June 13, 2009

Who's Helping the Evicted?

image By Matthew Desmond

Doctoral Student and Ford Foundation Fellow

University of Wisconsin—Madison

Accordingly to the Center for Responsible Lending, over a million foreclosures already have occurred since January.  That’s 6,600 homes lost every day.  By the time you finish reading this post, roughly ten foreclosures will have occurred somewhere in America. 

After things had gone sour in 2008, , Senate Democrats introduced the Foreclosure Prevention Act of 2008, which offered aid to struggling homeowners, even if it did much more to help businesses than working families. It passed in the Senate by an eyebrow-raising 84-12 vote. Then, lawmakers passed a $700 billion economic bailout plan intended in part to dam the wave of foreclosures sweeping the nation and rescue the housing market from financial collapse, even if this plan seems more concerned with getting bankers, not homeowners, back on their feet.

But as the fed wraps its arms around the market in the manner of a father embracing a prodigal son, and as politicians debate how to help homeowners staring down foreclosures, one must ask: What is being done for the evicted? What relief is being proposed for those languishing at the very bottom of the housing market?

Along with foreclosures, evictions have skyrocketed since 2006. National data on evictions do not exist; but regional studies show alarming trends. Evictions in Milwaukee County, for example, reached an all-time high in 2007, according to a recent study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee. In an average year, the county processes roughly 500 – 800 evictions each month; last year, it processed 800 – 1,200 evictions a month.image

What are the consequences? Homelessness, job loss, family breakups, and a drop in children’s school performance, just to list a few. One study even has linked eviction to suicide. And it goes without saying that prospective renters face significant obstacles when trying to find decent affordable housing after they have been forced out. “As long as you don’t have a conviction or an eviction,” landlords like to tell prospective tenants who confess to having bad credit.

While following poor, evicted families in Milwaukee, I’ve heard this phrase again and again and witnessed the families—tainted by eviction—get turned down dozens of times. I’ve also seen firsthand the hardships that accompany eviction. One family of six lost virtually all they owned, their things snatched up by neighbors after movers placed them on the curb. The two parents and the four kids moved into a run-down trailer, where everyone sleeps on the floor. One woman was eight months pregnant when she was evicted. She and her boyfriend sent three other children to stay with friends in Green Bay, while they and their two-year-old struggled to find housing. It took them two months to land an apartment. Yet another family moved in with friends, an action that violated imagethe latter’s lease and resulted in them getting served an eviction notice.

After being handed her eviction notice, a fifty-six-year-old woman turned to me and whispered, defeated, “They are really hard on us. They don’t have to be. We can’t help it if things happen.” Perhaps, but it is too simplistic to place all the blame squarely on the landlords. Evictions are costly for them as well. Many times landlords incur steep court fees even when they know they have a slim chance of ever seeing the uncollected rent. In rare cases, some are left with a destroyed apartment, a sad parting gift left by angry tenants.

Given this grim scenario, why hasn’t the federal government come rushing to the aid of families at risk of eviction, a disproportionate number of whom are poor African Americans and Latinos? Why, with all this talk about mortgage bailouts and home foreclosures, is the eviction crisis so rarely mentioned?

Foreclosure relief is necessary. It might even slow down evictions by giving property owners some breathing room, but, I suspect, not by much. Foreclosure relief will allow landlords to hold onto their property—we hope—but it will not cause them suddenly to drop their rents, forgive their debtors, or pull their notices.

More direct intervention aimed at tackling the eviction crisis is needed, and lawmakers should develop a federal emergency renters’ assistance program. Such a program could provide interest free grants and loans to low-income tenants at risk of losing the roof over their heads, as do local nonprofits such as the San Francisco’s Eviction Defense Collaborative. It also could offer tenants free legal services and advice, since most tenants served an eviction appear in court without representation (if they appear at all), as well as housing counseling and information about their rights and responsibilities pertaining to eviction.

A federally-based eviction prevention program does not have to be created from scratch; it could model itself after plenty of effective local initiatives. Whatever form such a program might take, what is certain is that we cannot in good conscience apply a generous poultice to the mortgage industry and financial powerhouses with deep-pocketed executives, while turning a blind eye to millions of empty-pocketed renting families, who daily live one misstep away from homelessness.

Photos courtesy of Matthew Desmond


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I think history has shown us that the Feds are incapable for providing a solution to this issue. We may be better off handling this problem ona state level.

I really had never thought about this! This is a fantastic article, i need to look for a way that i can help out all the evictions in las vegas.

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