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Understanding our eviction epidemic

Keys hang at a public anti-eviction display. Credit: Linh Do

A precarious pattern has come to mark Clyde and Sonia’s lives. Once they miss rent at month’s start, an eviction notice appears on the front door of their home. The notice grants them a short period of time to respond. Eventually, they do, making clear their refusal to leave and their intention to pay the rent and any late charges. Clyde’s disability check soon comes, and they escape eviction. The cycle begins again the following month.

It was a Sisyphean effort that could never last. But with four kids and two still in school, moving has seemed out of the question. It’s why they’re here now, at a table in a cramped conference room at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in downtown Kent, to meet with a housing attorney.

Clyde and Sonia (both pseudonyms) have $3,930 in money orders and a letter from the Salvation Army, pledging $1,200 in rental assistance. Combined, it gets close to what they owe in back rent, but they’re still short.

They started falling behind in November, when Clyde suffered a heart attack. A few costly hospital visits made it tough to keep up, and throughout the winter and into spring they would be forced to swallow late fees. They say they had no other choice. Sonia works for Seattle Public Schools as an assistant in a special education classroom, and her paycheck arrives when rent is due, at the beginning of the month. But she can’t pay it all. Once his worker’s comp shows up a couple of weeks later, Clyde, who drove a King County Metro bus for 19 years, can usually handle the rest.

At the justice center this morning, Clyde – his diamond earrings beaming against all-black garb – does the talking. Sonia, meanwhile, remains quiet, clinching a leather purse, occasionally releasing her grasp to rub the back of her neck.

An attorney enters the room. “I understand you have money to pay,” she says.

In the midst of Seattle’s rapid growth, the twin challenges of housing affordability and homelessness have come to define the agenda of local policymakers. Eviction’s role as a cause of homelessness, which saw a 19 percent spike last year, should surprise no one. But even if the result is less drastic, eviction for many represents the moment that a life crumbles into instability.

Where eviction fits into the region’s ongoing story of development and displacement remains an important, still-unanswered question. In 2013, the King County Superior Court named over 7,000 defendants in eviction lawsuits. Most were summoned to a courthouse in Kent or Seattle for failing to pay rent, though many violated a lease for other reasons. Not everyone was evicted, but all were stamped with an electronic record indicating their brush with eviction court, a scarlet letter that can severely hinder future rental prospects.

Between 2008 and 2013, nearly 35,000 eviction suits were filed in King County. While the final year of that span saw the lowest number of cases in nearly a decade, that alone does not tell a hopeful story. It certainly doesn’t tell a complete one.

The 2013 American Housing Survey found that across the country, one in eight poor renting families could not afford their rent. About the same number suspected they could soon be evicted. When it comes to having a roof over their head, the poor in America have come to expect impermanence. This is especially true in a city like Seattle, where rents have skyrocketed in recent years.

Kristina T. Larry is one of almost a hundred lawyers who volunteers at the Housing Justice Project, a team of attorneys, aides, law students, and at least a few undergrads serving low-income tenants facing eviction. This morning, she is doing what she can to help Clyde and Sonia.

In some ways, the two are lucky to have legal representation at all. For poor tenants in King County threatened with eviction, the volunteer force at the Housing Justice Project is one of the few resources they have. For a number of legal and economic reasons, the odds are stacked against the people they represent, tenants at 200 percent of the poverty level or below. But those defending themselves, forced to navigate the complex world of landlord-tenant law alone, are magnitudes worse off.

Sometimes the lawyers at the Housing Justice Project do win their cases. More often, though, they can earn their clients more time to move, and that can make a big difference when a landlord wants you out now.

This is Larry’s task during Clyde and Sonia’s visit. Five times she leaves and returns to the small room, bearing increasingly grim prospects for the couple. She begins by figuring out the math around their fees, then tries to determine whether the landlord will accept the Salvation Army pledge. After speaking with the landlord’s attorney, she lets the couple know that the landlord wants them out within five days.

“How’s the house living wise?” she asks, digging for a new strategy. “Any issues with it?”

“No,” Clyde says, before qualifying the answer. “I mean . . . would it help if there is?”

The room laughs at the morning’s only moment of levity. Everyone except Sonia.

“Under the statute they only have to give you five days to get out,” Larry says. “Theoretically, if I could get you more time, how much more time do you think you would need to move out?”

Clyde looks at Sonia.

“Oh my gosh,” she says, exhaling a sigh of frustration. “I don’t know. I mean … they give us ten days to move out or something?”

Understanding the eviction problem in King County with any kind of precision is not easy. Despite the connection between evictions, poverty, and homelessness, quality information about their frequency and locations hasn’t traditionally been collected.

The Northwest Justice Project has compiled a database that includes all unlawful detainer cases, as eviction suits are known, filed in Washington State since 2004. At least two researchers – one at Seattle University, another at the University of Washington – are working to analyze different aspects of eviction court records, but their timelines to finish aren’t clear yet.

Those court records and anecdotal evidence tell only one part of the story. Since eviction proceedings cost money, many landlords will work out arrangements with their tenants outside the purview of the court. In other cities, research shows these informal evictions account for a significant portion of involuntary moves. But without conducting comprehensive renter surveys in King County, it’s impossible to say how many evictions of this type are happening here.

And while the exact demographics of King County’s evicted is unknown, there are instructive clues. Liz Etta, of the Tenants Union of Washington State, says her organization receives at least one eviction-related call a day. Citing places like Beacon Hill, the International District, and Kent, she says that evictions tend to occur in King County’s most diverse areas, home to large communities of color. At the Housing Justice Project, roughly a third of their clients are black, including Clyde and Sonia.

During the short moments between Larry’s comings and going, reality begins to set in. But the facts settle differently with Sonia than they do with Clyde. His reaction is a steady, dignified embrace of eviction’s grim truth. But Sonia, her eyes heavy, hardly utters a word. Some questions asked of her don’t register until Clyde gives her a nudge.

The final time she enters the room, Larry arrives with the landlord’s last offer. They have 15 days to move out, and Larry needs to know if they have enough money to do so. They don’t. They owe about as much as they would need to pack up the house, transport their belongings, and put down a deposit on another place. There will have to be an initial move to a motel, Clyde says, until they can afford something else.

Sonia finally speaks up.

“So how will this affect our ability to find a place though?”

“If anyone looks it up they will see that there is an eviction on your record,” Larry says, perhaps too bluntly.

Sonia burrows her face into her hands, tries to catch her breath, and lets out a wail.

“So then what’s the difference?” Sonia asks, sobbing. “We should just go find a place now. Instead of waiting! Because it’s going to be hard no what matter what we do!”

Lawyers at the Housing Justice Project are accustomed to watching the gap between their client’s expectations and the tough reality of the law quickly close. Despair, Larry says, is a daily occurrence here. Clyde seemed to be bracing for the worst, but Sonia’s reaction was not unique. One volunteer, referring to the scores of people that seek out their services only to confront an unwinnable battle, called it a “crisis.”

The challenges that lie ahead for Clyde and Sonia are tied to Seattle’s current competitive rental housing market. Rents are rising, and landlords can afford to exercise strict selectivity. That can mean abruptly closing the door on anyone with a questionable past – poor credit history, a criminal record, an eviction. Perhaps this is fair – a landlord has a right to protect her investment – but these blanket refusals are sometimes made without merit, and can leave people stuck, with few places to turn.

Eric Dunn, an attorney with the Northwest Justice Project, says that rental screening providers like On-Site.com are not nuanced in their judgements. For landlord clients filing background checks on tenants, they usually issue one of three decisions: yes, no, or maybe.

Landlords tend to heed these recommendations. If the system detects an eviction record and spits out a “no,” as it’s typically programmed to do, landlords can demur without fear of a prolonged vacancy. There are likely less risky renters waiting in line anyway.

In his recent book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, the Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond documents eviction’s toll on Milwaukee’s poor rental market. He spends months living among residents in the inner city and a controversial trailer park on the south side, describing the lives of landlords and tenants as they seek renters and housing, as they evict and get evicted, and as they rise and, almost inevitably, fall.

While set in Milwaukee, Desmond argues that his book tells “an American story.” An early chapter depicts a bloated housing court frequented by African-American mothers on the brink of eviction, a familiar scene in other cities as well. Across the country, rent is eating growing portions of families’ incomes, leaving little for the rest of life’s essentials. Eviction, it seems, is ever looming for poor renters.

“Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty,” he writes. And according to statistics cited in his book, it’s happening everywhere. Between 2009 and 2011, “roughly a quarter of all moves undertaken by Milwaukee’s poorest renters were involuntary.” From 2009 to 2013, Jackson County, Missouri saw 19 formal evictions a day. In 2012, one in 14 Chicago renters were asked to appear in court for an eviction hearing. In the same year, there were nearly 80 nonpayment evictions every day in New York City.

“Every year in this country,” Desmond writes, “people are evicted from their homes not by the tens of thousands or even the hundreds of thousands but by the millions.”

What is the sum of all this? Housing can remain out of grasp for thousands of people with eviction records. Those who need assistance the most often can’t get it – as federal housing aid has dwindled in recent decades, those lucky enough to win the voucher lottery typically have clean records.

A new statewide statute, effective in June, will provide some relief for tenants who actually won their case by prohibiting tenant-screening companies from disclosing the unlawful detainer filing. (Landlords, however, can still search the name themselves in a public online database). But this is only one piece of the puzzle. Public policy has yet to answer the question about what to do with the evicted, which Desmond argues is really a much larger question about poverty.

He proposes a universal housing voucher, an entitlement afforded to citizens in most of the world’s advanced nations. Another solution is to provide tenants facing eviction a right to an attorney. Both would require enormous financial resources and significant political capital to materialize. But for King County to make headway on this problem, a primary goal should be achieving broader clarity on the prevalence, locations, and aftermath of evictions.

What happened to Clyde and Sonia, and what will continue to happen to them as the fallout of their eviction takes shape, is not unusual. It’s the untold story of thousands. Larry calls it “standard” practice to pile additional fees on top of tenants who fall behind on rent. It is written into the law and into most leases: your failure to pay means you must pay more and then get out. Once evicted, your prospects largely depend on what you can afford.

“It makes you realize how easily you can become homeless,” Larry says. “I think people have this misconception that people who get evicted, they’re not doing something right, they’re not working, they’re purposefully not paying their rent … [But] it could happen to anybody. It’s just … life.”

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