By Max Blau
ATLANTA — On a brisk morning in mid-December, Valencia Hicks was running late to the Fulton County courthouse in hopes of avoiding eviction.
The 43-year-old mother had been forced out of her home the year before, a process that had uprooted her family from their apartment in East Point, Georgia. At her new brick split-level, Hicks decided not to pay her $995 monthly rent because her landlord hadn’t adequately fixed broken appliances, preventing the family from enjoying affordable home-cooked meals. The landlord, in turn, filed for eviction.
Like most tenants facing eviction in Fulton County, Hicks is African-American and lacked a lawyer. She planned to tell the judge about her family’s hardships. Not only did she have a disability, reliant on government checks for rent, but she also was raising two boys who each had autism.
Without a favorable ruling, a landlord could move forward with padlocking the door and placing their items on the curb. If she was lucky, she might get her wish of celebrating Christmas there.
A long understudied facet of the American housing market, evictions have hit no area of the country harder than the South, a region home to most of the top-evicting large and mid-sized U.S. cities, according to a list released by Princeton’s Eviction Lab.
Last year Eviction Lab debuted what’s thought to be the nation’s largest eviction database, revealing that U.S. property owners had submitted at least 2.3 million eviction filings in 2016. For housing experts from Louisiana to Virginia, it provided the evidence to confirm what they long suspected: Black renters disproportionately bore the brunt of the eviction crisis.
Eviction Lab found that nine of the 10 highest-evicting large cities were not only located in the South but also had populations that were at least 30 percent black.
Moreover, the top 25 entries in its ranking of mid-sized cities — including East Point, population 35,000 — experienced an eviction rate at least four times higher than the national average of 2.3 percent.
“If you’ve read about the housing crisis, it seems located in New York and San Francisco, but the eviction crisis is happening in cities with a fairly low cost of living like North Charleston, South Carolina, and Tulsa, Oklahoma,” said Matthew Desmond, a professor of sociology at Princeton and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted.
“There’s a lot of questions left unanswered, but the data allows us to see the problem in a way we’d never seen it before,” Desmond said. “That’s allowed the narrative to change in some communities.”
The current shutdown of many federal agencies could make the matter worse. If the shutdown lasts much longer, housing experts fear evictions could spike nationwide because landlords who rent to low-income tenants might not be able to get rental assistance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Strengthening tenant rights
As some southern legislatures kick off their 2019 sessions this month, many state lawmakers are considering a new slate of bills to curb the larger affordable housing crisis. Following the launch of Eviction Lab’s database, local advocates intend to further raise awareness of the consequences of eviction, a process that can start with a single missed rent payment.
Not only do evicted people face barriers to new housing, studies suggest evictions also are linked to worse health and educational outcomes, according to research respectively from Desmond and the Urban Institute. With evictions often clustered in lower-income black neighborhoods, entire communities can face the fallout of a churn of new neighbors that severs close-knit social networks.
This status quo is often protected and nurtured by politicians and property owners. Landlords in Mississippi routinely file for eviction as a legal way to collect rent, according to an investigation last year by Mississippi Today.
Meanwhile, some lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Georgia statehouse have stymied proposals to strengthen tenant rights.
From 2012 to 2016, Republican state Rep. Wendell Willard, then the chairman of the influential House Judiciary Committee, received at least $30,000 from various companies with ties to the housing industry, based on a Stateline review of campaign contributions. No bill to bolster tenant rights advanced out of his committee.
The former chairman of the Georgia Senate Judiciary Committee, Republican Josh McKoon, didn’t grant a hearing to a bill that would have forced landlords to fix “unsafe or unhealthy conditions” in rental units such as mold growth, pest infestation and tainted water.
McKoon says the committee under his leadership granted hearings to any lawmaker who requested one, but that lawmakers sometimes file legislation “to have a broader conversation” about an issue.
“We try to give judges a fair amount of discretion,” said Willard, who said campaign contributions had no influence on his decision-making on the issue. “I think we have a pretty good body of law in Georgia that’s been developed over many decades on dispossessory. But if something needs to be changed, we try to change it.”
Armed with data and heightened public awareness, in part thanks to Desmond’s book Evicted released two years ago, some housing advocates are pursuing changes in law with a renewed energy to decrease evictions, increase affordable housing and reduce disparities that exist for black renters in the South.
While eviction rates have spiked in states like South Carolina, according to Eviction Lab data, Georgia and Virginia have seen their rates trend downward since the Great Recession.
“Evictions are both a consequence of cumulative forces of poverty — and black poverty — and a cause of it,” said Dan Immergluck, an urban studies professor at Georgia State University. “Evictions hurt folks in all kinds of ways. Because evictions are concentrated in black neighborhoods, it impacts whole communities.”
Higher rents, more evictions
Evictions are the latest in a long line of housing policies that have disproportionately harmed black Americans. Over the past century, well-documented discriminatory practices like redlining, restrictive covenants and predatory lending have denied black people the opportunity to buy homes.
Discouraged from homeownership — and the accompanying wealth-building benefits — many black people rented instead. In 2015, the African-American homeownership rate was about 42 percent, more than 20 points lower than the rate for all groups, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But a 2018 study found that black people are more likely to pay higher rents than white people in the same areas.
And a Cleveland State University researcher surveying rental agreement laws found that no southern state had a suite of laws protecting tenants over landlords.
Every week, attorney Jesse McCoy sees this play out inside eviction court in Durham, North Carolina. The tenants, he said, are mostly black. Many make honest pleas to a judge about their life’s circumstances — which almost always lack legal standing.
McCoy thinks many of those same tenants would have legitimate grievances, from roach infestations to black mold, that might yield a favorable outcome. But without consulting counsel, he said, they rarely raise legal arguments.
“If you don’t understand rights, you can’t advocate for yourself,” said Sue Berkowitz, director of the SC Appleseed Legal Justice Center, an organization that helps clients in South Carolina, a state with an eviction rate of 8.9 percent, nearly four times the national average.
Housing attorneys throughout the South think that tenants facing an eviction case could have better outcomes in court if they were guaranteed the right to counsel — a right now ensured in select cities such as New York.
“An eviction — even a filing — follows you around,” said Elora Raymond, an assistant professor of city planning and real estate development at Clemson University. “If you get evictions filed against you in Georgia, and move to California, you still have that history.
“If that’s happening more in South Carolina or Georgia,” she said, referring to two states with high percentages of black residents, “and less in Montana or Colorado — there’s a racial implication.”
Virginia Poverty Law Center attorney Christine Marra said tenants who have had rental applications denied are less likely to find safe or affordable housing.
In some cases, those renters often can find housing only farther from where they lived before, potentially impacting other family issues, such as a child’s academic performance. And health care researchers have found that evictions are linked to higher rates of depression, stress and suicide.
Garland Nellom, a 51-year-old mother of three who faced eviction in New Jersey, said she moved to Georgia four years ago after her youngest son, who had asthma and an allergy to the mold she later discovered in their apartment, died. He was 11 years old. Nellom found an apartment in College Park, Georgia, for $745 a month.
Soon, she noticed problems including rodents and mold. She withheld her rent in protest — a practice that in some northeastern and western states can be done legally to force serious repairs from a neglectful landlord, but in Georgia can be grounds for eviction. Her landlord took legal action.
They ultimately settled the dispute, thanks to a lawyer Nellom had secured through the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, and she stayed. This past summer she left for good upon finding exposed wire in her laundry room, which had flooded once again. Given her spotty housing record, landlords wanted her to pay a higher security deposit, which she was unable to do living on disability.
“I was fearful I was going to die,” she said. “I had nowhere to go — nowhere. I put my name on homeless shelter lists. They were full. I had neighbors gracious enough to let me stay.”
Focused on change
Faced with the scope of the eviction crisis, advocates are lobbying for changes to address housing disparities throughout the South.
In North Carolina, McCoy has helped oversee Durham’s eviction diversion program, which pairs Duke law students with unrepresented tenants facing eviction.
South Carolina state Rep. Marvin Pendarvis, a Democrat from North Charleston, is pushing a bill to approve “repair and deduct,” a practice allowed in many states, in which tenants front the costs of repairs if a landlord doesn’t fix the issue, and deduct that amount from a future rent payment.
And in Virginia, which is home to some of the nation’s highest eviction rates, a coalition of lawyers, researchers and activists last year launched the Campaign to Reduce Evictions.
The group has drafted more than 30 proposed changes that would make it easier for tenants to understand the court process for evictions, increase tenant legal rights trainings, pump $20 million into the state’s housing trust fund and expand the state’s low-income housing tax credit.
In response to news reports about Virginia’s high evictions rate, National Apartment Association President Robert Pinnegar recently claimed that “misunderstandings” about evictions have unfairly cast landlords in a negative light.
“Apartment owners do not target evictions for any group or reason,” he wrote in a letter to the Washington Post. “Evictions are a last resort in the rental housing business.”
Housing advocates further recognize that changes can only be effective if they also address the shortage of affordable housing affecting many southern cities.
Some officials have recognized the need: Atlanta Democratic Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has vowed to put $1 billion toward more affordable housing. But low-income housing developers say additional funds or tax credits are needed to build new units.
Policies like inclusionary zoning — requiring developers to make a fixed percentage of rental units affordable in new developments — have received a mixed reception across the South.
“Don’t just build new affordable housing,” Immergluck said. “States and localities need to think about creating their own voucher program that might focus on particular populations like families with kids. I don’t see southern states funding a permanent voucher program. Maybe it’s short term.”
Short of a universal housing voucher program, something that Desmond has called for, the Princeton professor thinks states could reduce evictions by making smaller policy changes, such as providing additional legal support, wraparound services, short-term financial assistance or better record keeping.
“We might have a referendum on housing in 2020 — and we haven’t had that in a long time,” Desmond said. “I do think we’re in a moment where we could ask for something ambitious.”
Until tenant rights and affordable housing supplies improve, many experts say black southerners like Hicks will remain vulnerable to eviction. Hicks showed up over 30 minutes late to her Dec. 18 court date. Weary and worried, she said she experienced more traffic than usual.
In a letter to the judge, Hicks explained that she hadn’t slept well because one of her autistic sons had tried to open the upstairs windows of their house late that night. But the judge, offering no explanation, denied Hicks’ request to stay longer in her brick split-level.
According to court records, Hicks’ landlord could have filed for a writ of possession immediately to regain possession of the house. So Hicks called apartment complexes and family members hours away in case she needed to relocate fast.
She desperately wanted a place nearby to keep her boys in the same special-needs program at Banneker High School. But no one she called had immediate availability. She felt disheartened.
“Evictions shouldn’t hurt you after the eviction,” she said. “The laws are more for the landlords and rental companies than the tenants. It’s hurting people. It’s hurting us.”
The day after New Year’s, Hicks was finishing up packing her house, thankful the county marshals hadn’t yet been called to place her possessions on the curb. Her landlord had let her stay through the holidays, but wanted her out in just a few days’ time. She didn’t know where her family would go next. But one thing was certain: She couldn’t stay there.