Evictions are no longer a rarity in the United States: How are they at work in St. Louis? | St. Louis Public Radio

Evictions are no longer a rarity in the United States: How are they at work in St. Louis?

Apr 3, 2017

Evictions used to be rare enough in the United States that the government never made an effort to track them on a federal level. That’s changing.

On the high end, the real estate website Redfin recently estimated that nearly 2.7 million renters faced eviction in the United States in 2015. Harvard professor Matthew Desmond keeps his eviction projection a little more conservative, mostly due to the fact that there is no federally available data on the issue.

“If you look at the numbers, city by city, they’re just shocking,” Desmond said on St. Louis on the Air. “There are 40 evictions a day that happen in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and 60 marshal evictions a day in New York City. The last time we rolled out the American Housing Survey, we asked renters: ‘do you think you’ll be evicted soon?’ and 2.8 million renting homes said ‘yes’ to that question. It looks like we’ve moved from a place where eviction used to be pretty rare in our cities to a place to where we’re evicting people not in the tens and hundreds of thousands, but rather millions.”

Desmond recently authored the book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” where he dove deep into data and the lives of families in Milwaukee who were facing eviction. He is considered a foremost expert on the subject and will be featured as a speaker at the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council’s annual conference on Thursday

Evictions in St. Louis

Kalila Jackson is a staff attorney for the Equal Housing and Opportunity Council (EHOC), where she represents clients with fair housing complaints in the region. On the program, Jackson revealed that St. Louis is in keeping with trends in other urban areas in terms of the number of evictions that take place each year.

In 2012, the last time a city-wide study was conducted, EHOC found that there were 6,369 cases filed for evictions. All but two of those cases ended with an eviction taking place.

EHOC provides legal counsel on housing issues like eviction or discrimination, but “the need overtakes the resources available,” Jackson said.

The process of eviction

The process of eviction varies widely from city-to-city across the United States. Sometimes families have a five-day process but, in some cities, they may have 30 days. Normally, if a family falls behind on rent, the landlord will issue an eviction notice: either leave or pay the balance.

"Evicted," by Matthew Desmond.

“If you can’t do either, you receive a summons to go to eviction court,” Desmond said. “One thing I don’t think most people realize, though, is that if you get arrested for a crime in America, you have the right to an attorney. You have no such right in civil court. Most families called to show up for housing court, don’t have the right to an attorney and don’t have access. Most families don’t show up. …  I have a Ph.D. and if I had to face-off without an attorney, I don’t know if I would show up.”

If they don’t show up, the tenant is evicted. If the family does show up and faces off with the landlord or the landlord’s attorney, it is then up to the landlord’s discretion if they choose to evict the tenant. From there, the tenant has a prescribed amount of time to get out. If they don’t get out, a sheriff kicks them out.

There are some services available for those evicted from housing, but Desmond said that there just aren’t enough of those services to aid people being evicted.

“Many Americans still believe that the typical family in poverty lives in public housing or gets basic housing needs from the government,” Desmond said. “Only about one in four families that qualify for such services receive it. If you think of the typical poor family today, you shouldn’t think of them living in public housing towers like Pruitt-Igoe. You should think of them living in the private rental market, getting no government help, and giving most of their money to their landlord and utility company. There are services for folks who fall behind in rent, and help homelessness. But those services don’t stand up to the need.”

Jackson said that, in St. Louis, you’ll find people forced in to substandard housing conditions after an eviction, paying rent to shadowy landlords who may not abide by housing codes.

“Eviction is not just a condition of poverty: it is a cause of it,” Desmond said. “It makes people’s lives worse. Eviction comes with a mark or a blemish. If it is processed in the court system, landlords will push you away.”

Desmond believes it will be impossible to change poverty in America without fixing housing issues. The lack of affordable housing for low-income families is not something that just happens, but rather it increases disadvantage.

“The majority of poor renting families are spending at least half of their income on housing costs,” Desmond said. “One in four of those families are spending 70% of their income on rent and utilities. Whatever keeps you up at night, if it is crime reduction, we know neighborhoods with more evictions have more violent crime. It rips apart the social fabric. If you care about educational inequality or driving down housing problems or stabilizing families in neighborhoods, you have to think about providing safe, affordable decent homes.”

What needs to change

Desmond said that the positive side to this information is that programs that are in place now are working — they are just not to scale.

“When families receive a housing voucher, allowing them to only pay 30 percent of their income rather than 70 percent in housing costs, they do one consistent thing: they take it to the grocery store. They invest in jobs programs.”

Desmond said he was encouraged by efforts cities are taking to reduce evictions. Seattle recently passed a tax levy to support affordable housing and New York City passed a right-to-counsel in housing courts.

In St. Louis, Jackson said the fact that the City of St. Louis passed protections for Housing Choice Voucher (formerly Section 8) recipients so they can’t be discriminated against by landlords is a great step forward. She hopes to see other regional municipalities and cities follow suit. She also wants to see strict housing codes enforced.

Barriers to improvements for low-income housing include a possible 14 percent reduction in Housing and Urban Development federal funding and the need for landlords to come to the table to discuss why they’re not accepting housing voucher recipients as tenants.

“The efforts taken at the city level are good, but we’re not going to get to scale without federal involvement,” Desmond said.  

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.