Counter-Cartography: GIS and Anti-Eviction Resistance

Narratives of Displacement and Resistance mural, painted in the Mission’s Clarion Alley in collaboration with Clarion Alley Mural Project. 

I. Eviction Crisis

As the effects of pandemic-era eviction memoranda fade, the United States finds itself in the throes of an eviction crisis. While evictions are common across OECD member countries, the eviction crisis is by far the most severe in the United States, where the rate of eviction initiations (6.1%) and eviction orders (2.3%) remain far higher than any other OECD country. In a typical year, 3.6 million renting Americans are told to leave their homes. While Covid-era eviction memoranda saw rates of eviction fall significantly, 2023 data from Princeton University’s Eviction Lab shows a year over year increase in evictions in the majority of cities studied as well as a reemergence of striking patterns of racial inequality, with Black and Latino renters, in particular Black and Latina women, facing a disproportionate share of eviction orders. In other words, 2023 saw a return to pre-covid normalcy with tenants, predominantly women, people of color, and families with children, increasingly staring down the symbolic and concrete violence of evictions. Such data paints a picture of a nation in crisis, unable to provide basic services for those most in need. 

While the eviction crisis in the US has complicated roots, activists have increasingly linked the problem of eviction to the rise of corporate landlordism. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, a new landlord regime emerged in the rental market as institutional investors increasingly purchased foreclosed single family homes, converting them into permanental rental properties (LSE Blog). Such Wall Street investment tended to target modest houses in “fast-growing” areas – often peri urban areas of refuge for Black and POC residents previously displaced from central urban areas by gentrification. 

The rise of corporate landlordism has been linked to worrying trends regarding the racial wealth gap between Black and white Americans, as progress has slowed or even reversed in recent years. Homeownership is key for understanding this trend. The purchase of modest homes by institutional investors, often backed by private equity, is a major obstacle for first-time and low-income homebuyers seeing as so-called “starter homes” are removed from the market. With families left with no choice but to rent, they are unable to amass capital as property values rise. Beyond compressing rates of homeownership, the rise of corporate landlordism has complicated anti-eviction activism. Institutional investors typically operate in complex structures of shell corporations, LLCs, and LPs, which provide financial benefits and anonymity. When tenants are served with eviction notices, tenants are often unable to identify landlords, complicating the process of fighting to stay in their homes. 

II. Geospatial Mapping and Anti-Eviction Resistance 

Such worrying trends in the rental market have coincided with a massive explosion in geospatial mapping technologies and an increasinging recognition of the power of such tools for activism and resistance work. Organizations such as the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (AEMP), founded in 2013 in the midst of San Francisco’s tech boom, have wielded geospatial mapping technology as key tools in their fight against eviction, using maps to cut through a sea of corporate ambiguity and provide clarity for tenants facing eviction. Analyzing map-based data, for example, the AEMP compiled a list of Oakland’s Mega-Evictors, identifying landlords responsible for evicting hundreds or even thousands of tenants in recent years. Such evictions are often so-called “three day notices” where tenants are only given three days to either pay or vacate. The AEMP uses similar geospatial technologies to identify trends in eviction rates in particular locations, with one recent map identifying a significant bump in eviction rates in New York City since the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The AEMP is one organization in a complex constellation of actors incorporating GIS and geospatial mapping tools into local and national discussions regarding the eviction and housing crises. Princeton’s Eviction Lab acts as a national database, compiling records of new eviction court filings in 10 states and 34 cities, covering one third of the nation’s renters. Regrid, a Detroit based company, offers comprehensive national maps of land parcels with ownership information, similarly utilizing geospatial mapping technologies. Municipal governments have similarly adopted geospatial mapping technologies, often as a part of so-called “smart city” initiatives which claim to integrate the latest in information and communication technology into governance in order to optimize urban life. 

III. Constructing Critical GIS

Nevertheless, critical evaluations of GIS and geospatial mapping initiatives in the housing and eviction realm insist not all efforts are created equally. Large-scale data sets such as Princeton’s Eviction Lab have been criticized for failing to collaborate with local communities and protecting landlords by censoring identifying information. Moreover, municipal geospatial technology initiatives often create a false sense of transparency, providing citizens with select data but failing to outline methodologies or data sources. Such critiques relate to the broader concerns regarding the use of GIS and geospatial mapping technologies in movements for social justice. Inherent to the use of geospatial mapping technology in its current form is a problematic reliance on data brokers and digital mapping platforms, argues critical geographer Erin Mcelroy. Such a reliance is paradoxical considering social justice organizations tend to fight exactly the commodification of both property and data which geospatial corporations tend to rely upon. Moreover, GIS has been lambasted for its positivist approach and its failure to acknowledge how maps, both what is included and how, wield power in the world.

From such criticism has emerged considerable scholarship regarding the practices of “counter-mapping” and “critical GIS”. In other words, using mapping technologies in truly liberatory ways. The realization that GIS cannot be the only tool in any struggle for justice has emerged from such discussions. Mapping initiatives must feed into broader political activism in order to be a true form of resistance. The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project’s map of Ellis Evictions (1994-2022) is a prime example of this ethic put into action. While the map clearly utilizes geospatial mapping technology, compiling nearly 30 years of geographic data, the map alone is not the final activist product. Rather the map acts as a visualization tool which feeds into a broader political opposition to the Ellis Act, a California state law which gives landlords the right to evict tenants if they “go out of business”. The Ellis Act has been frequently abused by landlords, leading to the unjust eviction of thousands of tenants in San Francisco. AEMP has taken up a strong stance against the act, complimenting its broader activism with digital mapping tools. 

Moreover, a truly liberatory counter-cartography requires a deep engagement with local communities. Such endeavors prevent human stories and lives from being abstracted into mere data points overlaid on a base map – a type of erasure associated with the commodification of property and data responsible for the current eviction crisis. In the case of the AEMP, GIS-created maps are often paired with storytelling and oral history tools, allowing tenants to share their experiences with eviction and gentrification, adding important human elements to digital maps. AEMP has also worked to include non-digital works as part of their resistance practice, collaborating with local community members to paint a mural in San Francisco protesting evictions as well as the violence of white gentrification. Such a holistic approach demonstrates how geospatial technologies can be meaningfully integrated into campaigns for social justice and political change whilst emphasizing the very human element of the eviction crisis. 

IV. Conclusions

While GIS and geospatial mapping technologies have been subject to wide scale criticism, the work of organizations such as the Anti-Mapping Eviction Project outline a way forward for those seeking to use such tools to work for justice in their communities. A true practice of so-called “critical GIS”, “counter-cartography” or even “GIS resistance” must recognise both the power and the limitations of geospatial mapping technology and work to keep human beings, and their stories, at the center of any fight for justice. 

Sources: 

Digital Cartographies of Displacement:  Data as Property and Property as Data

The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project: Counter Mapping and Oral History toward Bay Area Housing Justice 

Cartographies of Resistance: Counter‐Data Mapping as the New Frontier of Digital Media Activism

ACME: Doing Critical GIS

Review: The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project

The Guardian: Evictions can kill: how US communities are trying to break the cycle of violence

Eviction Lab: Preliminary Analysis: Eviction Filing Patterns in 2023

CNBC: Why U.S. renters are taking corporate landlords to court

NBC: These tenants fought one of America’s largest corporate landlords — and scored some wins

Yes! Magazine: How Tenants Use Digital Mapping to Track Bad Landlords and Gentrification

LSE Blog: Corporate landlords are eroding the American Dream of homeownership, especially in Black neighborhoods