Sociologist Gets NIH Funding to Study Links Between Eviction and Mortality

A  Rutgers University–Newark sociologist has been awarded a $1.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to evaluate the effects of pandemic eviction-prevention policies on individual and community mortality.

The project will address critical questions at the intersection of housing and public health at a time when eviction rates are rising in the wake of COVID-19 moratoriums being lifted.

“Our hope is that this forces some reckoning with the starkly human costs of housing instability more broadly,” said Peter Hepburn, a sociologist and demographer. “As we see eviction filing rates increase to pre-pandemic levels, we need to acknowledge the harm that's being done, up to and including putting people at greater risk of death."

Hepburn is conducting the four-year study with Danya Keene, Associate Professor of Social Behavioral Sciences at the Yale School of Public Health, whose research examines housing and housing policy as determinants of population health equity. They are leading an interdisciplinary team of researchers from Princeton University, Boston University, George Washington University and Penn State University.

According to Hepburn, the link between eviction and mortality is an important and understudied phenomenon. Research shows that eviction likely contributes to multiple causes of death. Black and Hispanic renters who are exposed to cumulative racism in housing and other areas of their lives, and have less access to quality healthcare, may be at higher risk of eviction-related mortality. The new study by Hepburn and his colleagues will offer important insight into how eviction affects racial inequalities.

The new project builds on Hepburn’s work at the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, where he was a postdoctoral research fellow from 2018 to 2020. The Lab, directed by Sociologist Matthew Desmond, used court records to construct the first national database of eviction cases, covering 2000–2018.

Hepburn expanded this work during the pandemic, building the Eviction Tracking System (ETS) to monitor eviction filing patterns in real-time and understand how policies were reducing housing-court caseloads.

For this latest NIH-funded endeavor, Hepburn, Keene and colleagues will focus specifically on the connection between eviction and health outcomes. They’ll examine the effects of eviction filings on mortality risk during the pandemic; analyze the impact of eviction prevention policies such as moratoria and emergency rental assistance on death rates; and conduct interviews with renters in Columbus, Ohio, and Bridgeport, Conn.

“As a whole, the project should significantly expand our understanding of eviction patterns during the pandemic and the effects of emergency anti-eviction measures in saving lives,” said Hepburn. 

The millions of eviction cases collected by the Eviction Lab prior to and during the pandemic will provide the foundation for the new study, as will the Lab’s established capacity for linking eviction records to Census Bureau microdata, data from the Treasury Department on the distribution of pandemic emergency rental assistance, mortality data from the National Vital Statistics System, and qualitative data collection.

The new NIH grant is the latest in a long line of awards that Hepburn has received prior to and since his arrival at RU-N in fall 2020. They include a $375K Covid-19 grant from the c3.AI Digital Transformation Institute; a $250K grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts; and a $125K Trustee Grant from the Russell Sage Foundation’s Social, Political, and Economic Inequality program to enhance his Eviction Tracking System (ETS) at the Eviction Lab.

Hepburn is grateful for the support he’s received not only from funding sources but also from colleagues and family.

“I started here at RU-N in fall 2020, right in the middle of the pandemic,” said Hepburn. “It was a strange time to start a new job, and my colleagues in the department of Sociology & Anthropology, and throughout SASN, have been so welcoming and supportive. I also owe a great deal to my wife, Elayne Oliphant, who has been consistently supportive of this work and endlessly patient with me.”