Forced Relocations Hit Poor Particularly Hard

Moves lead to pattern of continued housing instability

(This article appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of SSA Magazine.)

Americans are famously restless, always on the move. This is true of families, too, who often move in search of bigger houses, safer streets, and better schools. For the poor, however, the story is more complicated. For them, moving is often not by choice, and it often does not lead to something better.

Between 2005 and 2010, half of all households below the poverty line moved a least once. Children from poor families are twice as likely as those from wealthier families to experience frequent moves. Residential instability  has been connected to a variety of social and health ills; it is seen as a driver of social inequality and health disparities. Stable neighborhoods, on the other hand, have been shown to benefit both families and communities.

And yet the causes of residential instability are poorly understood. Now, a new study finds that forced displacement, including evictions, is a major driver of residential instability among low-income families, often leading to multiple moves.

Matthew Desmond, an assistant professor at Harvard University, and two Harvard colleagues, Carl Gershenson and Barbara Kiviat, analyzed data from more than 1,000 households in Milwaukee, WI, in an effort to understand the patterns and mechanisms of mobility among urban renters. The result of their study, "Forced Relocation and Residential Instability among Urban Renters," appears in the June 2015 Social Service Review.

Desmond and his colleagues found that poor renters experienced a higher percentage of forced moves than other income groups. Among the lowest quarter of households, by income, about 42 percent of households moved once or more during the previous two years, compared to 56 percent of the wealthiest households. And yet among the poorest households 23 percent of the moves were forced, compared to 14 percent of the wealthiest. (The poorest quarter of renting households earned less than $12,204 a year; the wealthiest earned more than $32,400.)

The forced moves sprang from a variety of causes, including formal evictions, foreclosures on the landlord's property, and problems with the housing. Informal evictions were the most common cause of forced moves, with landlords and not courts initiating eviction.

The study also found that forced displacement often led to more than one move. A displaced family would move into a rundown apartment or house and then, within a few months, move into something better. Forced relocation thus increases and drives residential instability beyond the eviction itself, by raising the chances that a family will move into low-quality housing and then look to quickly move out of it.

This was especially true of households with children. The authors suggest that "households with children face unique obstacles when attempting to find subsequent housing after experiencing a forced move" and that "parents or caretakers feel an extra measure of urgency to move their children away from degrading and dangerous housing conditions."

The study was based on data collected by the University of Wisconsin Survey Center.

The authors suggest a number of policy changes to help poor families. One is to offer free legal counsel to families facing eviction. Another is to increase the supply of affordable housing by building more public housing and requiring local developers to build more affordable units.


Desmond, Matthew; Gershenson, Carl; and Kiviat, Barbara. "Forced Relocation and Residential Instability among Urban Renters." Social Service Review, 89 (2): 227-262.