LOS ANGELES — The national campaign to end chronic homelessness in America’s cities has focused on veterans and the chronically homeless. But there is another class of newly homeless: Evicted tenants, often families with children, who can’t afford a roof over their heads after they lose their lease.
Evictions have reached epidemic proportions and created a new homeless crisis born out of an affordable housing shortage.
New York City is bringing the problem to the fore. The City Council introduced legislation sponsored by Democratic Council Members Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson that would ensure that all low-income tenants have a right to counsel when they face evictions.
Already, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council have increased funding for tenant attorneys in housing court. The mayor last month announced an additional $12.3 million, bringing total funding to more than $60 million.
“More than two-thirds of the people in our shelters are families with vulnerable children, and the most common cause of their homelessness isn’t drug dependency or mental illness. It’s eviction,” Levine and Mary Brosnahan, the president and CEO of the Coalition for the Homeless, wrote this week in an opinion piece in The New York Times.
According to them, the number of New York City families forced from their homes by court orders have increased steadily in the last decade and is “now close to 29,000 per year.”
Unlike criminal cases, defendants in housing court do not have the right to counsel. As a result, only 10 percent of New York City tenants in court have lawyers, while 90 percent of landlords do.
“Evictions clearly have a link to increased homelessness,” said Larry Gross, the executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival in Los Angeles, a city that has one of the most severe housing affordability shortages in the nation and the most homeless people.
Seven out of 10 of the most overcrowded ZIP codes — on the basis of the average number of people living in one housing unit — are in Los Angeles. Two-thirds of renters in Los Angeles are spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent, and a third spend more than half their income on housing.
“Thirteen thousand people a month are hitting the streets and becoming the new homeless,” Gross said. “There’s a perfect explanation why Los Angeles has become the homeless capital of the nation. People can’t afford the rents here.”
The city last month declared a state of emergency over homelessness and is proposing spending $100 million to tackle the problem.
The funding might pay for 1,000 affordable housing units, but “the county needs half a million,” Gross said.
“There is a national movement to prevent evictions,” said Megan Hustings, the interim director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. “What’s happening in a lot of communities is that a lot of homeless resources are focused on housing first, and it targets veterans and single adults who are chronically homeless.”
Barack Obama’ administration has set a goal to house all homeless veterans by the end of this year.
There has been less investment for affordable housing for families, and the minimum wage is not enough to support working families, she said.
Housing that’s affordable to the lowest-income households is at a historic low, said Linda Couch, the senior vice president for policy at the National Low-Income Housing Coalition in Washington, D.C.
“Eviction really can start a whole domino effect, and it’s not simply that someone loses their home,” she said. “But if you’re evicted, you don’t get your security deposit back. No landlord will be able to vouch for you. It’s potentially damaging on your credit report. It all snowballs.”
And in cities that have rent controls, many evicted tenants face market-rate rents when they’re forced to look for new housing.
Research has shown that families with children are more likely to be evicted than childless tenants.
“Kids make noise, they can be disruptive, and if there is a single parent who’s working,” they’re more likely to be unsupervised, said Couch.
Matthew Desmond, an assistant professor of sociology and social studies at Harvard University and a MacArthur Foundation fellow, has studied the impact of eviction on the urban poor. He found that poor women are evicted at a much higher rate than men and the eviction rate is even higher for poor black women.
His research showed that in Milwaukee, women from poor black neighborhoods make up 9.6 percent of the population but accounted for 30 percent of evictions.
Desmond found that eviction is to women what incarceration is to men. It doesn’t lock them up but locks them out of opportunities.
“Evictions carry a stigma,” he wrote in his findings. “Many landlords will not rent to persons who have been evicted, and an eviction can also ban a person from affordable housing programs.”
Dowd said that emergency funding to help families in a financial bind would help ensure low-income families do not end up in housing court. But if they do, free legal counsel would help reduce evictions.
“So many of these cases are results of tenants who do not have representation in housing court,” said Tyrone Stevens, the communications director for Levine. “It skews the scale the way things are set up now.”
Why do people get evicted?
It could be for nonpayment, using the property for illegal purposes or a violation of the lease agreement, whether it’s having too many people living in the unit or having pets. And often, if the lease is in the name of an older tenant who is covered by rent control, when they die, their child or spouse may be hit with an immediate rent hike.
“A lot of times, it’s a technicality,” Stevens said.
Other times, it’s a no-fault eviction. In California, for example, 20,000 affordable units have been lost since 2001 because of redevelopment. In 1986, California passed the Ellis Act, which allows landlords to get out of the rental market and convert units to condominiums, often resulting in tenant evictions.
In Los Angeles, “people are being pushed out of their homes either legally or illegally,” Gross said.
The proposal to mandate free legal representation in New York City hasn’t gone to hearing yet and could run into resistance because of the cost of providing the service.
Gross worries that Los Angeles’ new earthquake retrofit requirement will jack up rents even more, creating another challenge for tenants.
The Los Angeles City Council this month approved costly upgrades to thousands of buildings to make them more earthquake resilient.
“This could result in a $75 a month rent increase,” Gross said. The city is still deciding how the estimated $5,000-per-unit retrofitting costs will be split between tenants and landlords. One proposal would go 50-50, with a $38 monthly cap on rent increases.
Those who can’t pay could be evicted and end up in court.
“There’s a 99.9 percent chance that if they’re underrepresented, they will be evicted,” Gross said.