City’s Evictions Far From Worst
New data on evictions shows a huge national problem with lessons for Milwaukee.
Harvard Professor Matthew Desmond’s book, “Evicted,” an eye-opening book documenting the plague of urban evictions, won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction and was cited by Bill Gates and former President Barack Obama as one of the best books they read that year.
The book also made Milwaukee, once again, a national poster child for the many miseries associated with urban poverty. Desmond’s book was centered in Milwaukee and found that one of 25 renters in Milwaukee was evicted each year and one in 14 in majority black neighborhoods.
But a follow-up project by Desmond and his team of researchers at Princeton University, where he is now a professor, has been mining local court records across the country to build a database of millions of evictions. And the results suggest there are many cities with even bigger problems than Milwaukee.
No city was worse than North Charleston, South Carolina, where one of six renters (16.5 percent) were evicted on an annual basis. Second was Richmond, Virginia, where one of nine (11.4 percent) of renters were evicted per year. Desmond’s data ranks the Top Evicting Large Cities, and nine of them were in the south, and five were in Virginia. Milwaukee ranks 60th on the list, which is no badge of honor, but shows it is far from the worst.
Indeed, there seems to be a kind of Evictions Belt in America, from Delaware south through Maryland (3.56 percent), Virginia, North Carolina (4.61 percent), South Carolina and Georgia (4.71 percent), where the evictions rate is more concentrated than anywhere else in the nation.
Compared to South Carolina’s shocking 8.9 percent evicted annually, Wisconsin is at 1.89 percent, and compared to North Charleston’s astounding 16.5 percent eviction rate, Milwaukee is at 4.25 percent. But that rises to more than 7 percent in this city’s majority black neighborhoods, Desmond’s book found.
And Desmond’s calculations “are probably conservative,” a New York Times story notes. “They include only households that touched the legal process, not those in which people moved with an informal warning. The data undercount places where eviction records can be sealed or are harder to collect.”
Clearly this is a problem associated with poverty, where small shortfalls can have big consequences. “In Richmond, the median amount owed (by renters evicted) was $686,” the Times story noted, “and that small amount can upend a family’s life.”
In his book, Desmond found that median rent nationwide had increased more than 70 percent, after adjusting for inflation, since the late 1990s. In Milwaukee, he found the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment rose from $585 in 1997 to $795 in 2004, while monthly welfare payments did not rise at all, and minimum wage increases did not keep pace with inflation.
The standard rule of thumb for affordable housing is you shouldn’t spend more than 30 percent of your income on the rent or mortgage payment. But Desmond found poor tenants in Milwaukee spending as much as 88 percent of their income on housing. “The average cost of rent, even in high-poverty neighborhoods, is quickly approaching the total income of welfare recipients,” Desmond has written. “The high cost of housing is consigning the urban poor to financial ruin.”
Nor is there much government subsidized housing available. “A common misconception is that most poor people receive government subsidies when, in fact, only 6 percent of this population are given public assistance and live in Section 8 housing,” one analysis noted.
Which makes evictions more likely. And just one eviction can have powerful ripple effects. As families lose their homes, “The Richmond public school system reroutes buses to follow children from apartments to homeless shelters to pay-by-the-week motels,” the Times story notes. “City social workers coach residents on how to fill out job applications when they have no answer for the address line. Families lose their food stamps and Medicaid benefits when they lose the permanent addresses where renewal notices are sent.”
Or as Desmond has put it, “without stable housing, everything else in a person’s life falls apart.”
But while poverty and the rising cost of housing are driving the problem of evictions, Desmond’s data suggests that certain states have bigger problems. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s reaction to the new data was to tweet that “this is not a Richmond problem alone. It’s a Virginia problem. City and state leaders need to be just as intentional about the fix as our predecessors were about creating this misery.”
States like Virginia have a very low minimum wage, which makes it harder to earn enough to afford rent, and weak tenant rights laws, which makes it easier for landlords to evict tenants. “This is a state, Mr. Stoney and others say, that favors property owners, as it has since plantation days,” the Times reported.
Desmond’s ranking of large cities with evictions shows Indiana has three cities among the worst 20, and Ohio has six cities ranked from 24th (Akron) to 53rd (Cleveland). Statewide policies may help explain this.
Under the leadership of Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators, Wisconsin is becoming more like such states. While 29 states have raised their minimum wage, Wisconsin’s leaders have resisted. And they have reduced tenant rights and given landlords more power. The result is likely to be an increase in evictions.
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