Eviction vicious cycle crushes families, communities and entire neighborhoods, as part of an ongoing affordable housing crisis.
Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” written by Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond, put the spotlight on the extreme hardships and trauma that evictions inflict on low-income families.
A new study by real estate website Redfin estimates that 2.7 million renters in the U.S. faced in 2015. This number is likely to come short of reality because of the lack of eviction data and because many evictions happen outside the court system.
2.7 million Americans faced eviction in 2015
Over half of all tenants—more than 20 million—were low-income renters spending at least 30 percent of their income on rent, up from 15 million in 2001. Most of them spent 50 percent of their income or more on housing, with at least one in four spending 70 percent or more.
Rising rents and stalling incomes are fueling evictions. In 2015, rents were 66 percent higher than 2000 prices while incomes had risen only 35 percent. Neighborhoods with the highest median rent-to-income ratios had much higher eviction rates than neighborhoods where residents spent less of their income on rent, according to Redfin.
Housing costs are considered unaffordable when they exceed 30 percent of household income and severely unaffordable when they exceed 50 percent of the income. Redfin found that evictions rose in the 15 metro areas with the largest increases in the portion of income spent on rent, while the other 56 metro areas studied, combined, saw a drop in evictions.
Millions of people moving from rural towns to cities have been driving land values and housing costs up. U.S. median rent has increased more than 70 percent since 1995.
Without public subsidies, there are five affordable housing units for every 100 extremely low-income households. Rental assistance helps, but just one in four eligible families receive it and waiting lists for it in many cities span not months or years, but decades.
The unaffordable housing market, where the vast majority of poor families live, swallows most of their income and takes away their choices and their hope, boosting poverty, promoting disease and mental illness, weakening communities and hindering children from reaching their full potential.
Evictions Devastate Communities
Evicted families often end up homeless or living in broken-down, bug- and rat-infested housing in dangerous neighborhoods. Families are uprooted. Communities are destabilized. People lose their belongings. Kids miss school. Support circles break. Crime rates rise. Poverty grows. Despair wins.
Many struggling renters are caught in a vicious cycle: getting evicted after losing a job, losing a job after getting evicted; unable to get a job because of lack of an address, unable to get an address because of lack of a job.
For some, eviction is a business. Evictions used to be rare in America, but nowadays there are sheriff departments whose full-time job is to carry out eviction and foreclosure orders, movers specializing in evictions, and data-mining companies selling tenant reports to landlords that list previous evictions and court filings.
One thing America does not have is the right to counsel in housing or civil court for tenants facing eviction—90 percent of landlords have lawyers, 90 percent of tenants do not—making it very difficult for tenants to get a fair hearing. As a result, most of them skip the hearings.
Evictions can be worse than foreclosures because former home owners can move to rentals, but evicted tenants get excluded from other rental properties and from housing assistance.
“The lack of access to affordable, adequate housing sits at the root of many of America’s social ills,” Desmond wrote in his book. “Without stable shelter, everything else falls apart. This means it is impossible to address poverty in America without fixing housing.”
What Can Be Done?
Desmond recommends expanding housing assistance, particularly Housing Choice Vouchers, the largest rental assistance program in the U.S., but Congress is unlikely to approve increased funding for it.
There is no question we need more affordable housing. Without it, as rents continue to soar, so will the number of evictions.
Redfin, American Community Survey, American Information Research Services, Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, Bureau of Labor Statistics.