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Cities May Be Facing a New Housing Crisis

As rents and demand for renting increase, millions of Americans are being evicted -- sometimes with only a few days' notice.

A public housing resident, who is being evicted from her apartment, cries while preparing to pack her belongings into boxes.
(AP/Evan Vucci)
During the housing crisis and Great Recession a decade ago, millions of Americans were evicted from their homes for being unable to pay their mortgages. Now, many housing experts say America is on the verge of a new eviction crisis, and this time, it's affecting renters.

“We have had basically a lot of demand for rental, and tight credit markets have pushed up that demand by people who would normally own homes,” says Dan Immergluck, an urban studies professor at Georgia State University. 

The 2008 fiscal collapse reshaped the housing market, prompting greater scrutiny of banks' lending practices and keeping more people from purchasing a home. That's placed more pressure on renters, especially low-income renters, according to the 2017 State of the Nation’s Housing report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University.

Rental vacancy rates are at historic lows, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Rents are rising, but incomes generally are not. Given that reality, say Immergluck and others, it's only reasonable to expect that evictions are on the rise.

HIstorically there have been no reliable national statistics on evictions. Those researching evictions have relied on their own local field studies or court records to analyze the problem at a city or regional level. The U.S. Census Bureau, for example, only began tracking eviction data last year. But the indicators don't look good.

Apartment List, an online rental property search firm that also collects data on the rental market, recently published a report detailing what many housing experts say are troubling warning signs in the rental sector.

According to the report, nearly one in five renters were unable to pay the full amount of their rent for at least one month of a three-month period in 2017. Some 3.7 million Americans experienced an eviction at some point in 2017, and most of those renters earned less than $30,000 per year. (The number of evictions includes formal, court-ordered instances as well as "soft evictions," in which tenants leave under the threat of a formal eviction but before the actual notice had been given.)

The phenomenon isn't just hitting hot markets like New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. It's a problem in many cities across the country, even those that haven't been impacted by gentrification.

Cities with a short supply of affordable housing and large populations of poor and low-income residents topped the Apartment List eviction rankings. The top three cities in the study were Memphis, Phoenix and Atlanta, where the rate of residents who had been evicted ranged from 5.7 percent to 6.1 percent. All three cities have poverty rates above 20 percent. In Memphis, one in four residents lives at or below the federal poverty line. 

Memphis' high concentration of poverty leaves many of its renters on the edge of eviction each month, according to John Paul Schafer, executive director of BLDG Memphis, a coalition of community-based developers advocating for inclusive and smart growth in the city. But what makes matters worse is a glut of outdated housing stock, much of which is poorly insulated.

“Memphis has apartment complexes that you can look at and see they haven’t had significant maintenance in decades," Shafer says. “Weatherization teams come in and can’t do any work because there is a hole in the floor.”

Shafer estimates that poor families in Memphis can spend as much as 20 percent of their income on utilities. That leaves little left over for rent or other needs.

“We have seen people whose utility bill can be as high as $1,500 per month,” he says.

Once an eviction is triggered, the process in many states is swift.

In Georgia, the eviction process can be as quick as a month. Courts in Georgia don’t accept financial hardship as an excuse for nonpayment, and the only way to halt an eviction, according to state law, is for the tenant to pay the missed rent along with any related late fees and all court costs. In Tennessee, landlords can evict a tenant with just 14 days notice. 

Arizona's eviction process can be particularly unfriendly to tenants. In Arizona, a renter can be subject to an eviction notice five days after failing to pay rent, and she can find herself in court as soon as three days after that. If the court sides with the landlord, the renter can be removed in five days -- and can be forced to pay the landlord’s legal fees.

The process can move even faster in Arizona if a landlord files a criminal complaint for damaged property or if illegal drugs are detected during an inspection. In those instances, a renter can be removed in a single day, according to Jeff Katz, managing attorney for the housing unit of Community Legal Services of Arizona. Katz represents low-income residents in evictions.

A handful of places have moved to increase tenant protections. 

New York City now provides free counsel to those facing eviction. Washington, D.C., and Maryland prohibit evictions during the holiday season and when temperatures are below freezing.

But it's Cook County, Ill., that has become the poster child for protecting tenants from eviction. That's thanks to county Sheriff Tom Dart, who took office in 2007 as the housing market crisis was reaching critical mass.

“Just as I became sheriff, the wheels had begun to come off the whole thing,” Dart says. (Dart was named as one of Governing's 2017 Public Officials of the Year.)

In 2008, he placed the first of two moratoriums on evictions in Cook County, a move that elicited criticism from landlords and the real estate sector, but one he says was prompted by what he saw when he rode along with his deputies during evictions.

“It was the most thoughtless process that hadn’t evolved in hundreds of years,” Dart says. 

Many of the families being evicted were living in foreclosed homes where their landlords had pocketed the rent money instead of paying the mortgage. Families who were evicted sometimes had their possessions stolen by moving companies. Dart saw children who were being displaced not just from their homes but were forced to switch schools mid-year.

Dart, a former prosecutor and state lawmaker, looked to other localities for examples of how his department, which is required to enforce evictions, could better handle displacing families.

“I scanned jurisdictions across the country, thinking we in Cook County must have been behind the times. But we weren’t," he says. "Everyone was doing the same thing.”

Ultimately, he decided to apply a social-work model to evictions. Those being evicted are apprised of their rights and connected with mental health professionals, social workers and housing options. The sheriff’s department coordinates with schools to assist in transitioning children in the event a child has to move.

Unlike other states like Tennessee or Arizona, Illinois law afforded Dart and his department time to coordinate these efforts.

“There was so much delay built into the system," Dart says. “We have the eviction on our radar screen. We have to use this window in time to be thoughtful instead of just queueing it up.”

Reforming the process like that may ease the pain of eviction. But the only way to really relieve pressure on the rental market is by adding more affordable housing units, says Elora Lee Raymond, assistant professor in city and regional planning at Clemson University, who recently completed research on the Atlanta housing market and its evictions.

Raymond notes that new Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms vowed in her campaign to create a $1 billion affordable housing fund, with half the money coming from the private sector and half coming from public funds. Bottoms also pledged to hold new developers accountable in including affordable housing units in new construction.

“Keisha Lance Bottoms ran on affordable housing," Raymond says. "It would be nice if she stuck to her guns."

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