Between the post-war period and the latest global financial crisis home evictions have been a hidden social problem (Hartman and Robinson 2003; Stenberg et al. 2011). An important part of the explanation for this, at least in Sweden, is that the steady increase in home evictions, since the mid-1960s has come to be explained as an unintended consequence of the provision of homes to poor households and families with social problems, i.e., to individuals who have a high eviction risk in the first place. Thus, the difficulties and consequences associated with home evictions have been viewed as being part of an ongoing process of social marginalization rather than as being attributable to the involuntary loss of the dwelling itself (cf. Eriksson et al. 2010; Stenberg et al. 1995, 2011). This notion of a “non housing-ready” population, which is also widespread in the current debate on pathways into housing (as an argument against the “housing first” model) (Tsemberis et al. 2004; Waegemakers Schiff and Schiff 2014) tends in other words to make the positive aspects of having a dwelling (or inversely, the negative aspects of losing it) conditional upon individuals ability to maintain their independent housing status. Thus, for those who are not members of the “housing-ready” population, the dwelling tends to be reduced to a mere question of bricks and mortar.
The results of this study challenge this view. In fact, the detrimental effect of eviction on all-cause mortality not only remains when controlling for a range of factors identified in the literature as being crucial to understanding the underlying reasons for home evictions, but also appears to be additive in nature. In other words, and in accordance with the assumptions outlined at the outset of this study, the results suggest that the dwelling plays an independent and fundamental role in relation to our wellbeing; that is, the negative aspects of forcibly losing one’ s dwelling, e.g., the loss of security [a need whose importance is comparable to the need for food and water (Kearns et al. 2000)], are not reducible to nor conditioned by the fact that one, prior to the eviction, had severe problems of various types.
Another important factor that has made it easy to ignore the view that a dwelling might be something more than just bricks and mortar for individuals involved in an eviction process is the argument that the concept of a “home” is ultimately an experiential phenomenon that is difficult to measure and articulate (Fox 2006). In fact, the lack of consensus on the importance of the dwelling has been one of the main obstacles to social workers employing all the legal means available to them to help those threatened by eviction at an early stage in the process and to thus preventing evictions from happening altogether (Kjellbom 2014).
While it is reasonable to accept that any attempt to “guess” the particular meaning of home for an individual occupier must be approached with caution, theoreticians in the field of housing studies have argued that this particular type of environmental intangible can both be identified and quantified if one focuses on the impact of losing it; that is, the importance of a home can be understood in negative terms, since the qualities associated with having a home typically emerge when the home is lost (Fox 2006). Hence, at least from a theoretical point of view, this study should be viewed as an indication that being forcibly removed from one’s dwelling constitutes a major life event with far-reaching detrimental consequences (cf. Desmond and Kimbro 2015; Fowler et al. 2015).
The current study is to the best of my knowledge the first to examine the relationship between home evictions and all-cause mortality using longitudinal, large-scale register data, and including an unprecedented variety of information, for an entire country (cf. Desmond and Kimbro 2015; Eriksson et al. 2010; Fowler et al. 2015). It is, therefore, important to be cautious about drawing wide-ranging conclusions on the basis of this single study. Having said this, the study’s findings are suggestive of two relatively straightforward policy implications.
First, the legitimacy of eviction needs, just like any other formal societal sanction, to be evaluated in relation to its consequences (including the unintended ones) (cf. Weiss 1998). Hitherto, home evictions have mainly been legitimized on the basis of their underlying intention, which is to promote the general payment moral in society (Eriksson et al. 2010). It is thought that “if people see that unpaid rents, installments or amortizations do not lead to any type of sanction, there is a risk that confidence in the common economy will disappear” (Westerberg 1999). Given the new information provided by the results of the current study, assessments of the legitimacy of the use of the evictions measure now need also to include a consideration of whether a heightened risk of death from any cause may be viewed as a proportionate outcome in relation to achieving the intention described above, particularly given that 80% of those evicted in Sweden have been found to have rent arrears of less than 2000 EUR (Eriksson et al. 2010). Second, the inclusionary and compensatory societal measures directed at minimizing the negative effects of this powerful corrective sanction also need to be re-evaluated in terms of their proportionality, given this newly acquired knowledge (Flyghed 2000).
Three main methodological considerations should be borne in mind when interpreting the results of this study. First, since the study is entirely based on register data, I lack self-reported information on confounders that might have influenced the results (Thygesen and Ersbøll 2014), e.g., self-reported leisure-time physical activity (Pekkanen et al. 1995). However, capturing representative and sizeable groups of evicted individuals by means of traditional surveys has to date proven to be very difficult (Eriksson et al. 2010), which makes register-based studies of the kind presented here extremely important (Thygesen and Ersbøll 2014).
Second, the analysis relies on a comparison with the general population as opposed to a population specified on the basis of being in possession of a dwelling. The reason for this is that there are no available register data in Sweden, covering the study period that would make it possible to identify this latter group. However, since one of the most important limitations associated with the use of the general population as a comparison group is the tendency to underestimate the real effect of a given exposure (which in this case would be the case if a large proportion of the comparison group was comprised of people living in insecure housing, e.g., renters without a lease), the use of this type of comparison group is common in this area of research even in cases, where it is possible to make this distinction, e.g., using the unemployed vs the employed population (cf. Roelfs et al. 2011).
Third, as the eviction date used in this study was inferred from the date on which the Swedish Enforcement Authority closed the enforcement case in question, the analysis only includes cases of home eviction that had no other enforcement matters pending at the time of the eviction. Hence, the validity of the study’s results is limited to this particular population of evictees. Having said this, the evicted population in Sweden is not characterized by having large or long-term debts at the agency (Flyghed 2000).
Forcibly removing people from their homes has a detrimental impact on all-cause mortality. This effect is statistically independent of other important social stressors (e.g., unemployment), health conditions, and behavioral and demographic characteristics that are not only well-known risk factors for death from any cause, but also constitute the main risk factors for home eviction. Thus, the experience of losing one’s dwelling should be treated as a major life event in its own right; that is, it is neither reducible to nor conditioned by the factors that enable people to remain in possession of their homes. Having said this, further studies are needed to confirm these findings.