Assistant Professor Peter Hepburn

Peter Hepburn Receives Russell Sage Grant to Enhance Covid-19 Eviction Tracking System

Assistant Professor Peter Hepburn, of Rutgers University–Newark’s Department of Sociology & Anthropology, is part of a team that has won a competitive Trustee Grant from the Russell Sage Foundation’s Social, Political, and Economic Inequality program.

Hepburn and co-Principal Investigator Matthew Desmond, a professor of Sociology at Princeton University, will use the $125K grant to enhance an Eviction Tracking System (ETS) developed by Hepburn for Desmond’s research organization, the Eviction Lab, which operates out of Princeton, and look at who’s been affected by Covid-19 evictions and the impact of moratoria on evictions. 

"To gain the support of an organization that has helped to shape the agenda on employment, criminal justice and housing for over a century is really encouraging, both personally and professionally,” said Hepburn. “Every successful grant proposal feels great, but it feels particularly meaningful coming from the Russell Sage Foundation.”

Skyrocketing rents, housing insecurity and evictions, which have been pressing issues for decades, have gained even more currency this past year as Covid-19 swept through the country, affecting millions of renters and landlords. The Eviction Tracker was developed during this period to chronicle the crisis and, not surprisingly, has gained a loyal following. 

Drawing on tens of millions of records, the Tracker is the first-ever dataset of evictions in America, going back to 2000, and the Lab has made this nationwide data publicly available and accessible to policymakers, community organizers, journalists, educators, non-profit organizations, students and citizens interested in understanding more about housing, eviction and poverty in their own backyards. 

The Russell Sage grant, in part, will enable Hepburn, a Research Fellow at the Eviction Lab, and Desmond to grow the ETS to track evictions and their impact during pandemic. The pair will also produce two academic papers that will address the extent to which Covid-19 evictions aggravate existing inequalities and who is affected, as well as the effects of state and local eviction moratoria. 

“Our aim is to look at how eviction patterns changed at the neighborhood, building, and individual level, and also to analyze changes in risk over the course of the pandemic,” said Hepburn. “It's also really important to look at moratoria to show how state-level policies implemented in this period of tremendous uncertainty worked or didn't work.”

Hepburn has been with the Eviction Lab since 2018, when he joined as a postdoc after completing his PhD in Sociology and Demography at the University of California, Berkeley. For the first two years he worked with Desmond, Hepburn analyzed millions of eviction records from around the country that the Lab’s team had compiled, cleaned and validated. The goal was, and remains, to use that data to better understand the causes and consequences of eviction in America.

“Our aim is to look at how eviction patterns changed at the neighborhood, building, and individual level, and also to analyze changes in risk over the course of the pandemic.

In February 2020, Hepburn was offered his Assistant Professor position at RU-N, just before the pandemic shut everything down. Understanding that Covid-19 would likely result in widespread economic distress and job losses among renters, he pitched the ETS idea to Desmond so they could track displacement during the pandemic. Three months later and with much help from the Eviction Lab team, they launched the site tracking eviction filings in 10 cities. More than a year later, they have five full states and 21 additional cities, covering more than a fifth of all renter households in the U.S., and added New Orleans just this week. 

Desmond, meanwhile, is a luminary in the field who began studying housing, poverty and eviction back in 2008 while living and working alongside poor tenants and their landlords in Milwaukee, Wis. Using ethnographic fieldwork and statistical analyses, he saw firsthand how prevalent eviction was in low-income communities and how it functioned as a cause, not just a condition, of poverty. His book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016) summarized this research and ended up winning the Pulitzer Prize. He founded the Eviction Lab while on tour for the book, after realizing there was a dearth of national data on eviction that hampered the country’s ability to address fundamental questions about residential instability, forced moves and poverty in America. 

For Hepburn, getting a chance to do such meaningful work with Desmond has been deeply fulfilling. He’s also looking forward to arriving on the RU-N campus in earnest now that faculty and staff will return starting this summer.

“I had read Evicted, of course, and many of Matt's academic papers, so I was really excited about working with him and on the Eviction Lab project,” said Hepburn. “I'm also really looking forward to finally moving into my Rutgers-Newark office this summer, teaching in-person next fall, and getting to know my colleagues in the department of Sociology and Anthropology. I feel extremely fortunate to be at Rutgers-Newark, and I can't wait to meet my new colleagues and students in person.”