Rathke: The dollars driving landlords to evict aren’t big time

Little Rock      The landlord ideology about tenants is based on a narrative mythology that whenever they evict, it is because their tenants are deadbeats and scofflaws.  Landlords having powerful local and national organizations and a much louder voice than their tenants have been selling this swill for centuries.  Researchers are now digging deeper into the real facts, not the “alternative” facts, and finding that a significant number of evictions are, in their view, based on relatively paltry sums.

A story in the New York Times recently highlighted the fact that there are a significant number of families that are evicted for sums that are less than $600.  Note that that’s $600 all-in, including rent owed, late fees, court costs, etc., much of which is larded onto the rent owed, meaning that the actual rent that led to this crisis, potentially making a family homeless, was way, way less.

Before we get much deeper into this eviction situation, let’s note that this is about as far from a surprise as knowing that dawn comes the day after dusk.  When the Federal Reserve banking survey in May 2019 widely reported finding that 40% of Americans did not have $400 in cash or credit to deal with any financial emergency, whether health, transportation, or whatever, it was obvious that at least that number would potentially face eviction if they were facing a $600 notice from their landlord and his gang.

The Times notes that in Virginia 23% of eviction judgements were less than $600, in North Carolina 32% of the judgements were for sums that low, Delaware 20%, and Rhode Island at 8% were also in that range.  The median money judgement was higher, about $1200, inclusive.

This is the tip of the iceberg.  The data underlying these numbers comes from Lexis/Nexus as verified by the Princeton Eviction Lab, which notoriously undercounts the number of real evictions because the figures are drawn from legal proceedings.  Matthew Desmond, the head of the Eviction Lab, acknowledged this flatly in his widely read book and award-winning book, Evicted:  Poverty and Profit in America.  The vast majority of evictions never end up in court filings and certainly not in actual judgments.  Suffice it to say, the numbers of de facto, rather than de jure, evictions are much, much higher.

If a family doesn’t have $400, then $600 is a higher mountain.  It may look like peanuts, through the window from the outside, but looking at that figure from the family’s viewpoint, it might as well be millions.  Some legislators are proposing an emergency rent fund.  Others seem to think that talk, rather than money, will solve this problem, and have proposed more mediation between landlords and tenants.  The experts acknowledge that the problem is structural, but are trying to carve out at least a Band-Aid solution to deal with this gaping wound.

The problem is bigger than this of course.  The Times notes that “between 1990 and 2017, the national stock of rental housing grew by 10.9 million units…Over the same time, the number of units renting for less than $600 a month in inflation-adjusted dollars fell by 4 million.   All net growth in rent housing in America, in other words, has been for higher-income tenants.”

The solution here is higher wages, a better welfare system, and a real national housing policy for low-and-moderate income families, but the policy proposals tend to skew towards throwing pennies at the wall, rather than putting dollars in peoples’ pockets and roofs over their heads.  The proposals are packaged to save public authorities money by preventing the higher costs of shelters and homelessness.  They might sell this to some, but families facing evictions won’t buy it, and neither should we settle there.

Wade Rathke is founder and chief organizer of ACORN and ACORN International. You can find Wade’s recent past posts here Chief Organizer Reports. And you can link to his website here Chief Organizer ACORN/ACORN International


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