When I was a child, between first and fifth grades in school, my father was pastor to a large Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, Queens, NY. Our large, white-pillared manse was sandwiched in between the pre-Revolutionary War church and more modern 5-story Christian Education building. There was nothing but stores of various types across the street from us, and only commercial properties on the rest of our block, so no neighbor kids to play with in our back yard. However, there were low-income apartment buildings just a few blocks over, and once in a while black children from that neighborhood would find their way to our back yard, where we’d invite them to stay and play with us.
One particular afternoon, a young brother and sister were playing with us until suppertime. Since they’d stayed so late, my father wanted to walk them back to their home to make sure they arrived safely. However, when the two children brought my father to their apartment, he found that they’d been locked out by the landlord, presumably for falling behind on the rent. They and three more siblings were left standing on the street, while their mother was somewhere else for several days, trying to find work. As Dad described to us afterward, the landlord told the two children he was with that they didn’t live there anymore. The young boy, holding on to the hand of his even younger sister, started to tear up in fear and confusion, crying, “Then where DO I live?” The landlord’s curt response was that he didn’t know, but they couldn’t live there anymore.
And that’s how my father came back to our home and told Mom they needed to set five extra places for supper, since the children and their siblings would be staying the night with us. I remember Mom being less than overjoyed at being told she had to stretch a meal prepared for the five of us to feed ten, instead. But what I remember most was the face of the oldest of the visiting children, a teenager. While the younger kids played with one another and with us, she sat grimly watching the TV in the sun-room, radiating discomfort and tension, as though she longed to be anywhere else in the world. Perhaps I over-identified with her as one oldest child to another, but it seemed to me as though she was feeling deeply humiliated at having to accept charity in order to have food and shelter for the night for herself and her siblings, as well as having to worry about what would happen to them tomorrow, and so she was trying very hard to take up as little space and engage with this strange environment as little as possible, trying to render an unbearable burden of worry somewhat bearable.
I don’t recall what specifically happened the next day, but I do remember being relieved to know that their mother had come back and that Dad had been able to find them all somewhere to stay at least for a while. But that teenage girl’s face stayed in my memory ever since.
I was reminded of this story the first time I heard about Matthew Desmond’s new book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” and again when I found out it was to be the subject of an All-Presbytery Book Read.
Many times in the Old Testament (In Micah, I Kings, Zechariah and Amos) the idea of home is expressed by your own vines and fig trees. Even in those days, home and putting down roots as symbolized by those garden plantings was considered a basic need, a basic sense of safety.
1 Kings 4:25:
25 During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beer-sheba, all of them under their vines and fig trees.
I invite you all as Christians to join me in reading this book. Here are some quotes from Matthew Desmond’s research to whet your appetite.
- Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare enough to draw crowds. Eviction riots erupted during the Depression, though the number of poor families who faced eviction each year was a fraction of what it is today. In February, 1932, the Times published an account of community resistance to the eviction of three families in the Bronx, observing, “Probably because of the cold, the crowd numbered only 1,000.”
- In Milwaukee, a city of fewer than a hundred and five thousand renter households, landlords legally evict roughly sixteen thousand adults and children each year. As the real-estate market has recovered in the wake of the foreclosure crisis and the ensuing recession, evictions have only increased… Between 2009 and 2011, more than one in eight Milwaukee renters were displaced involuntarily, whether by formal or informal eviction, landlord foreclosure, or building condemnation. In 2013, nearly the same proportion of poor renting families nationwide was unable to pay all of their rent, and a similar number thought it was likely that they would be evicted soon.
- You might think that there is public housing for these families but “Three in four American families who qualified for housing assistance received nothing: the amount of government aid didn’t come close to meeting the need.
- Until the 1980s, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s budget was second only to the Department of Defense’s. But for the past several decades, housing has been relegated to the sidelines.”4 “Today’s affordable housing crisis is primarily the result of three factors: housing costs have soared, incomes of the poor have fallen or flatlined, and federal assistance has failed to bridge the gap.
- … the number of families severely rent burdened has spiked in recent years. At least since the National Housing Act of 1937, which established America’s public housing system, the public and its policymakers have believed that families should spend no more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs. Until recently, most renting households in the United States met this goal. But times have changed. Today, most renting households are not able to meet what long has been considered the standard metric of affordability, and spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs. At least one in five renter households in America now devotes at least half of its income to housing costs.
- Median monthly rent for vacant units in the United States was $371 in 1990, $483 in 2000, and $633 in 2006 (all in current dollars)—an overall increase of 70 percent in 16 years. From 2001 to 2010, median rents increased by roughly 21 percent in Midwestern and Western regions, by 26 percent in the South, and by fully 37.2 percent in the Northeast. These advances far outpaced modest gains in median incomes, which in the 2000s rose by 6 percent for households headed by people with a ninth-grade education or less, 7.3 percent for those headed by high school graduates, and 12 percent by those headed by college graduates.
- Most evictions are attributed to nonpayment of rent. A recent survey of tenants in eviction court found that one-third devoted at least 80 percent of their household income to rent, and that 92 percent received an eviction notice for falling behind (Desmond et al. 2013). It does not take a major life event (a death, a diagnosis) to cause severely housing burdened families to miss a rent payment; pedestrian expenses or setbacks—for example a reduction in work hours, or public benefits sanction—can cause families to come up short with the rent.
- During the years in which more and more renting families were in need of housing assistance, fewer and fewer new households were receiving it. Owing to cutbacks in budget authority, in recent years a growing portion of federal assistance has been dedicated to renewing existing subsidies, rather than to extending aid to new households. In an average year between 1981 and 1986, 161,000 additional households received subsidies; in an average year between 1995 and 2007, fewer than 3,000 did. As in years past, the vast majority of poor renters today do not benefit from federal housing programs.
- … housing remains absolutely central to the lives of the poor. This is especially clear today, when the majority of poor renting families in America now devote over half of their income to housing costs. Extreme rent burden among low-income households necessarily makes them poorer. As households are forced to devote a larger portion of their income to housing expenses, their budget shares for food, school supplies, medication, transportation, and other necessities shrink. Owing to a shortage of affordable housing in urban areas, low income families often move into substandard units, and housing problems have been linked to a wide array of negative health outcomes.
- The affordable housing crisis also is a major source of residential instability among low-income families. In the absence of residential stability, it is increasingly difficult for low-income families to enjoy a kind of psychological stability, which allows people to place an emotional investment in their home, social relationships, and community; school stability, which increases the chances that children will excel in their studies and graduate; or community stability, which increases the chances for neighbors to form strong bonds and to invest in their neighborhoods. As the severe housing burden among low-income households continues to rise, the number of households that experience acute residential instability owing to involuntary displacement from housing is likely to increase.
- Low-income women—and mothers in particular—are at especially high risk of eviction. One of 11 mothers receiving welfare interviewed by Edin and Lein reported having been evicted in the previous two years. “If our numbers were nationally representative,” the authors write, “1.3 million American children whose mothers relied on welfare were evicted over a two-year period…during the early 1990s.
- And among tenants who appear in court, children play a major role in determining who receives an eviction judgment. If a tenant in eviction court lives with children, her or his odds of receiving an eviction judgment almost triple, even after taking into account how much is owed to the landlord, household income, and several other key factors. Children do not shield families from eviction, but rather they often expose them to it.
- Additionally, involuntary displacement is linked to substandard housing conditions. An analysis of the Milwaukee Area Renters Study data revealed that renters whose previous move was involuntary were almost 25 percent more likely to experience long-term housing problems than matched renters who did not experience a recent forced move. One explanation for why some poor families live in substandard housing conditions—which among other things harms children’s health—is that they are compelled to do so in the aftermath of an eviction.
- Another study found that even after conditioning on a host of important factors, experiencing an eviction is associated with over a third of a standard deviation increase in neighborhood poverty and crime rates, relative to voluntary moves. Families involuntarily displaced from their homes often end up in worse neighborhoods. Tenants evicted through the court system carry the judgment on their record. Owing to open record laws, in many states this information is easily accessible and free online. An eviction judgment makes it difficult to secure decent housing in a safe neighborhood, as many landlords reject anyone with a recent eviction.
- Many people think that job loss leads to eviction, but eviction can also lead to job loss. An eviction not only can consume renters’ time, causing them to miss work, it also can consume their thoughts and cause them to make mistakes on the job, and also result in their relocating farther away from their worksite, increasing their likelihood of tardiness and absenteeism. Results from the Milwaukee Area Renters Study found that workers who involuntarily lost their housing were roughly 20 percent more likely subsequently lose their jobs, compared to similar workers who did not. These results imply that initiatives promoting housing stability could promote employment stability.
- Because the distribution of rents in Milwaukee is considerably compressed, housing costs do not march in lockstep with neighborhood quality. According to weighted MARS estimates, the median rent for a two-bedroom unit in Milwaukee is $600; 10 % of those units rent at or below $480, and 10 % rent at or above $750.13 A mere $270 separates some of the least expensive units in the city from some of the most expensive. In Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods— block groups in which 40 % or more of families live below the poverty line—median rent for a two-bedroom apartment fetches $550, only $50 less than the citywide median. The median rent for a two-bedroom apartment at or above the 75th percentile in crime rate is the same as that for a two-bedroom apartment at or below the 25th percentile in crime rate ($600). Accordingly, it is possible for renters forced from their homes to relocate to neighborhoods with more poverty and crime but equivalent housing costs. Given the surge in extreme rent burden among low-income renters, it often is true that many are living in units they cannot afford, but it often is untrue that they are not already at the bottom of the market.
- But the most powerful and effective eviction-prevention policies are among the most powerful and effective antipoverty policies: affordable housing initiatives. The high cost of housing is consigning millions of low-income Americans to financial hardship. Providing stable housing and lowering evictions is a human capital investment analogous to education or job training, one that has the potential to decrease poverty and homelessness and stabilize families, schools, and neighborhoods. Expanding access to stable, safe, and affordable housing would help more low income children to realize their full potential.