Lessons from Eviction Court

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Natasha G’s eviction hearing was set to begin at any minute. A law student and I stood outside the court entrance, taking hurried notes as she explained her situation. Her abuser had been arrested recently. (I am not using clients’ real names.) That protected her from his drunken beatings, but also left her without his income to help support their five kids. After she fell behind on rent, Natasha took a job 35 miles away from home, working in a warehouse on the 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift. She has a rickety car and tenuous nighttime childcare arrangements. She is struggling with lack of sleep and growing health problems and does not have much help with the kids during the day. We rushed into court and helped her convince the judge to give her a few weeks to pull in some paychecks that would allow her to catch up on rent.

Her struggle is far too common. With massive work income loss during the COVID pandemic and rent taking up a huge chunk of the financial obligations of low-income families, a tsunami of evictions has descended on the nation. Nearly six million U.S. households are behind on their rent.

In our law school housing clinic, here are a few lessons we have learned:

1. Evictions exist because affordable housing doesn’t. Sylvia G lives with a severe illness and faces rent costs that exceed her monthly disability check. Jasmine T is the mother of an 11-day-old baby and still recovering from a difficult pregnancy and birth.

For them and millions of others in this country, even run-down apartments or homes cost an unsustainable percentage of their income. Experts consider such renters to be “cost-burdened.” An estimated 37 million households fall into that category.

In real life, “cost-burdened” means that our clients struggle with paying 60%, 70%, even 80% of their monthly income on rent—until they can’t. A health crisis happens, their car breaks down, their child needs to stay home from school because of illness or COVID exposure. Paychecks get reduced or stop altogether. The rent comes due. And then we see them in court.

2. For-profit corporations gonna profit. James F. was 82 years old and had lived in his apartment for 30 years. Last year, a corporation bought his building and refused to renew his lease. James’s neighborhood was gentrifying around him, and the corporation was determined to reap the benefits. It threw James out along with other fixed-income seniors. The building was repainted and rebranded: then the corporation started pulling in wealthier tenants.

It was about profits, and there was zero hesitation about evicting. A landlord or attorney will often tell us some variation of, “I am sorry your client will not have a place to live, but it’s not my responsibility.” And they are right. If we really consider housing to be a human right, and polls show most Americans do, it is madness to entrust a money-seeking enterprise, usually a for-profit corporation, with ensuring that right.

But for more than three in every four Americans who live on an income low enough to qualify them for federally subsidized housing, James included, there is no help available.

Public housing agencies go for years on end without even opening their wait lists for vouchers or subsidized units. Often clients’ only option is to scrape together enough rent for private housing. As soon as landlords think the arrangement is not profitable enough, they tell the tenants to hit the streets.

3. Social programs work. In August of 2021, all our current eviction-court clients were safely housed. Most were using stimulus checks and/or extended unemployment benefits to make ends meet. The Centers for Disease Control eviction moratorium was protecting the roof over their heads. As a result, poverty rates actually dropped during the pandemic.

By the first week of September, everything had changed. The Supreme Court struck down the eviction moratorium, the extended unemployment benefits ran out, stimulus checks stopped coming. The safety net that had protected millions was abruptly pulled away. Landings have been rough: Our client Patricia K. was evicted and is now living in a friend’s garden shed. Elise P. is sleeping in her storage unit. Kenneth M. and his young sons are living out of their car.

4. Evictions are the business end of U.S. racism and sexism. The tenants forced into the eviction courts where we work are overwhelmingly Black, even though the jurisdiction the courts serve is majority white. Often, the tenants are young mothers. That lines up with national and state data showing that Black tenants are far more likely to lose their homes. Black women with children are particularly at risk of being evicted, continuing the shameful legacy of racist U.S. housing practices.

5. We don’t practice what we preach. The DSA believes that housing is a human right, and a majority of Americans concur. The government, acting on our behalf, needs to ensure that right is honored. The reality, however, is that three of four families eligible for federally subsidized housing don’t receive it. As a nation, we dedicate a huge amount of resources to housing; we just don’t direct those resources toward those who need it.

Consider the mortgage interest tax deduction: The vast majority of its benefits accrue to individuals who already enjoy top-20% incomes. The mortgage interest deduction alone costs the government $70 billion per year, more than the price to provide subsidized housing vouchers to every eligible person in the nation. Or consider also the tens of billions of dollars a year in tax benefits showered on corporate landlords.

Some industrialized nations, instead of treating housing as a tool for the rich to get richer, try to guarantee housing for all who need it. They don’t necessarily succeed, because it’s impossible under capitalism, but their example and the work of many DSA chapters and others prove that we can ensure affordable housing for many, many more people than we do now.

Rental housing laws vary by state and even by city, but DSA chapters should know that a few principles usually apply across the country:

• Landlords are not allowed to rent housing “as is,” disavowing any responsibility for poor conditions. Local laws usually require that the home meet health and safety codes, and local health departments may force them to meet those requirements.

• Landlords are not usually allowed to engage in “do-it-themselves” eviction. Most states require the landlord to get a court order before forcing a tenant to move, and that court order should rarely be issued unless the tenant first had notice of the proceedings and a chance to present in court.

• Leases are binding contracts on both parties. Unless the lease allows it, it is unlawful for landlords to raise rents or impose new conditions during the middle of the lease term.

• Legal help is available to tenants. Many communities have recently adopted right to-counsel laws for eviction cases, and many others significantly expanded their legal aid programs during the pandemic. Check your local legal aid organizations to see if they can advise you, or even represent you. — F.Q.