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Tonya Cooper grew up on the south side of Newark, Ohio. Her dad suffered from alcoholism and severe personality disorders, ultimately landing him in a mental hospital. Her mom took odd jobs in the city when she could, but raising 17 kids — only eight survived — didn’t leave much spare time for work.
The family moved frequently between shanty houses and shacks, and Cooper didn’t have running water until she was in high school. She recalls vividly being teased at school for wearing dirty, misfitting clothes or smelling bad.
“You took what you got, and that was life,” Cooper says. “It always felt like we would have a place to go because our community was strong and the people were good.”
Her husband, Charles, is a dyed-in-the-wool manufacturing man who spent much of his post-military career working in Newark’s old industrial park. Rarely, though, was his salary enough to support Tonya, who suffers from severe depression and anxiety, their four kids and growing number of grandchildren.
The Coopers work hard, but still were evicted four times before moving into their current home. The oldest daughter, who was previously addicted to heroin, is now eight years sober and working at the downtown Wendy’s during the day while her fiancé works the night shift at a distribution center. The youngest daughter works at a gas station.
The Coopers’ situation is not uncommon in Newark. Between 30 and 80 families face eviction in the county every two weeks, according to the Newark Advocate. Nor are they unique nationally, where many experts say we have an “eviction crisis” on our hands.
Nationwide Eviction Crisis
The Princeton University Eviction Lab, a non-partisan research non-profit that tracks eviction data and policy, describes an eviction record as the “scarlet E,” aptly named for the permanent mark it leaves on a person’s ability to secure housing, find a job, boost credit or access federal assistance.
Before COVID-19 arrived and ravaged any semblance of normalcy, 300,000 evictions were filed in courthouses across the United States every month, according to the Eviction Lab. Nationwide, one out of four renters were spending more than fifty percent of their income on housing, a Harvard University study released earlier this year shows.
So when statewide stay-at-home mandates forced non-essential businesses to close and left 33 million residents jobless or with reduced hours, those already living on the brink of eviction were at risk of losing the very home they were told to use as shelter. A patchwork of solutions has emerged at the state and city level to protect tenants from eviction during the most critical phase of the pandemic, but the Eviction Lab’s scorecard reveals jarring holes in these policies which won’t adequately protect renters once recovery begins.
The result could be a “full-blown outbreak of homelessness” and the spread of “more poverty, sickness, and death,” wrote Alieza Durana from the Eviction Lab in a Washington Post editorial last month.
The national eviction narrative has largely focused on urban cities like Milwaukee, Philadelphia or Baltimore, but alarming statistics reverberate throughout the every one of this country’s corners.
“Eviction is an issue that transcends geography and politics in the U.S. We see it across red states and blue states, and across suburban, rural and urban areas,” Durana told Truthout in an email.
A report from the Department of Agriculture estimated nearly one-quarter of children growing up in rural areas are poor, as compared to 20 percent in urban centers, and data show concentrated job growth in urban areas. Meanwhile, in the vacuum left behind in the U.S.’s post-industrial suburban heartland, full-time factory jobs have given way to hourly warehouse jobs with low pay, poor working conditions and no benefits, and medium-sized cities see jobs and businesses moving to coastal poles.
Though the country’s rural or suburban poor are harder to find, they’re ever-present, says Lesha Farias, co-founder of the local nonprofit Newark Think Tank on Poverty.
Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Low Income Housing Coalition, agrees. These communities “must often grapple with disinvestment in addition to the same issues of wage stagnation and housing affordability faced by communities across the nation,” says Yentel.
According to Tonya Cooper, it’s become nearly impossible to live in poverty in Newark. Today, they rent a $1,500-per-month two-bedroom house in a rough neighborhood. It’s across the train tracks demarcating development and disinvestment. They house four adults (sometimes five if their homeless son sleeps over), one grandson and three dogs. Most of the city’s newer facade — like the downtown square with a renovated movie theater and working cooperative space — is off-limits to a family that largely subsists on housing vouchers, a veteran pension and occasional part-time work at fast food chains.
“People who have lived in Newark a long time can’t afford to live here anymore. We say gentrification is when rents go up so high that locals can’t stay,” says Nancy Welu, a housing advocate at Newark Homeless Outreach.
For those barely making it, rent makes up a disproportionate amount of monthly costs. Princeton’s Eviction Lab found that nationwide, most poor renting families spend at least half of their income on housing, while a quarter of those spend over 70 percent of their income on rent and utilities. In Virginia, home to five of the nation’s cities with the highest eviction rates, nearly half of low-income renters are cost-burned, meaning they spent more than the Housing and Urban Development Department-recommended 30 percent of monthly income on rent, according to 2018 data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition. That number is over 80 percent for very low and extremely low income families.
These people are one health care bill, broken-down car or job loss away from missing a rent payment. According to Yentel, most of the time, indebted tenants usually owe relatively small amounts of money, often less than one month’s rent.
When an eviction notice gets brought to court, it can end up on someone’s record permanently, even if it’s dismissed, says Rivkah Meder, who coordinates eviction policy for Virginia’s housing department. “An eviction can be a major roadblock to getting housing in the future,” she says. Meder notes there are few legal levers to pull to mandate landlords accept tenants with evictions, many of whom receive federal aid through housing subsidy vouchers.
“The ironic thing is that it’s a dependable source of income for landlords because it’s guaranteed rent as long as the tenant remains eligible,” said Pam Kestner, deputy director of the same department, referring to Section 8 applicants.
Landlords who take formerly evicted tenants often offer ramshackle units in low-income neighborhoods, Farias says. Multiple individuals in Newark’s eviction court described mold, termites and bed bugs as typical.
The Cooper family left its most recent place because, according to Charles Cooper, the landlord kept asking him — a 62-year-old with knees bad enough to warrant surgery a few years back — to do house repairs for free, and because someone was shot two doors down.
Charles has been frustrated by the court’s lack of holistic evaluation of their reasons for having fallen behind on rent. “The rent wasn’t paid, and I can’t contest that,” Cooper says. “But it’s not like I was being reckless or putting money away just to keep for myself. I just didn’t have it.”
Poverty, eviction and homelessness are all part of the same cycle. Losing a home destroys credit, makes finding a new apartment more difficult and increases a person’s likelihood of losing a job, according to research from Harvard University. It’s also tied to mental and physical health declines for the whole family and destabilization for entire communities, the same research found. These factors together contribute to greater chances of ending up trapped in poverty.
Many experts tie the housing crisis to a nationwide affordability crisis. A Harvard study from 2018 showed that, when adjusted for inflation, the median rent has risen 61 percent since 1960, while the median wage has only increased by 5 percent.
Post-industrial towns have been especially hard hit. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics released June 2017 showed a 29 percent decrease in monthly employment in the manufacturing sector since 1987. But the country’s manufacturing output increased 85 percent over the same time, powered more by technology than by people. Meanwhile, the costs of services like tuition, health care and transportation continue to rise, the data show.
In places like Newark, the jobs that do remain are often filled by workers hired on a temporary contract basis rather than as full-time employees, according to Welu. This means they lack benefits or the ability to put money away to save for an emergency. “All the good jobs in Newark have just dried up,” Welu says.
Charles Cooper was first evicted 10 years ago after he was laid off from Constar Plastics for fighting with management. In the aftermath, Cooper struggled to find permanent work as Newark’s industrial park emptied out and factories left town.
Eviction law varies by state, making a one-size-fits-all solution challenging. In every case, it’s complex and rife with loopholes and exceptions.
Most tenants face eviction because of failure to pay rent, according to Yentel. That’s considered “with cause,” and state laws dictate how much time the landlord must provide tenants to pay rent or remedy a different lease violation before moving out voluntarily or going to court.
In Ohio and Mississippi, landlords are only required to give the tenant a three-day notice. Virginia law is similar, though it provides a five-day grace period. However, Mississippi permits landlords to execute an eviction without a court order or without notice if the lease reserves them the right.
Indiana is considered to be one of the country’s more lenient states when it comes to eviction law, despite providing the tenants with 10 days — not even a full pay period — to repay rent in full before vacating or litigating.
Many renters advocates say these laws favor the landlord, as three or five days is likely not nearly enough for vulnerable, low-income tenants to put the money together. It’s this “unequal playing field” that makes it so hard for a housing-vulnerable person to avoid an eviction, Kestner says.
The Coopers have never contested their case in front of a judge — a common occurrence among tenants facing eviction, Farias says. A complex web of legalese and the intimidation of a courtroom can overwhelm even the most savvy and, according to Welu, the vast majority of eviction-vulnerable tenants don’t know their rights and protections.
A number of jurisdictions are experimenting with possible mitigation techniques: free legal representation, right to counsel laws like the one Philadelphia passed in November, and diversion programs to fund mediation and subsidies between landlords and renters.
But the real goal is to avoid eviction court altogether. “By the time a tenant gets to court, they may be in a financial hole so deep that they’re beyond what assistance can provide,” Kestner says.
Sylvester Gaston Jr. is a truck driver who was also served an eviction at the same courthouse as the Coopers in April 2019 despite offering to pay back-due rent by the end of the week.
“Not everyone who falls behind on one bill is screwing up,” Gaston Jr. says. “Hardships happen — things come along that make it that way.”