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The eviction spiral

Evicted book cover
Image: Copyright Crown

The rising cost of housing has led to an increase in the number of evictions nationwide, and Wisconsin is no exception. For the two most recent years where numbers are available, there were 28,501 eviction cases filed in 2012 and 28,812 in 2013. Most tenants face these legal proceedings without counsel. But an eviction is not only extremely unsettling for tenants; it has significant short and long-term socio-economic impacts. Access to legal services can help reduce those costs.

In a 2015 article for the UW Institute for Research on Poverty, Matthew Desmond noted that, “Today, the majority of poor renting families spend at least half of their income on housing costs. And almost a quarter — representing over a million families — dedicate over 70 percent of their income to pay rent and keep the lights on…. Eviction has become commonplace in low-income communities.” Desmond goes on to detail how “Residential instability often brings about other forms of instability — in families, schools, communities — compromising the life chances of adults and children.”

Desmond probes the spiral of eviction-induced instability in his new book – Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Among other things, Desmond found that evictions are often a driver, not a side-effect of economic instability. This unexpected conclusion has significant policy implications. In her article for The Atlantic, Gillian B. White concisely summarizes the downward spiral after an eviction: “The psychological, legal, and financial damage inflicted by the process makes it difficult to find new housing, or to keep a job, or provide a stable education for children.” Landlords are reluctant to rent to tenants who have been evicted in the past. Employers often look at the credit history of applicants and screen out those with low scores, including those caused by an eviction judgement. Families then have to settle for the least desirable housing in the least desirable areas, with fewer economic opportunities for themselves and lower performing schools for their children.

Desmond described three factors contributing to the rise in evictions: between 2001 and 2010, median rents increased by approximately 21 percent in the Midwest, and utility costs increased by 53 percent, but incomes rose only 6‒7 percent for households headed by people without a college education. According to the  Milwaukee Area Renters Study, which analyzed the number of renters involuntary displaced by formal and informal evictions, one in eight (13 percent) Milwaukee renters was involuntarily displaced from housing in the two years prior to being surveyed. Nearly half (48 percent) were informal evictions and 24 percent were formal evictions. The remaining 28 percent were due to landlord foreclosure or building condemnation.

What can be done?

Desmond has three recommendations for policy changes to help alleviate the impact and prevalence of evictions: (1) making emergency financial assistance available to tenants; (2) providing legal assistance to tenants; and (3) promoting affordable housing initiatives.

A recent New York Times article looks at the impact of several of these proposals, including legal assistance to tenants. Court data shows that evictions in New York City dropped by 18 percent in 2015, to their lowest level in a decade, after the city allocated $46 million for legal services for tenants. In Boston, the effect of providing legal assistance to tenants was even more dramatic; tenants were twice as likely to avoid eviction if they had legal help. Lawyers negotiated time for payment of back rent, challenged overcharges and took landlords to court in cases in which problems have been neglected or tenants have been harassed.

The Access to Justice Commission was created with a mission to to develop and encourage means of expanding access to the civil justice system for unrepresented low-income Wisconsin residents. Courts face enormous challenges in handling a growing number of self-represented individuals facing life altering legal problems, often against parties represented by lawyers, including evictions. Lawyers and other forms of legal assistance for tenants can help increase access to justice and reduce that burden on the court system. A family that is less economically stable after eviction is also more likely to require more social and economic supports from local or state government for emergency housing, food, and transportation. If providing access to legal assistance can help to reduce these costs, then Wisconsin is better off overall.