The 2008 financial crisis saw failures at every level of elite institutions. There was the failed promise of Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan that the markets would . The failure of policymakers to listen to community advocates who repeatedly about predatory, racist lending practices. And there was a failure to bail out homeowners with the same speed and consideration that our nation’s megabanks received.
But behind these failures was a silent, insidious problem—one made more frustrating because it was comparatively easy to solve: During and after the 2008 crisis, no one actually knew how many evictions and foreclosures took place because no systems existed to track the losses of the affected families’ homes. More than a decade later, as the United States stares down another coming wave of mass displacement during the coronavirus pandemic, there’s still no federal database to track evictions and foreclosures. We’re sleepwalking out of the last crisis, into the next one—and the consequences for ordinary Americans could be grave.
A decade ago, the lack of a government database tracking foreclosures left policymakers reliant on data from the private actors that caused or exacerbated the crisis—like the Mortgage Bankers Association, a front group for the mortgage industry that heavily against state regulations; or the real estate information firm RealtyTrac, which stands to profit handsomely from a foreclosure crisis. As Sam Jewler and Chris Herwig in 2012, the lack of federal data led to wildly different estimates for the number of foreclosures. In Chicago, estimates for vacant properties ranged from around 5,000 (the official ) to (as reported by The Chicago Tribune) to over 100,000 (as city housing activists attested).
There is no official estimate for how many foreclosures there were in the last crisis. Journalist Laura Gottesdeiner, in her book A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home, estimated that people were foreclosed on—a number roughly equivalent to the population of the state of Michigan. In 2009, the Congressional Oversight Panel that without accurate numbers, everyone was “flying blind.” The lack of data had consequences for policymakers, who were unable to do basic things, such as properly deploy resources to the hardest-hit areas or determine how many homeless families there were and where they went after they lost their homes. The absence of reliable information even led to , because voter files no longer had correct addresses.
To address this problem, in 2010, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act the creation of a database to track homeowners who were either late on their mortgage payments or in foreclosure. While there is a , the database’s sample size is woefully small: a mere 5 percent of all mortgage holders. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau makes some anonymized data about mortgage delinquencies available, but it is also based on a 5 percent sample. Ten years since the passage of Dodd-Frank, the robust foreclosure database the law calls for is still nowhere to be found. As the saying goes, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”
While Congress at least attempted to solve its foreclosure blind spots a decade ago, it failed to address the hidden crisis facing renters during the same time frame. People refer to the 2008 crash as the foreclosure crisis, but it was also an eviction crisis. Family homelessness . Private equity firms foreclosed rental properties, leading to consolidation among landlords and predatory practices. Tenants in rental properties were . That housing crisis is still very much with us: A
And now the existing housing crisis is being compounded by the economic and labor shocks of the pandemic. The Evictedhealth impacts
Desmond himself originally proposed a federal evictions database and continues to support it. “The U.S. government should absolutely be keeping track of one of the most morally urgent issues facing Americans today,” he told The New Republic.
—an unavoidable consequence of