 2017, the reported median household income for the Richmond metro area was approximately $67,633 — roughly $4,000 lower than the median household income for the entire state of Virginia. 

“When we talk about rent burden, one of the issues is that we’re losing affordable housing resources for those at less than 50 percent of the area median income, and that’s really critical,” Howell said. “[For areas that gained affordable housing facilities], that’s also where we see high percentages of code violations for really poor conditions of housing. What that means is that it also overlays with eviction rates and people are being evicted from poor quality housing that is only getting more affordable because it’s getting poorer and poorer quality.”

In terms of public response to their work, in addition to its influence on housing policy, both Howell and Teresa expressed hopes that their research would be put to good use, either by advocacy groups such as the statewide Campaign to Reduce Evictions and others, or state and local lawmakers hoping to gain a better understanding of their constituencies.

“I think it’s keeping the conversation going,” Howell said. “We’ve actually had … some requests from CARE, as well as from other local organizations asking for particular data points on the education elements, and once we put the information out for Richmond, we had people asking from Norfolk, and from Petersburg and Hopewell wanting to know what they can do. It’s still pretty new, but I think that again it’s keeping the conversation alive.”

While the event was both professors’ first time speaking on-Grounds, both were similarly excited to pursue other avenues of collaboration with the University, especially in terms of the expertise and technological resources that the DSI — to become the School of Data Science sometime between fall 2019 and fall 2020 — has access to. 

“It sounds like there’s some data possibilities with this program, Data Science,” Howell said. “They’ve got some of the technical skills that we don’t necessarily have, and then, there’s some professors that have offered some data and offered connections to other data, so I think that to me that would be really exciting.” 

In speaking to how universities — U.Va. and VCU included — could better address the effect of student housing needs on housing inequality in urban areas, Howell also noted that new approaches are necessary.

“I think one of the things that’s really exciting is universities that are saying ‘Okay, how do we up-zone?’, say, ‘Okay, we know this is going to be an area where students are going to want to live. Let’s direct that,’” Howell said. “That means you can have higher-density housing that is really targeted at students, and it does a few things… It reduces the student impact in the neighborhood from a rental housing market standpoint, but it also makes the neighbors happy.”

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