As a dozen movers laboriously removed all the family's possessions and threw them out on the street, a young girl "pointed at her toys tied up in a bed sheet, carried away in a reverse Christmas morning where Santa takes her gifts back up the chimney. She began to cry and hugged the woman's legs. The oldest boy, perhaps five or six…his lips pinched and his jaw tightened as his face filled with rage and helplessness, as he experienced something hurtful beyond his control."
This is how Michael Herlihy described an eviction in a 1998 article, cited in the newly-released study "Evictions: The Hidden Housing Problem" published by the Fannie Mae Foundation and authored by Chester Hartman of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, and David Robinson, a legal services attorney for New York City. The Poverty & Race Research Action Council is a non-partisan not-for-profit group advocating for civil rights and an end to poverty; the Fannie Mae Foundation works to increase homeownership rates in the United States.
Similar scenes are repeated every few minutes around the country. In Chicago alone, according to the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, a non-profit advocacy group for local renters, on average someone is evicted every 15 minutes. In Washington D.C., in 2001 there were 55,000 eviction cases filed. In New York City as of 2001, marshals carried out an average of 25,000 evictions a year, a fifth of what was ordered by housing courts.
The study describes the wide-ranging, largely undocumented scope of the eviction problem nationwide and its ripple effects on various aspects of American life. A growing number of evictions around the country are contributing to the mushrooming homeless population, violating people's civil rights, disrupting the lives of countless families, causing notable psychological trauma to children, and exacerbating segregation in cities, according to the report.
The report notes that there are no reliable, centralized federal records kept about eviction, which makes combating the problem even harder.
"Evictions have definitely increased over the past few years," said Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, a non-profit lobbying and service organization which among other things is pushing a House bill called Bring America Home that would help reduce homelessness. "There are illegal things going on, and people don’t have knowledge of the system to fight it, because they are new to the country or aren't educated."
The report speaks not only of evictions which are brought to court and end up with a sheriff forcibly removing a family and their possessions, but also covers what the authors call "voluntary evictions," wherein a tenant is forced to leave through illegal tactics or harassment at the hands of their landlord or the state. These situations include landlords who refuse to fix the water or the heat or who otherwise keep an apartment unlivable; landlords and state agencies who fail to facilitate a tenant's legal right to use a Section 8 subsidized housing voucher without discrimination; and tenants who are forced to move when rent is raised exorbitantly and sometimes illegally.
The authors also refer to "self-help" evictions, in which landlords take matters into their own hands by changing locks, removing possessions or even hiring private "eviction aid" services. Though the tactics employed are usually illegal, evicted tenants are often unaware of their rights and unwilling or unable to seek legal help because of a lack of education, economic barriers or the fact that they are undocumented immigrants who don't want to risk any contact with the courts.
"A lot of times people will ask the landlord for the services they are entitled to, but instead of giving them the services the landlord will get mad and give them notice to move, or just take the doors off the hinges or change the locks," said Dalila Gerena, a housing hotline coordinator at the Metropolitan Tenants Organization in Chicago, a coalition of community organizations and housing activists. "If people call the police, they might get passed from one person to another, and they get frustrated. If they are undocumented immigrants they don't even call the police because they're afraid of getting deported."
The eviction question isn't always a clear-cut matter, either. Landlords note that they do need to collect rent to pay their mortgages, and in some cases landlords may be middle- or even low-income people themselves who just own one or two buildings.
The web site of the National Association of Independent Landlords (www.nail-usa.com) documents how difficult it can be for landlords to collect rent, even when it is legitimately due to them. It lists a number of "horror stories," like the case of a woman who rented out her home and moved to cheaper apartment after her husband left her.
"The tenant seemed so nice! However she did not pay any rent for the first couple months and I had to start a second job just to pay the rent on my home and my apartment," the testimonial on the web site says. "She appealed eviction and the judge upheld it. I lost my apartment and had to move back in with my ex-husband and his girlfriend."
And private landlords are not the only ones to blame.
Public housing residents in particular -- the most vulnerable sector of the housing market -- have been evicted in droves as part of the HOPE VI redevelopment process, a federal program which aims to replace massive public housing units with scattered-site subsidized housing, with the goal of removing residents from concentrated poverty and helping them become more self-sufficient.
Under HOPE VI, around the country public housing developments considered "severely distressed," are being torn down. Tenants who are deemed compliant with their leases are then theoretically given replacement housing. Some tenants are relocated to replacement public housing units in mixed-income developments. The majority are given Section 8 vouchers, which they can use to rent private-market apartments where they will pay only a third of their income in rent and the federal government will pay the rest.
While most public housing residents and advocates say that something had to be done about the usually dangerous and structurally unsound high rise developments, the way HOPE VI has played out so far has been far from ideal. Many tenants are deemed "non-lease-compliant," so they are left with no replacement housing at all. And of those who are awarded Section 8 vouchers, many are unable to use them because of discrimination by landlords, a dearth of affordable housing and bureaucratic snafus.
Many times these tenants are given no other housing options once they are removed from their public housing residences. This could be because of one-strike laws making a tenant ineligible for replacement housing if someone who is assumed to be under their control is convicted of a drug violation -- even if the leaseholder isn't aware of the drug use or violation. Or it could be a tenant who is given a Section 8 voucher for subsidized housing but is unable to find a landlord who will accept the voucher. Or the tenant may use the voucher but soon be evicted by their new landlord under legally-allowed no-cause eviction.
"Evidence from Chicago, which has made extensive use of HOPE VI, suggests that the Chicago Housing Authority is in fact using evictions as a displacement tool to reduce the number of public housing tenants in projects slated for HOPE VI treatment for whom the agency must provide replacement housing," the study says.
In 2002 the Supreme Court ruled that "no-fault" evictions are an acceptable part of the tenant-landlord relationship, meaning landlords can easily use no-fault evictions -- in which tenants are not declared at fault but are evicted for other reasons -- as a way to punish tenants for speaking up for their rights.
"Of no little concern is the potential for abuse," says the report. "That housing authorities may target 'problem tenants,' not of the criminal variety, but activist tenant leaders who embarrass or cause problems for the agency."
Gentrification is driving growing numbers of evictions in most major cities, as all over the country the so-called "inner-city" is becoming attractive to upper-income professionals.
"The gentrification process sometimes finds the private market forces working in tandem with government agencies to produce evictions," says the report. "In New York City's Chinatown, for example, close to trendy areas like SoHo and TriBeCa, landlords have been calling in fire and building code inspectors to evict tenants living in partitioned spaces -- 'remodeling' overlooked and even created by landlords for years until the bondtraders with deep pockets came looking for hip quarters and in the process producing rents four times the level of rent-controlled and rent-stabilized units."
Whitehead said gentrification has been a major factor in increasing the number of evicted and homeless people in Washington, DC and around the country. "People with higher incomes move in, so the rent increases, and a lot of people are forced out," he said.
The report cites several studies showing evictions inordinately affect women, low-income people and minorities, and that waves of evictions in gentrifying areas usually serve to exacerbate racial segregation in cities. In 2002 the East Bay Housing Organizations found that 78 percent of 30-day no-cause evictions were minorities. A 1996 report in Chicago by the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing showed that 62 percent of those appearing in eviction court were women and 72 percent were black, numbers their executive director, Kathleen Clark says have not changed much in the seven years since the study. In Philadelphia, a 2001 investigation found that 83 percent of the evicted were non-white, and 70 percent were non-white women.
In many cases, however, gentrification is so extreme that even traditionally middle-class white renters are also at risk. The study notes the cases of a dental office manager and former Bloomingdale's executive making $175,000 a year being evicted after losing their jobs.
People who live in Single Room Occupancy (SRO) units, on the verge of homelessness but paying what often amount to nearly market-rate rents for rooms on a nightly or weekly basis, are also victims of a special form of eviction known as "musical rooms." The report notes that most owners or managers of these transient hotels do not allow residents to stay longer than 28 days, since after 30 or so days in many cities and states they would become eligible for tenants rights and protections. So they "evict" the tenants every 28 days, only to re-book them in a different room.
Mobile home owners are also likely to be victims of eviction. "Urban sprawl has led many park owners to evict residents (who are disproportionately elderly and of modest income) so the land can be more profitably developed," says the report. "The condition and cost of the units generally make them practically immobile, so there is economic loss in addition to the other losses eviction produces."
The study speculates on the wide-ranging effects of evictions in people's lives. "Depending on where an evicted household finds replacement housing," it notes, "it may not be possible for members to retain employment and such moves often force children to switch schools, frequently in midyear, with a consequent deleterious effect on their education."
The traumatic eviction process can also lead to violence, among family members, against oneself or with the police. The study cites a case where a 60-year-old public housing resident was shot to death by police during her eviction (1986); a 2001 incident where an enraged tenant killed and set on fire a marshal carrying out an eviction in the Bronx; and a suicide triggered by an eviction in New York City in 2003.
The study describes some encouraging examples of anti-eviction and tenants' rights organizing around the country, like the "eviction-free zones" community organizations have established in Jamaica Plain, MA, Oakland, CA., the Park Slope area of Brooklyn, NY and several other areas.
To begin to address the eviction scourge, the study's authors call for a combination of legal reform, including giving tenants meaningful access to lawyers and knowledge of their rights; community organizing; increases in subsidized and affordable housing; the reform of the way HOPE VI is carried out; and a better tracking and record-keeping system to document and study evictions.
"We reiterate that eviction is a massive, albeit largely hidden housing problem and that it is in need of serious recognition and study by housing officials and policymakers," the report concludes. "It is our fervent hope that this article will trigger responses that will both bring the eviction problem more into the light of day and lead to steps to minimize a social problem of epidemic proportions that causes great personal grief and is deeply disruptive of community life."
Kari Lydersen is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Illinois and an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program. This article first appeared in The New Standard, a new publication that Noam Chomsky describes as "an exciting initiative, organized by people with great experience and impressive achievements. It offers real promise of meeting needs that are widely and rightly felt: for regular news and commentary about important issues, truly independent, not constrained by concentrated power. The significance of such an endeavor for those committed to freedom and justice can hardly be overstressed." Please visit their website and support their important endeavors.