On November 10th, thirty members of the Circle met to discuss Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted, a carefully researched and deeply moving study of eight Milwaukee families living in poverty under a continuing threat of eviction and homelessness.
The book is of particular interest to us in the Circle since women and children are especially affected by eviction. As Desmond remarks, “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.” After a brief social time, members shared, in small discussion groups, their reactions to the book and to the issues it raises. Then, after a brief general discussion of ideas raised in the smaller groups, we heard from Zafar Shah, a lawyer with the Public Justice Center, who turned our focus to the crisis in Baltimore, a city much like Milwaukee in demographics and problems.
The Public Justice Center recently completed a year-long study of housing and eviction patterns in Baltimore City, where renters make up 52% of the households. Baltimore ranked second only to Detroit, Michigan, in percentage of renters experiencing the threat of rent eviction, and there are up to 7000 evictions per year in Baltimore. The median income of renters is under $27,000 a year, and under 15% of these renters receive any kind of public assistance.
Evictions are handled in rent Court, where the tenant / defendants are 94% black and 78% women. The court is overwhelmed with cases, about 150,000 annually, and the vast majority of defendants are not represented by lawyers and have little understanding of the legal process they confront. According to the study, although the majority of landlords failed to follow housing regulations, 60-70% of non-compliant landlords still won eviction judgments.
Mr. Shah also shared with us some of the Center’s ideas for addressing the crisis. Recommendations include expanding legal help for renters, including lawyers to represent them in court. Efforts need to be expanded for holding landlords accountable for health and safety regulations, including annual inspections of all rental housing in the city. Like Matthew Desmond’s book, the Public Justice Center’s study points out that the eviction crisis has serious ramifications for the human right to good housing and for social stability.
Eviction issues are closely tied to homelessness, which was the topic of our general meeting in December, and participants in the Circle Reads’ program now have an expanded insight into this issue. We also expect to sponsor small group field trips to rental court for Circle members.