Rental Housing and the War on the Poor

Evicted argues focus on home ownership ignores the plight of people who face eviction, high rents.

By Christopher Cheung 7 Nov 2017 |

Christopher Cheung is a reporter and page editor at the Tyee. You can find his stories here and follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung.

Arleen called 89 landlords before she finally found one willing to rent her a place to live. Considering her odds so far, she found it necessary to lie about her income. And even then, she had to beg.

“Whatever I get is whatever I get,” she figured. Arleen didn’t look at the unit or the neighbourhood before calling. “I’m in a shelter. Please.”

The landlord decided to rent her the unit but warned Arleen: “There is no room for error here... You need to pay your rent and not get into trouble.”

Arleen was overjoyed. She and her two boys moved out of the homeless shelter they were staying in and into their new unit.

But Arleen is a single black mother, and the odds of getting secure housing aren’t in her favour. If you’re a woman renting in Milwaukee, you’re twice as likely to be evicted as a man. If you’ve got children with you, your chances of receiving an eviction judgment from court triples. Arleen knows this firsthand, and we know this too from her earlier misfortunes in Matthew Desmond’s Evicted.

Sure enough, Arleen’s older son gets them evicted again. He kicked a teacher at school and was followed home by a police officer, to the landlord’s horror.

The family’s belongings go back into bags and boxes.

“Why it’s like I got a curse on me?” asked Arleen.

While poverty in cities is nothing new, a new urban narrative about affordability has been hogging the spotlight: homeownership is becoming attainable only for the wealthy.

Richard Florida — the superstar urban theorist who evangelized controversial ideas about the importance of the creative class — focuses on how we’re “failing the middle-class” in his latest book, The New Urban Crisis.

Another media superstar has been standing up for the right of the middle class to own housing. It’s U.S. think tank Demographia, with its annual International Housing Affordability Survey.

Mainstream media eat this survey up, and this news makes headlines every year. In the 2017 ranking, Vancouver is the world’s third most unaffordable city after Hong Kong and Sydney.

But Demographia’s definition of unaffordable is the inability of middle-income people to buy a standard home.

While this decoupling of local incomes from local housing prices is a crisis in expensive cities, it shouldn’t distract us from how lower-income people are getting by. Unaffordable homeownership is one thing; unaffordable rents and how we take care of the poor is another. We shouldn’t mix them up.

Desmond’s book arrives at an important time. Evicted, his ethnographic work, looks at Milwaukee renters who are nowhere near aspirations of homeownership. Desmond examines how evictions cause the poor to be poorer, and introduces readers to people who are often evicted from mainstream media narratives of “unaffordable” housing.

Desmond is a U.S. sociologist at Princeton who was previously at Harvard. He led an extensive study of the low-income private rental sector in Milwaukee, which he chose because it has a typical U.S. urban housing market. Over 1,000 households were interviewed between 2009 and 2011. In addition, Desmond spent about five months living in a trailer park and more than nine months in an inner-city rooming house. The experience helped him discover and share intimate stories you won’t get from poverty data.

Aside from Arlene, there’s Crystal, 18, who’s fresh out of foster care and turns to sex work to survive. She has a history of mental and emotional health issues, including bipolar disorder.

There’s the veteran Lamar, who became a double amputee after losing both legs to frostbite when he passed out while using crack in an abandoned house. He’s also a parent and does odd jobs for his landlord in hopes of having his rent reduced.

There’s Scott, who loses his job and licence as a nurse and becomes a heroin addict after using opioids to cope with a slipped disk in his back. Fentanyl — responsible for 81 per cent of B.C.’s drug overdose deaths so far this year — is one of them.

We also meet landlords in Evicted, and Desmond invites us to see how they make decisions. Renters that attract police visits? They have to go because properties designated a “nuisance” have to pay extra law enforcement costs. Renters who complain about conditions? They are evicted — a cheaper course of action than doing repairs.

Landlording has headaches but it remains a lucrative line of work. Properties are cheaper in poor neighbourhoods, and that means lower mortgage payments, lower taxes and lower standards for housing conditions. The properties aren’t worth much to sell, but that’s not where the money is. The rents that roll in guarantee profitable returns.

“The ’hood is good,” one landlord says. In other words, there’s money to be made off the poor.

Landlords’ legal power is an instrument of fear. Ninety per cent have attorneys, while 90 per cent of renters do not. Renters would rather keep quiet than complain because being branded an undesirable tenant by an eviction closes doors to better housing.

“Studies have found that evicted families lose not only their homes but also their jobs, possessions and neighbors too,” writes Desmond in a New York Times feature. “They relocate to substandard housing in distressed communities; they have higher rates of depression and suicide. Even if poor families avoid eviction, they still suffer because so much of their money goes to housing costs, forcing them to buy fewer school supplies, clothes, books — and food.”

How can this be happening in the U.S.? asks Desmond.

He offers some answers in the Times feature and examines government prioritization of homeowners. National policies give homeowners large benefits while giving renters, who are poorer, nothing.

While there are some supports for low-income renters in Canada, it’s a similar story in our country, which I explored in this piece earlier this year.

Owners selling their principal residence are exempted from capital gains tax, a tax break worth about $5 billion a year. There’s also a tax credit for first-time homebuyers and a tax rebate for anyone building a home. They sound like nice advantages for middle-income people, but they’re not the ones mostly benefitting; it’s Canada’s top earners, according to a breakdown by the Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives.

With this level of public financial support for homeownership, it’s no wonder it’s built into the North American dream of prosperity. If you have the money, why rent when you can get rich by owning a home, and with the government’s help, too?

The average U.S. homeowner boasts a net worth ($195,400) 36 times that of the average renter ($5,400), calculates Desmond. That ratio is almost identical in Canada. Owners have 37 times the median net worth of renters thanks to their homes, with an average value of $513,000, according to 2012 CMHC numbers.

It’s not easy letting go of the dream of homeownership when it was more achievable a generation ago. But our society needs to ask whether we’re helping the people who truly need it or creating barriers preventing people from accessing opportunity and security.

Evicted invites us into lives we don’t often hear about and shows us inherited trauma as well as desperate decisions. As a journalist, I call on others in this line of work to seek out and report on those marginalized by our housing system.

“Why it’s like I got a curse on me?” asks Arleen, the struggling single mother.

Try telling her to buy her way out.  [Tyee]

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