A Sight All Too Familiar in Poor Neighborhoods

Published on
by
the New York Times

A Sight All Too Familiar in Poor Neighborhoods

by
Erik Eckholm

Ara Sparkman with her belongings on a Milwaukee street. “Eviction has become typical in the lives of poor black women,” a sociologist said. (Sally Ryan/NYT)

MILWAUKEE - Shantana Smith, a single mother who had not paid rent for three months, watched on a recent morning as men from Eagle Moving carried her tattered furniture to the sidewalk.

Bystanders knew too well what was happening.

"When you see the Eagle movers truck, you know it's time to get going," a neighbor said.

On Milwaukee's impoverished North Side, the mover's name is nearly as familiar as McDonald's, because Eagle often accompanies sheriffs on evictions. They haul tenants' belongings into storage or, as Ms. Smith preferred, leave them outside for tenants to truck away.

Here and in swaths of many cities, evictions from rental properties are so common that they are part of the texture of life. New research is showing that eviction is a particular burden on low-income black women, often single mothers, who have an easier time renting apartments than their male counterparts, but are vulnerable to losing them because their wages or public benefits have not kept up with the cost of housing.

And evictions, in turn, can easily throw families into cascades of turmoil and debt.

"Just as incarceration has become typical in the lives of poor black men, eviction has become typical in the lives of poor black women," said Matthew Desmond, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin whose research on trends in Milwaukee since 2002 provides a rare portrait of gender patterns in inner-city rentals.

The study found that one of every 25 renter-occupied households in the city is evicted each year. In black neighborhoods, the rate is one in 14. These figures include only court-ordered evictions; the true toll, experts say, is greater because far more tenants, under threat of eviction, move in with relatives, into more run-down apartments or, sometimes, into homeless shelters.

Women from largely black neighborhoods in Milwaukee constitute 13 percent of the city's population, but 40 percent of those evicted. Housing lawyers in Los Angeles and New York described a similar predominance of minority women, including Hispanic women, in eviction cases. (The figures do not include displaced renters from foreclosed properties.)

Even for working mothers, evictions and the ensuing damage to social ties, schooling and credit ratings can be an ever-hovering threat. Clarissa Adams, 38, a mother of three in Milwaukee, has been evicted four times in 10 years and is now trying desperately to break the pattern.

Since July she has shared a $570-a-month two-bedroom apartment with her daughters, ages 15, 18 and 23, and two small grandchildren. She is studying for a degree in social services and lost her job as a cashier in the fall after a dispute with her boss.

Unable to pay the last three months rent, Ms. Adams received some emergency assistance through Community Advocates, a private group. To stave off eviction, she promised to pay the landlord $1,000 by Feb. 15, just as her tax refund arrived. She owes an additional $955 by March 1 and hopes to scrape the money together while she looks for a job.

Previous evictions sent her into a deep depression, she said, and had temporarily split up the family, with her children staying a relative who did not want her.

"We just need someplace where we can be a family," Ms. Adams said.

Compared with foreclosures, which are carefully tracked, national data on evictions, especially those not involving a court decision, remain scarce, but the annual total is almost certainly in the millions, said Chester Hartman, an urban planner with the Poverty and Race Research Action Council in Washington. The role of evictions in the cycle of poverty had been relatively overlooked by scholars and officials, he said.

In one sign of rising concern, Congress in the stimulus act last year provided $1.5 billion for emergency housing aid, and that may help explain why legal evictions in Milwaukee did not surge last year. But this temporary measure and other rent subsidies help only a fraction of the poor.

The potentially crippling impact of evictions on family finances and prospects are not widely appreciated, said Nicolas P. Retsinas, director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. "There is a contagion effect," he said. "It's not just the loss of shelter. Eviction can force a change in school and break a very tenuous tie to a job."

The disparate effect on minority women has a host of causes, according to landlords, housing lawyers and Mr. Desmond's research, which he conducted for his doctoral dissertation. The work is not yet published, but has been praised by experts who have seen it for offering new insights into women's poverty.

Marriage is an exception among the poor, and single mothers need larger, more expensive housing than single men. At the same time, black women are more often able to get leases because they are likelier to have steady incomes, whether from work or public benefits, and far less likely to have disqualifying criminal records.

Irresponsible or destructive tenant behavior is sometimes a factor. Three landlords in Milwaukee said in interviews that live-in fathers or boyfriends had sometimes spent women's rent money or engaged in illegal activities that led to eviction, and some women stopped paying when they turned to drugs.

But there is also evidence that women more readily complain to city agencies about repairs, potentially angering landlords who then find excuses to evict them.

And police reports of domestic violence can backfire on women, leading some landlords to seek evictions out of fear that they will be fined for tolerating disturbances.

Sometimes the causes of evictions are hotly disputed. Ms. Smith said she had withheld rent because the apartment was not maintained. But the landlord said that she had never made a formal complaint and failed to show up for a court hearing.

Still, at the root of most evictions is money, which can evaporate with an illness, a job loss or other crisis.

Angela Sandifer, 28, can just afford the $950 rental she shares with four children and a cast of relatives because she receives disability payments for three of the children. But in early January, she said, her rent money was stolen from a wallet at home when she rushed her 9-year-old daughter to the hospital.

A lawyer from Legal Action of Wisconsin helped her delay eviction and Ms. Sandifer, who has started a part-time job, hopes to use her first paycheck to pay off the back rent.

Tim Ballering, who owns or manages some 900 rental units in Milwaukee, said a basic problem was the growing imbalance between low-end incomes and rents. A minimum-wage worker may gross little more than $1,100 a month; a welfare recipient in Wisconsin receives $673 a month, while two-bedroom units start at about $475.

"On $673 a month, how do you buy tennis shoes for the kids, clean shirts for school and still pay your rent?" Mr. Ballering said.

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