The Scarlet E: Eviction

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

Warning: There’s an eviction epidemic in America. Most lower income families now spend over half their income on housing—and receive very little comfort or security in return. According to a report from the Princeton University Eviction Lab, many are one slip up, one lost job, one medical bill or personal tragedy away from losing their homes. For good.

Here’s how it works. Once a tenant has been evicted, there’s a black mark on that individual’s record, making it nearly impossible to rent again. People in distress can’t even bunk with relatives. Most of their family members have leases that specify no guests, no family, no additional people under the same roof—or they, too, will be evicted. So it’s a never-ending cycle. The system isn’t just unfair and unforgiving, it actually breaks up family bonds, leaving folks with no one to turn too, and no place to go. They can’t even rent again once they’ve saved some money or gotten decent jobs. The only alternative is often cramming the whole family into a cheap, motel, or worse—camping out. In a car or on the street.

WNYC Radio’s Brooke Gladstone visited some of the cities hardest hit by evictions and spoke with people at the heart of the crisis. Over the course of this four-part series,  you’ll hear these emotional first person stories.

  • Hank Roberts, a housing advocate in Chicago,  grapples with the agonizing decision of whether to evict a long-time tenant who is ill, but whose continued delinquency threatens Hank’s ability to hold on to his own home.
  • Destiny Mattison, a single mom and city caseworker in Camden, NJ, says she is a casualty of “serial eviction filing,” an increasingly common practice that cripples tenants with fine upon fine.
  • A security guard in Richmond, VA,  Jeffrey tells how his family’s brush with eviction has branded them with the “Scarlet E” and made it impossible to find another rental, despite new employment, better pay, and a steady cash flow.
  • Dovie Newell, a tenant of Techwood Homes in Atlanta, the nation’s first federal public housing project built under Franklin Roosevelt, explains why she’s spent her life working and paying rent with some government support.

What's the origin of this epidemic?

“When we began reporting this series, I thought I understood the causes of America’s eviction epidemic. Unemployment, gentrification…but I was wrong,” said Gladstone. “The roots of eviction date back to the nation’s founding, fueled through time by the formation of markets, the rise of corporations, and the persistence of racism.”  

The Eviction Epidemic is not so much about poverty and people falling on hard times. It’s about landlords and investors extracting wealth from those with lower incomes.

Most landlords have expenses for roof repair and maintenance, yet an apartment in a poor neighborhood yields double the profit of one in a middle class enclave.   

Americans who pay more than 30% of their income — and sometimes up to 90 percent — on housing are referred to a “rent-burdened” meaning that they have less money for food, clothing and the basics. They can’t afford healthy food or school supplies, and there’s no money for enrichment or after-school activities.  

Even more disturbing is that having children increases the likelihood of eviction.   

Much of the research for this program came from Matthew Desmond who founded the Princeton Eviction Lab — the first national data base on dispossession and loss of the family home.  

 In 2008,  Desmond started studying housing, poverty, and eviction while living and working alongside poor tenants and their landlords in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He found that eviction was incredibly common in low-income communities, making it virtually impossible for many Americans to escape a life of poverty.  What’s more, an apartment in a middle class section of Milwaukee might run $650 a month while one in a crime ridden section of town  might go for $600. In short, there’s only a few hard-earned dollars between security and despair.  Desmond later won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on this topic in Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016) 

But for Desmond, this theme — the tenuousness of home — was deeply personal.  While he was in college,  his family fell behind on the mortgage payments and lost their $60,000 house in a small town in Arizona.   

“Money was tight around our home and our table,,” Desmond says, describing his childhood. “But we always had a story:  If  you work hard, you go to college, have a good job. America is here for you.”   When Desmond took classes in economics and sociology, he began to hear another story — “this time, about inequality and the salience of racism.”   Then he started hanging out with homeless  people, trying to get a sense of how and why they lost a place to live.  And he was particularly moved by the stress that eviction put on families.

The stories Matt was hearing on the street tapped into his own experience.   “I hated all the decisions people had to make when money was right.  What bills to cut, how to skimp a little here and hustle there.  I hated the stress it put on my parents, the shame you take on…all the unnecessary suffering.”

The Limits of the American Dream

Desmond began to cobble together data on more than 83 million evictions across America.  Yet many towns fail to track this kind of information, and then there was the challenge of finding a meaningful pattern.   As Desmond looked through our nation’s history, one emerged. He found a long practice of overcharging the poor for substandard housing. In New York City, in the 1890s, people in crowded tenements on the lower East Side paid more for rent than those in spacious brownstones in the tree-lined neighborhoods uptown. This pattern turned out to be the norm in many cities — and what’s more, it held up over time. In modern Detroit, rents for the poor have zoomed far higher than those for the middle class. 

“I can superimpose the pattern of The Great Migration — the mass exodus of African Americans from rural communities in the south to large cities in the North and West in the 20th century– over the Eviction Map today,” Desmond says, “and they would overlap.”  His conclusion: Eviction is deeply woven into the fabric of our nation’s history. 

What does this say about the American dream of “Work hard and you too, can prosper”?  What can our citizens achieve if denied a decent place to live?

“At home, you can be yourself,” says Desmond, noting that it’s the one place where people can relax and renew themselves.  “Now consider the absence of that, where home is a complete burden, a monkey on the back, a thing we can’t afford.  A place that’s full of roaches, and the door falls down.” 

For Desmond, home is the wellspring of social promise.  It’s where we’ve rooted the American Dream. “It shouldn’t make us feel less than ourselves.”

On this radio program, he dares to ask: Why is a safe, clean home impossibly out of reach for so many? It’s currently impossible for any family living on a minimum wage to afford a two bedroom apartment in any state in the US, Desmond reports, while the cost of low-income housing rises even faster than that in comfortable communities.   

Listen to this ground-breaking series on WNYC here.

Deep Dive: To learn more, read Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.  

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