Evicted is one of the most moving accounts of poverty in America (link here). The book delves into details on how the poor live in America and the challenges that they face, especially related to housing. Some of my favorite quotes from Evicted are as follows.
[on budgeting challenges faced by poor households]
In Milwaukee and across the nation, most renters were responsible for keeping the lights and heat on, but that had become increasingly difficult to do. Since 2000, the cost of fuels and utilities had risen by more than 50 percent, thanks to increasing global demand and the expiration of price caps. In a typical year, almost 1 in 5 poor renting families nationwide missed payments and received a disconnection notice from their utility company. Families who couldn’t both make rent and keep current with the utility company sometimes paid a cousin or neighbor to reroute the meter. As much as $6 billion worth of power was pirated across America every year. Only cars and credit cards got stolen more. Stealing gas was much more difficult and rare. It was also unnecessary in the wintertime, when the city put a moratorium on disconnections. On that April day when the moratorium lifted, gas operators returned to poor neighborhoods with their stacks of disconnection notices and toolboxes. We Energies disconnected roughly 50,000 households each year for nonpayment. Many tenants who in the winter stayed current on their rent at the expense of their heating bill tried in the summer to climb back in the black with the utility company by shorting their landlord. Come the following winter, they had to be connected to benefit from the moratorium on disconnection. So every year in Milwaukee evictions spiked in the summer and early fall and dipped again in November, when the moratorium began.
[On how poor tenants use building code violations as a way to retaliate against their households or avoid an eviction]
Upon request, DNS (Department of Neighborhood services) would send a building inspector to any property. The service was designed to protect the city’s most vulnerable renters from negligent landlords, but to Sherrena (a landlord covered in the book) and other property owners, tenants called for small, cosmetic things—and often because they were trying to stop an eviction or retaliate against landlords.
Sherrena took a breath. There were worse houses on the block, but Sherrena knew her place on Thirteenth Street wasn’t up to code. She would say almost no house in the city was, a commentary on the mismatch between Milwaukee’s worn-out housing stock and its exacting building code. Thanks to the tenant’s mother, an inspector would arrive in a few days. He would jiggle the stair banister, photograph the hole in the window, shimmy the unhinged front door. Every code violation would cost Sherrena money.
[Rent makes up a large share of poor tenants’ monthly income. Lammar (a tenant covered in this book) is left with only $78/month after his rent payments]
When W-2 fully replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children in 1997, it provided two types of monthly stipends: $673 for beneficiaries who worked and $628 for those who didn’t or couldn’t, usually because of a disability. Because Lamar didn’t work, he received the lesser amount, known as W-2 T. After paying $550 in rent, Lamar had $78 for the rest of the month. That amounted to $2.19 a day.
[A commentary on the challenges facing the poor. Lammar and his friends (Luke, Eddy) were forced to ransack abandoned houses and use their dilapidated carpets as blankets]
After that, he took Luke and Eddy to shelters and abandoned houses, tearing up the carpet so they could have a blanket at night.
[On how storage space is a becoming a booming business and is benefitting from eviction]
Then Shields found self-storage. “It’s got the residual incomes of an apartment building, but,” he lowered his voice, squinted, “you don’t have the people. You just got their stuff!…This is the sweetest spot in the whole American economy. A receptacle for an enormous cascade of money.”
[On the importance of car for commute purposes for poor tenants and how a car breakdown at the wrong time can push poor households towards eviction]
Then her car gave out at the worst time—winter—when money was tightest. Ned had been working with a construction crew, which all but shut down in the colder months. They didn’t have enough money to repair the car, and Pam lost her job.
The police called Child Protective Services, who called the Department of Neighborhood Services (DNS), who dispatched a building inspector, who issued orders to the landlord, who filled out a five-day eviction notice, citing unpaid rent. Doreen had only managed to get halfway caught up when the shooting happened. There had never been a need to rush.
[On the impact of eviction on neighborhoods]
“The public peace—the sidewalk and street peace—of cities is not kept primarily by the police, necessary as police are. It is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves.” So wrote Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
A single eviction could destabilize multiple city blocks, not only the block from which a family was evicted but also the block to which it begrudgingly relocated. In this way, displacement contributed directly to what Jacobs called “perpetual slums,” churning environments with high rates of turnover and even higher rates of resentment and disinvestment.
[Landlords could “prey” on the very desperate renters by renting units to them that had property code violations]
Landlords were allowed to rent units with property code violations, and even units that did not meet “basic habitability requirements,” as long as they were up front about the problems.
Landlords at the bottom of the market generally did not lower rents to meet demand and avoid the costs of all those missed payments and evictions. There were costs to avoiding those costs too. For many landlords, it was cheaper to deal with the expense of eviction than to maintain their properties; it was possible to skimp on maintenance if tenants were perpetually behind; and many poor tenants would be perpetually behind because their rent was too high.
Tenants able to pay their rent in full each month could take advantage of legal protections designed to keep their housing safe and decent. Not only could they summon a building inspector without fear of eviction, but they also had the right to withhold rent until certain repairs were made. But when tenants fell behind, these protections dissolved. Tenants in arrears were barred from withholding or escrowing rent; and they tempted eviction if they filed a report with a building inspector. It was not that low-income renters didn’t know their rights. They just knew those rights would cost them.
[Poor tenants’ criminal records can be easily accessed by landlords and leads to more discrimination against them]
CCAP stood for Consolidated Court Automation Programs. Like many other states, Wisconsin believed its citizens were entitled to view the affairs of its criminal and civil courts. So, free of charge, it provided a website that catalogued all speeding tickets, child support disputes, divorces, evictions, felonies, and other legal business. Eviction records and misdemeanors were displayed for twenty years; felonies were displayed for at least fifty. CCAP also reported dismissed evictions and criminal charges. If someone was arrested but never convicted, CCAP displayed the violation with the disclaimer: “These charges were not proven and have no legal effect. [Name] is presumed innocent.”
[Many tenants did not fight or did not know how to fight evictions in the court]
Roughly 70 percent of tenants summoned to Milwaukee’s eviction court didn’t come. The same was true in other major cities. In some urban courts, only 1 tenant in 10 showed. Some tenants couldn’t miss work or couldn’t find child care or were confused by the whole process or couldn’t care less or would rather avoid the humiliation. When tenants did not show up and their landlord or a representative did, the caller applied three quick stamps to the file—indicating that the tenant had received a default eviction judgment—and placed it on top of a growing pile.
Tenants in eviction court were generally poor, and almost all of them (92 percent) had missed rent payments. The majority spent at least half their household income on rent. One-third devoted at least 80 percent to it. Of the tenants who did come to court and were evicted, only 1 in 6 had another place lined up: shelters or the apartments of friends or family. A few resigned themselves to the streets. Most simply did not know where they would go.
In a typical month, 3 in 4 people in Milwaukee eviction court were black. Of those, 3 in 4 were women. The total number of black women in eviction court exceeded that of all other groups combined. If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.
Landlords learned that dragging slow-paying tenants to court was usually worth the $89.50 processing fee because it spurred many to find a way to catch up. Plus they could add the processing fee to their bill.
Each eviction case had two parts. The “first cause of action” dealt strictly with whether a tenant would be evicted. Next came “the second and third causes of action,” which dealt with what was owed to a landlord: unpaid rent, court fees, and other damages. Most tenants taken to eviction court were sued twice—once for the property and a second time for the debt—and so had two court dates. But even fewer tenants showed up for their second hearing than for their first, which meant landlords’ claims about what was owed them usually went unchallenged. Suing a tenant for back rent and court fees was straightforward. Landlords were allowed to charge for unpaid rent, late fees the court found reasonable, and double rent for each day tenants remained in the home after their tenancy had been terminated.
Sherrena knew that receiving a money judgment and actually receiving the money were different matters. After withholding tenants’ security deposits, landlords had limited recourse when it came to collecting. Sherrena could try to garnish wages, but this was possible only for former tenants who were employed and living above the poverty line. She could garnish bank accounts. But many of her former tenants did not have bank accounts, and even if they did, state benefits and the first $1,000 were off limits.
Even so, Sherrena and many other landlords filed for second and third causes. This carried consequences for tenants, since money judgments were listed on eviction records. Docketing a judgment slapped it on a tenant’s credit report. If the tenant came to own any property in Milwaukee County in the next decade, the docketed judgment placed a lien on that property, severely limiting a new homeowner’s ability to refinance or sell.
Before a landlord could activate the Sheriff’s Office, he had to contract with a bonded moving company. There were four such companies in Milwaukee, Eagle being the largest. To hire one of Eagle’s five-man crews, a landlord had to put down a $350 deposit, the average cost of an eviction job. Eagle then handed over a Letter of Authority, which the landlord would take to the Sheriff’s Office, along with the necessary court documents and an additional $130 sheriff’s fee. The sheriff had ten days to remove the tenants. A formal eviction that involved sheriffs and movers could run around $600.
Eagle’s storage warehouse was a dimly lit expanse with clear lightbulbs strung from a ceiling supported by large wood pillars. Inside, there were hundreds upon hundreds of piles, each representing an eviction or foreclosure. The piles were stacked to eye level and individually encircled in shrink-wrap like so many silken-wound insects on a spider’s web. Up close, the contents were visible through the taut clear wrapping: scratched-up furniture, lamps, bathroom scales, and everywhere children’s things—rocking horses, strollers, baby swings, bouncy seats. They charged $25 per pallet per month. The average evicted family’s possessions took up four pallets, or 400 cubic feet.
[Landlords would use their tenants that were “behind on rent” for repair jobs for their other properties. This allowed landlords to get the repaid job done at a below market rate]
When the plumbing broke, the roof leaked, or rooms needed painting, savvy inner-city landlords did not phone plumbers, roofers, or painters. They relied on two desperate and on-hand labor pools: tenants themselves and jobless men. New landlords would speak of “knowing a good plumber.” Experienced landlords would say they “had a guy.”
[Renters with housing vouchers were discriminated against. The housing vouchers was a signal to the landlord that he/she may face delays in getting rent and may ultimately have to go for eviction. Therefore, they priced in these anticipated costs in the rent]
In Milwaukee, renters with housing vouchers were charged an average of $55 more each month, compared to unassisted renters who lived in similar apartments in similar neighborhoods.
The nuisance property ordinance was born, allowing police departments to penalize landlords for the behavior of their tenants. Most properties were designated “nuisances” because an excessive number of 911 calls were made within a certain timeframe. In Milwaukee, the threshold was three or more calls within a thirty-day period.
In the vast majority of cases (83 percent), landlords who received a nuisance citation for domestic violence responded by either evicting the tenants or by threatening to evict them for future police calls. Sometimes, this meant evicting a couple, but most of the time landlords evicted women abused by men who did not live with them.
People like Larraine lived with so many compounded limitations that it was difficult to imagine the amount of good behavior or self-control that would allow them to lift themselves out of poverty. The distance between grinding poverty and even stable poverty could be so vast that those at the bottom had little hope of climbing out even if they pinched every penny. So they chose not to. Instead, they tried to survive in color, to season the suffering with pleasure. They would get a little high or have a drink or do a bit of gambling or acquire a television. They might buy lobster on food stamps.
Politicians had learned that their constituents hated the idea of senior housing a lot less than public housing for poor families. Grandma and Grandpa made for a much more sympathetic case, and elderly housing provided adult children with an alternative to nursing homes. When public housing construction for low-income households ceased, it continued for the aged; and high-rises originally built for families were converted for elderly use.
Substandard housing was a blow to your psychological health: not only because things like dampness, mold, and overcrowding could bring about depression but also because of what living in awful conditions told you about yourself.
It was once said that the poor are “constantly exposed to evidence of their own irrelevance.” Living in degrading housing in dangerous neighborhoods sent a clear message about where the wider society thought they belonged.
[On the toll of eviction]
Residential stability begets a kind of psychological stability, which allows people to invest in their home and social relationships. It begets school stability, which increases the chances that children will excel and graduate. And it begets community stability, which encourages neighbors to form strong bonds and take care of their block. But poor families enjoy little of that because they are evicted at such high rates.
Along with instability, eviction also causes loss. Eviction can cause workers to lose their jobs. The likelihood of being laid off is roughly 15 percent higher for workers who have experienced an eviction. If housing instability leads to employment instability, it is because the stress and consuming nature of being forced from your home wreak havoc on people’s work performance. Often, evicted families also lose the opportunity to benefit from public housing because Housing Authorities count evictions and unpaid debt as strikes when reviewing applications. And so people who have the greatest need for housing assistance—the rent-burdened and evicted—are systematically denied it.
These families are often compelled to accept substandard housing conditions. In Milwaukee, renters whose previous move was involuntary were 25 percent more likely to experience long-term housing problems than similar renters who moved under less trying circumstances. Then there is the toll eviction takes on a person’s spirit. The violence of displacement can drive people to depression and, in extreme cases, even suicide.
Eviction even affects the communities that displaced families leave behind. Neighbors who cooperate with and trust one another can make their streets safer and more prosperous. But that takes time. Efforts to establish local cohesion and community investment are thwarted in neighborhoods with high turnover rates.
Eviction affects the old and the young, the sick and able-bodied. But for poor women of color and their children, it has become ordinary. Walk into just about any urban housing court in America, and you can see them waiting on hard benches for their cases to be called. Among Milwaukee renters, over 1 in 5 black women report having been evicted in their adult life, compared with 1 in 12 Hispanic women and 1 in 15 white women.
In 2013, 1 percent of poor renters lived in rent-controlled units; 15 percent lived in public housing; and 17 percent received a government subsidy, mainly in the form of a rent-reducing voucher. The remaining 67 percent—2 of every 3 poor renting families—received no federal assistance. This drastic shortfall in government support, coupled with rising rent and utility costs alongside stagnant incomes, is the reason why most poor renting families today spend most of their income on housing.
[On the inadequate legal resources available to poor tenants]
Legal aid to the poor has been steadily diminishing since the Reagan years and was decimated during the Great Recession. The result is that in many housing courts around the country, 90 percent of landlords are represented by attorneys, and 90 percent of tenants are not. Low-income families on the edge of eviction have no right to counsel.
In the 1963 landmark case Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court unanimously established the right to counsel for indigent defendants in criminal cases on the grounds that a fair trial was impossible without a lawyer. Eighteen years later, the court heard the case of Abby Gail Lassiter, a poor black North Carolinian, who appeared without counsel at a civil trial that resulted in her parental rights being terminated. This time, a divided court ruled that defendants had a right to counsel only when they risked losing their physical liberty. Incarceration is a misery, but the outcomes of civil cases also can be devastating. Just ask Ms. Lassiter.
If tenants had lawyers, they wouldn’t need to go to court. They could go to work or stay home with their children while their attorney made their case. And their case would actually be made. Courts have shown little interest in addressing the fact that the majority of tenants facing eviction never show up. If anything, they have come to depend on this because each day brings a pile of eviction cases, and the goal of every person working in housing court, no matter where their sympathies lie, is just to get through the pile because the next day another pile will be there waiting.
Exploitation. Now, there’s a word that has been scrubbed out of the poverty debate. It is a word that speaks to the fact that poverty is not just a product of low incomes. It is also a product of extractive markets. Boosting poor people’s incomes by increasing the minimum wage or public benefits, say, is absolutely crucial. But not all of those extra dollars will stay in the pockets of the poor. Wage hikes are tempered if rents rise along with them, just as food stamps are worth less if groceries in the inner city cost more—and they do, as much as 40 percent more, by one estimate. Poverty is two-faced—a matter of income and expenses, input and output—and in a world of exploitation, it will not be effectively ameliorated if we ignore this plain fact.
Today, if evictions are lowest each February, it is because many members of the city’s working poor dedicate some or all of their Earned Income Tax Credit to pay back rent. In many cases, this annual benefit is as much a boost to landlords as to low-income working families.