What happens when one’s home is taken away? That’s a question that far too many people have had to ask themselves when faced with eviction, and one that looms in “Evicted,” a new exhibition at Washington, D.C.’s National Building Museum.
“We now know from looking at 80 million eviction records from across the country that in 2016, 2.3 million people were touched by eviction,” says sociologist Matthew Desmond, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City serves as the prompt for the exhibition by the same title. “Evicted” tells the stories of those who have returned home to find all of their personal belongings stacked curbside—or, worse still, shrink-wrapped and carted away to a bonded storage warehouse. It shows the courtrooms where landlords appear with their lawyers, and former tenants often don’t show up, knowing that their failure to pay rent has decided their cases whether they appear or not. The exhibition maps eviction data, proving it to be not just a local or regional problem, but a nationwide epidemic that, as Desmond explains, is as much a cause of poverty as it is a result of it. “This is a problem that is affecting the streets of communities all across the country,” he says. “Through our work at the Eviction Lab, a Princeton University–based team that researches evictions in America], we’ve been able to see this, and take a problem that’s been invisible and bring it to light, and literally put it on the map.”
The map to which Desmond refers covers the first wall of the exhibition with moving boxes scaled according to the number of evictions per state, painting a tangible picture of just how widespread eviction has become in America. “You can see the weight of this problem at a national level that we were never able to before,” Desmond says. “For me, housing should be a right for everyone who lives in this country. It should be part of what it means to be an American, because without it, everything else falls apart.”
As alarming as the statistics are—one in nine renting families were evicted last year in Richmond, Va.; one in 13 were evicted in Wilmington, Del.; one in 21 in Albuquerque, Desmond says—the stories told within the exhibition are even more jarring. In his book, Desmond follows eight Milwaukee families on their eviction journeys over the course of 19 months. The exhibition presents a smaller sampling of narratives in brief video documentary format, housed within four gabled forms rendered in square steel tubes with Homasote walls. These video installations introduce visitors to the epidemic of eviction, then to two young women who share their intensely personal stories within the intimate confines of these small structures, and lastly to the court system that almost inevitably fails to deliver justice or even reprieve to evicted tenants. The wallpapered outsides of these mini-houses display infographics that reveal further statistics on eviction: 88 percent of extremely low-income (ELI) families spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent; 75 percent of ELI families spend more than half their income on rent.
The final gallery of the exhibition shows signs of promise and hope beyond the devastation that eviction wreaks upon families, their jobs, and their futures. Exhibition curator Sarah A. Leavitt introduces another map that points to the eradication of nuisance ordinance laws, which allow landlords to evict tenants at properties to which the police have been called on multiple occasions. Right to counsel legislation in some areas, Leavitt adds, would provide funding for attorneys on the tenant side of evictions, and efforts to promote that legislation are underway.
“I hope people do get upset,” says Leavitt, who describes feeling grief-stricken after reading Desmond’s book. “That may be a strange thing to say. But I hope that leads to action. We are actors, we can make change, we can do the work.”
“Evicted” is free to all at the National Building Museum and runs through May 19, 2019.