When Karleen Wright saw the eviction notice taped on her door at the end of March, she knew she had to find a place to stash her belongings, lest everything she owned end up on the curb. She didn’t know about the temporary eviction ban under Washington, D.C.’s pandemic-induced state of emergency. Months later, she can’t stop thinking about whether she could have fought it if she had only known about the eviction moratorium; and if she did, whether she and her son might still be living in their townhouse.
“At this point, me and my son are homeless,” Wright says.
Wright had never struggled with rent payments. But when she developed carpal tunnel syndrome last year, her work as a home health aide nurse became difficult. She says her boss slashed her hours in response. Around the same time, her son turned 18, and they stopped receiving payments from his father’s estate.
“Everything started piling up,” she says. “I was trying everything in my power to make ends meet but between rent, electricity, gas, water and being a single parent, it was too much.”
Then Wright lost her job completely. As she applied for unemployment, her son struggled to find a job in the months after his high school graduation.
In January, the call came: Wright’s landlord was starting eviction proceedings because she had missed several months of rent. By then, her unemployment had kicked in and her son had been hired as a drugstore cashier; if only there had been more time, she says, her tax returns could have made up the deficit.
Wright’s story is a common one. Across the country, people are being evicted even as a federal ban on evictions during the pandemic is still in place. It’s also one likely to multiply dramatically as the pandemic’s economic fallout triggers what many experts fear will be an “eviction apocalypse” that could see 23 million families evicted by the end of September. That’s 1 in 5 renting households.
At the beginning of the pandemic, federal eviction moratoriums were put in place through the Cares Act and by the Department of Housing and Urban Development for federally financed properties. But they only cover an estimated 1 in 4 renters, and both are set to expire at the end of July. Some cities and states have added a patchwork of their own eviction moratoriums during the pandemic, many also set to expire during the summer. This messy web of legislation, a great deal of which is difficult to enforce, means that women like Wright can fall through cracks and end up homeless in the middle of a pandemic.
Black women like Wright are already disproportionately affected by evictions — they experience them at twice the rate of white renters in 17 states, according to an analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union. With black communities disproportionately shouldering the burden of the pandemic, these chasms are likely to widen.
“Evictions are a civil rights issue. The severe disparity that impacts black households in particular, I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Tim Thomas, research director at the University of California at Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project. “Across the board, anywhere you look, if there are black people living in an area, you see a high rate of eviction. And black female-headed households are just astronomically affected more.”
Jewel Burgess opened the door to her apartment in D.C. on Monday to find a notice threatening eviction, along with a list of violations of her lease — it included failure to pay rent and the “Cancel Rent” sign she hung from her window as part of her activism with the D.C. tenant’s union. A few days later, she received a letter with an August court date. (Donatelli Development, which manages the building where Burgess lives, has not responded to an interview request.)
At the beginning of the pandemic, Burgess’s job consisted of delivering meals to the elderly. But at the end of May, she was laid off because of budget cuts. She’s receiving unemployment benefits, but says it’s not enough to cover even her basic needs.
“If I pay my rent, I won’t have money for food and toiletries. If I buy food and toiletries, I can’t pay my rent,” Burgess says.
Many Americans across the country are making the same impossible decisions about what they will and won’t pay for.
“We can’t ask people to stay at home and then make them pay the consequences,” says Rene Moya, campaign director for Housing Is a Human Right, a tenant advocacy organization in Los Angeles. “This is the kind of impossible bind that local state and federal officials have put a lot of tenants in.”
Eviction courts don’t collect demographic information, making it notoriously difficult to track who experiences them. In recent years, however, evidence has suggested that evictions are indeed a civil rights issue.
In 2016, there were 2.3 million evictions in the United States — that’s four evictions every minute, according to research by Matthew Desmond, principal investigator of the Eviction Lab and author of “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.” In Baltimore, single black women and their families are removed at a rate 3.9 times higher than that of white male-headed households. In Milwaukee, Desmond’s research found that while women from black neighborhoods make up just 9.6 percent of the population, they constitute 30 percent of the evictions.
There are a variety of reasons black women disproportionately experience eviction, according to experts, and it starts with the pay gap. Black women, on average, make 61 cents for every dollar a white man makes. That’s far below the average gap for women nationally, which is 82 cents. More than 60 percent of black women are also the family breadwinner, in large part because black men face such high rates of death and incarceration.
Desmond’s research provides additional answers. Children increase the risk of eviction, in part because they’re more likely to invoke state scrutiny. He’s also found that the gendered power dynamics between predominantly male landlords and female tenants can lead to faster and more frequent evictions for women.
The eviction of black women is situated in America’s long history of housing segregation, most notably the practice of “redlining,” which started in the 1930s when government surveyors color-coded neighborhoods and marked predominantly African American ones as red or “hazardous.” This discounted residents as credit risks and denied them access to the mortgage and small business loans white residents used to build generational wealth. These same neighborhoods map onto today’s poor and predominantly black neighborhoods.
Even the staggeringly high numbers of evictions don’t take into account informal evictions, which occur when landlords push tenants out by threatening them, keeping their houses in deplorable conditions or bribing them. For every formal eviction there are two informal evictions, according to a study from the University of Cincinnati. This is also one way landlords are circumventing eviction moratoriums and informally pushing renters out in the middle of a pandemic.
Evon Hill, 59, says that her Los Angeles apartment has had bed bugs and mold for months. Hill describes a well-documented situation in which landlords keep apartments in untenable situations.
Hill is on Section 8, the federal program that assists very low-income Americans with housing costs, and she’s disabled, which makes finding appropriate housing tough. She’s lived in her apartment since her son was born. She says that because he’s a 15-year-old black teenager now, she’s not comfortable moving him into the few Los Angeles neighborhoods they could afford.
The pandemic brought on unexpected medical bills and expenses for Hill, including the cost of stocking up on food to reduce trips to the grocery store and paying for her diabetes medication. To keep up, she skipped her May and June rent. She couldn’t really afford July, she says, but got worried about digging herself into too big of a hole.
“I lose sleep at night I’m so worried,” she says.
Hill is a single mother, and she says her family members are struggling as much as she is during the crisis. People can’t lend the helping hand they once could.
“At the moment we’re asking people to stay at home to stay safe from this deadly virus, we’re also going to be throwing millions of people into the street. It doesn’t make any sense at all,” says Erica Smiley, executive director of Jobs With Justice, an economic justice nonprofit that is calling on corporate landlords to cancel rent.
Untangling the complex web that built America’s eviction crisis is a behemoth job. Still, activists hope that this escalation could be a turning point that makes the problem impossible to ignore.
“Defunding the police used to be a nonstarter, and now it’s a political demand,” says Rosemary Ndubuizu, assistant professor of African American Studies at Georgetown University and an organizer with the advocacy group ONE DC. “We think that this eviction pandemic will solicit the same type of response, putting demands on the table that people historically thought were impossible.”
In many cases, the black women bearing the brunt of the housing crisis are also leading the efforts to solve it, including efforts to reclaim vacant housing.
The most pressing demand right now, many activists say, is rent cancellation. In April, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) introduced a bill to do so nationwide. Ndubuizu says ONE DC sees it as a move toward economic and racial equity, given the country’s long history of racialized displacement. ONE DC and Housing Is a Human Right in Los Angeles are both also trying to expand the number of rent-controlled apartments and build affordable housing through tenant organizing and political pressure. Tenants unions, including the D.C. Tenants Union that Burgess is a member of, are working to organize renters to demand these measures.
Smiley says Jobs With Justice is focusing on the corporate landlords who could afford to forgive rent, as opposed to the small scale landlords who may also be struggling with mortgages.
“It’s the corporate billionaires, the hedge funds, who are really prioritizing their own profitability over the shared sacrifice that the rest of us are making,” says Smiley. “These companies don’t need legislation to be passed, they could just do it. Forgive rent, it’s that simple.”
Of the 43 corporate landlords Jobs With Justice has targeted, only one has formally responded. American Campus Communities, a large student housing owner and developer, said in a letter dated in late April: “It is our pledge that every American Campus Communities resident will continue to have a home during this crisis, regardless of their ability to pay rent on time. To date, American Campus Communities has forgiven approximately $17 million in rent and offered thousands of additional deferment of rent payments to residents and parents who have experienced a diminishment in income due to COVID-19.”
Meanwhile, women like Burgess, Wright and Hill describe the threat of losing their homes as a constant source of anxiety.
“How can you feel that your profit is more important than someone having a place to live or having food in their mouth to survive?”
For now, Wright and her son are staying with relatives, but she says it’s not sustainable. They’re both diabetic, and the strain of being in someone else’s space is wearing them thin. She’s looking for housing, mostly outside of the city where things are more affordable, and a job before her unemployment ends in September.
“I pray every night that something comes my way,” she says. “Just a small apartment for me and my son, something we could afford.”