Every morning, Samantha packed her children’s school bags with their clothes, toys, and a toothbrush, uncertain of where her seven-member family would sleep that night. Her brother’s car, between boxes in a storage unit, a floor or a chair, she could never be sure. Samantha had been evicted from the one-bedroom unit in Chicago that her family shared, and when she contacted the city for assistance, the operator chastised her for failing to save up for emergencies. Without childcare, she was unable to secure employment, and her public benefits, which were frequently and wrongfully cut off, were only a fraction of steep rental costs. Samantha prioritized caring for her six children, getting the older four to school each day and taking the younger ones along to appointments seeking help and housing. But that could not prevent the trauma and poor health associated with eviction and homelessness. Her children developed asthma, speech and developmental delays, anxiety, and frequent illness that required hospital stays. They didn’t have the chance to be kids.
Samantha’s family is not alone. They received one of the more than 61 million eviction filings made in the U.S. between 2000 and 2016. According to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, landlords filed seven evictions every minute (3.7 million in total) in 2016 alone. Families like Samantha’s have been especially vulnerable, with the single greatest predictor of eviction being the presence of a child.
The economic crisis precipitated by the pandemic has only fueled an existing eviction catastrophe. Today, nearly 18 million households have little or no confidence in their ability to pay the rent, over 20 percent of renter households are behind on rent, amounting to over $50 billion, and landlords have filed hundreds of thousands of evictions during the pandemic despite the federal eviction moratorium.
Without intervention, this extreme housing precarity could result in unprecedented rates of displacement, especially among populations with existing barriers to housing and economic security. Avoiding this ominous eviction cliff and its fallout requires more than rental assistance; it requires an overhaul of the system and redress of the longstanding discriminatory housing policies that led to this moment.
Eviction Laws: Limited Rights, Deep Inequity
While American landlord-tenant law has improved dramatically in recent history, it still fails to protect tenants from broad injustice and lasting harm.
Protective laws are rarely enforced and eviction processes vary from state to state. Some states, such as California, have relatively pro-tenant policies that include extensive tenant defenses, as well as the sealing of eviction records unless and until the landlord prevails in court. Other states, like Kansas, adopt pro-landlord policies such as cheap filing fees (as low as $25) and a public record of all landlord-tenant filings, regardless of the nature or disposition of the case. In many jurisdictions, only meager attempts are made to inform tenants of their eviction hearing, increasing an already high default rate in favor of landlords. Overwhelmingly, forcible entry and detainer laws permit “no fault” eviction—the filing of an eviction without justification. This allows for unchecked discriminatory eviction practices and abuse of the eviction system, despite federal fair housing laws. Similarly, while every jurisdiction now has an implied warranty of habitability, many states lack “clean hands” eviction laws that would require compliance with state and local housing code before filing an eviction.
In addition, some states still allow unfair and abusive practices that harm vulnerable people. In Arkansas, renters who are late on rent payments can be sentenced to jail time, in violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and the prohibition on debtors prison. Equally harmful, “crime free” housing and nuisance ordinances require property owners to evict a tenant who makes frequent calls to 911. These laws disproportionately affect domestic violence victims. A study of Milwaukee’s nuisance law from 2008 to 2009 found that domestic violence was the third-most common “nuisance activity” cited by police, and that in 57 percent of those cases landlords formally or informally evicted people living in the apartment where domestic violence occurred. Nuisance laws also target people of color: Black neighborhoods in Milwaukee were much more likely to receive nuisance citations (one in 16 eligible properties) compared to white neighborhoods (one in 41 eligible properties).
Landlords also use the eviction process to control behavior and discipline tenants. Many landlords engage in “serial eviction filing” with the intent not to remove tenants, but to collect rent and additional fees—leaving tenants to foot the bill (approximately $180 in fines and fees per filing) and with the damaging mark of an eviction filing on their record. The Eviction Lab found that “nearly one-third of households facing eviction in 2014 were filed against repeatedly at the same address,” raising housing costs by 20 percent each time.
During the pandemic, the added protection of eviction moratoria has been woefully inadequate. While moratoria have reduced eviction filings from historic averages, they varied in duration, level of protection, and often left out vulnerable families, with the majority expiring even as COVID-19 infections surged. Even with the federal moratorium via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), eviction filings have continued and renters have slipped through the cracks due to gaps in protection, inconsistent implementation and lack of enforcement.
The Unfairness & Inequality of Eviction Court
When evictions reach the hearing stage, eviction courts are plagued by unfairness and inequality, and tenants’ rights are often ignored. Tenants might be denied substantive and procedural justice while landlords are not always required to meet the burden of proof necessary to support an order of possession. In a 2002 study of 763 cases in eviction court over 11 weeks in Chicago, even where testimony was required, parties were sworn in and asked to take an oath in only 8 percent of cases. Although a notice of eviction must comply with constitutionally required due process, a judge examined these notices in only 65 percent of cases. And while default judgments were entered as a matter of course against tenants who failed to appear, landlords who failed to show up had their cases dismissed only 60 percent of the time. Even when tenants presented a legal defense the eviction was ordered. Studies of eviction in other cities describe similar inequity. The move to remote hearings during the pandemic has the potential to increase these barriers to justice, with tenants stripped of their voices through a Zoom mute button or lack of internet connection.
Three crucial components of the legal system—equality, impartiality, and transparency—are undermined by an apparent bias in the landlord’s favor. The system loses its legitimacy and integrity when landlords are not required to prove all elements of their case or when tenants are not offered the opportunity to understand their rights and respond.
Perhaps the system would be held to a higher standard of equity and fairness if more tenants were represented by legal counsel. Nationwide, only 10 percent of tenants are able to secure representation in eviction cases, compared to 90 percent of landlords. Where tenants are not represented, the vast majority lose their case. In contrast, reams of evidence show that represented tenants remain housed at vastly higher rates, owe less money, obtain more time to move where necessary, and avoid evictions on their records. Since New York City enacted the right to counsel for income-eligible tenants in 2018, evictions were prevented for over 22,000 households. Overall, 84 percent of New York City tenants who are represented by counsel remain in their home. The extreme variations in outcomes based exclusively on the availability of legal counsel point to significant rights violations and a system in need of urgent reform. In light of the overwhelming and unprecedented risk of eviction, which will continue to grow without substantial financial intervention, the need for an expanded civil right to counsel to close the eviction “justice gap” is extraordinary.
The Path We Laid: The United States’ Chronic Affordable Housing Crisis
The pandemic struck when millions of Americans already lived perilously close to eviction. Not only was the eviction system firmly biased in favor of landlords, the U.S. was also in the midst of an acute affordable housing crisis. In 2018, 20.8 million families experienced rent hardship, defined as paying over 30 percent of their income toward rent and utilities. The majority of renter households below the poverty line spent at least half of their income on rent, with one in four spending over 70 percent. As a result, many renters are forced to choose between shelter and other necessities like food and medications, with people of color being most vulnerable. At the outset of the pandemic, over 70 percent of Black and Latinx adults lacked emergency funds to cover three months of expenses, compared to under half of white adults. Overall, four in 10 Americans couldn’t cover a $400 unexpected expense. Without a safety net when crisis strikes, the downward fall is steep and swift, and recovery may be impossible.
The pre-pandemic affordable housing crisis is generally attributed to the combination of stagnant incomes, rising housing costs, and insufficient federal financial housing support. Between 1979 and 2013, the wages among middle-wage workers remained totally flat, and wages among low-wage workers fell 5 percent. Yet, rents continued to rise. Over the last decade, every region of the country experienced a surge in rent, with apartment rental prices increasing by 150 percent. Tenant exploitation—charging renters above market value—is common, especially in low-income neighborhoods with high concentrations of African Americans. As one landlord told Matthew Desmond, founder of the Eviction Lab at Princeton University and author of Evicted, “The ‘hood is good. There’s a lot of money there.”
Despite the ever-widening gap between income and housing costs, the federal government has never ensured the affordability of housing. Only one in four eligible households receive federal financial rental assistance, and the U.S. has lost four million affordable housing units over the last decade. And state and federal lawmakers have not acted to address housing affordability during the pandemic and resulting financial crisis. This long-standing policy failure, compounded by COVID-related job and wage loss, leaves millions more Americans in danger of losing their homes.
Lifelong Negative Consequences: The Punishment for Missing Rent
This crisis was not borne of the pandemic, and its consequences will extend far beyond it. For newborns, children and adults alike, eviction can have lifelong effects on emotional and physical health, even taking years off a life. Samantha’s children were subject to enormous stress, substandard housing, and the resulting medical problems after their family’s eviction. But theirs was not an unusual case. After an eviction, children are at increased risk of emotional trauma, food insecurity, academic decline, and lead poisoning. Pregnant women who are evicted are more likely to have adverse birth outcomes, such as preterm pregnancies and giving birth to infants with low-birth weight, resulting in consequences across the lifecourse. In adults, eviction and housing instability frequently result in increased blood pressure, higher mortality, increased risk of heart disease, depression, anxiety, and suicide, among other poor health outcomes. These conditions and the high healthcare costs associated with them increase the risk of eviction in the future. In this way, eviction often creates poverty and perpetuates longstanding patterns of housing and economic instability.
During the pandemic, eviction may increase the risk of COVID-19 infection and death. The homelessness, overcrowding, and transiency following forced housing displacement make compliance with pandemic health guidelines difficult or impossible, and increase transmission rates of infectious disease. Recent studies suggest that the lifting of eviction moratoriums may be associated with an increased rate of COVID-19 infection and death. By driving families to poorer neighborhoods, eviction and housing displacement may also lead to less frequent COVID-19 testing and medical attention. Even when infected individuals present with COVID-19 symptoms, eviction decreases the likelihood that they will seek timely medical attention that could stem community transmission.
In addition to these devastating effects, eviction haunts families and individuals as they attempt to piece their life back together. Eviction records can permanently scar a tenant’s rental history and negatively affect credit scores, even when the case is decided in a tenant’s favor. An eviction makes it more difficult and more expensive to rent an apartment, borrow money, or purchase a home. Landlords and public housing authorities frequently screen for and reject applicants with a history of eviction. As a result, the families in the greatest need are pushed to the outskirts of the rental market and into substandard housing in communities with higher rates of crime, poverty, and under-resourced schools. According to Matthew Desmond, “eviction diminishes one’s chance of securing affordable housing in a decent neighborhood, stymies the ability to secure housing assistance, and often leads to homelessness and increased residential mobility. All of these factors lead to reproduction of urban poverty.”
The Disparate Impact of Housing Precarity: Redlining on Repeat
At the outset of the pandemic, 50 million renters reported living in households that suffered COVID-19 related job or wage loss, with the highest loss among people of color and low-income households. Sixty-one percent of Latinx and 44 percent of Black households experienced a job or wage loss due to the pandemic, compared with 38 percent of whites.
The pandemic has strained renters’ ability to meet basic needs and pushed demands for financial assistance to an all-time high. Nationally, requests for rental assistance increased by 92 percent from the prior year, and rental assistance programs have been frequently exhausted within hours of being offered. Renters are depleting what savings they have, borrowing from family and friends, taking on financial risk and costs by taking out loans, and paying the rent on their credit cards. In addition, there is increasing evidence that “the rent eats first,” with renters shifting their food budgets towards the rent. For many, even these sacrifices won’t be enough to prevent eviction.
The human costs and housing loss are especially heightened among people of color. Among renters nationally, nearly half of Black and Hispanic renters have had little to no confidence in their ability to pay next month’s rent, compared to less than a quarter of white renters. These racial disparities are largely due to decades of racially discriminatory housing laws and policies that excluded people of color from mortgages and deepened segregation while promoting the investment of billions of federal dollars in white communities. The sordid legacy of these laws is embedded in the cavernous racial wealth gap that propelled entire generations into poverty, poor health, and housing precarity.
Further, Black renters face eviction at the highest rates. In some communities, the percentage of Black people is a greater predictor of eviction filings than the poverty level. On average, across similar education levels, Black renters face eviction at nearly twice the rate of white renters. In another study of multiple cities, approximately 80 percent of people facing eviction were Black.
Further, women, especially Black and Hispanic women, are evicted at higher rates than men. Eviction is to Black women what the criminal legal system is to Black men. As Matthew Desmond observed, “Poor black men are locked up while poor black women are locked out.” Coupled with widespread housing discrimination in the rental market, people of color are at extreme risk of housing loss and the social and economic inequalities it causes.
In this way, eviction operates as a vehicle of subordination among historically marginalized groups. Without swift and immediate intervention, the dual affordable housing and pandemic-accelerated eviction crises will continue to disproportionately harm people of color and pose insurmountable barriers to opportunity.
Among the Biden administration’s first priorities is the advancement of racial equity and support for underserved communities. This requires redress of the structural and systemic discrimination in housing. As an immediate measure, the federal government should bolster the nationwide moratorium on evictions to apply to all stages of eviction, all forms of eviction, and all renters who face housing instability. At the same time, to prevent an avalanche of evictions and protect small property owners from harm once moratoria lapse, policy makers must provide the rental assistance necessary to address the accumulating back rent and sustain renters, state and local governments, and the housing market—and direct it to the communities at the greatest risk of housing instability.
In the long term, federal, state, and local policymakers must reform the housing market in a way that provides equal access to housing, thriving communities, and areas of opportunity. Rental subsidies, new construction or rehabilitation, home ownership, and investment in long ignored communities would increase long-term affordable housing. Government-Sponsored Enterprises (GSEs) must remedy the current market conditions that can be traced to racially discriminatory lending policies. This means GSEs must address disparities in asset accumulation and the persistence of discrimination in mortgage lending and the siting of homes.
Where eviction is absolutely necessary, the eviction system itself must be reformed. Evidence-based interventions, such as providing a right to counsel, diversion programs, “just cause” and “clean hands” policies, as well as altering the eviction process, and sealing or redacting identifying information from eviction records, can prevent or mitigate the harm of eviction. Preventing COVID-19 eviction alone could save the U.S. upwards of $129 billion in social and health care costs associated with homelessness.
Eviction prevention and the right to safe and decent housing must be the priority. As President Biden said while signing executive orders directed at ending housing discrimination: “Housing is a right in America, and homeownership is an essential tool to wealth creation and to be passed down to generations.” It’s time the U.S. fulfilled the promises of the 1944 Economic Bill of Rights, which includes a right to a decent home, and the 1949 Housing Act that set the national housing goal: “the realization as soon as feasible of the goal of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family.” Ultimately, our policies and budgets reflect our humanity and morality as a nation, and nothing could justify the continued denial of basic human needs and access to opportunity. If we are ever to call our society humane or just, we must finally redress housing disparities and discrimination and secure every American’s right to a safe and decent home.