'Consigned to Financial Ruin': Evictions Fueling Economic Disadvantage

(Photo: tom.arthur/Flickr/Creative Commons)

'Consigned to Financial Ruin': Evictions Fueling Economic Disadvantage

Low-income black women face disproportionately high eviction rates that fuel cycle of poverty, study finds

Black women in disadvantaged neighborhoods are the most likely to be evicted from their homes, at a level on par with incarceration rates among poor black men, a MacArthur Foundation study reports.

The high levels of eviction set off 'a chain of hardship' that perpetuates the cycle of poverty in the inner city.

The study, which conducted a long-term examination of the trend in two low-income communities in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, found that while black women make up only 9.6 percent of the city's population, they represent 30 percent of evictions. The statistic is particularly relevant in Milwaukee, the second-most segregated city in the United States behind Detroit; with 16,000 adults and children kicked out of 6,000 homes every year in an area populated by fewer than 105,000 households, the eviction rate in the city averages out to 16 families a day. Women in these areas are most often the sole lease holders.

The report also analyzed an eviction court survey which revealed a population that was "predominantly black (74 percent) and poor. The majority paid at least 50 percent of their incomes for rent.... Only 6 percent received housing assistance."

Overall, one in 17 women in high-poverty black and Hispanic neighborhoods faces eviction, compared to one in 33 men.

A number of issues factor into these statistics. Women are paid less on average, particularly when living paycheck-to-paycheck, and are more likely to have dependents, which increases cost of living on a stagnant income. These complications are often compounded by lasting negative consequences from previous evictions, which can prevent people from qualifying for housing assistance or have caused them to lose their possessions as well as their homes. Men in high-poverty areas are also less likely to be lease holders due to high criminal conviction rates.

At this rate, eviction levels among low-income black women are comparable with incarceration rates among low-income black men, the report, by Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond, says. "Both phenomena work together to propagate economic disadvantage in the inner city."

In 1997, Desmond notes, the fair market rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Milwaukee was $466, and eventually rose to $665 by 2008; throughout that time, monthly welfare payments stayed at $673.

"The average cost of rent, even in high-poverty neighborhoods, is quickly approaching the total income of welfare recipients," Desmond has written. "The fundamental issue is this: the high cost of housing is consigning the urban poor to financial ruin."

This chain of hardship is also reflected in housing courts, where 90 percent of tenants facing eviction are not represented by attorneys, while 90 percent of landlords are.

Yet recent small-scale efforts by legal assistance programs to support indigent families have proven to be cost-effective; utilizing funds from larger government programs like the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, stopgap solutions have lowered evictions in Milwaukee by 15 percent. A South Bronx legal assistance program that cost $450,000 to initiate eventually saved New York City $700,000 in shelter costs.

Effective measures are those that focus on "directing aid upstream," the report says.

"The most important policy solution, however, would be to ensure that low-income families do not end up in eviction court in the first place," Desmond writes.

"We are learning that eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty."


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