My trip from the middle class into the ranks of the homeless began with a ticket of sorts. I came home one afternoon in 2013 from another fruitless job search to find a summons taped to the front door of my $2,000-a-month apartment in suburban Washington, D.C.
Show up in housing court on the assigned date with the back rent, it read. Or be prepared to find another place to live.
I didn’t think about it then—I was too busy trying not to freak out—but I was about to enter the world of eviction, a portal to poverty that is a largely unseen but growing part of the nation’s housing landscape. What used to be primarily a scourge among the working poor is becoming a fact of life for the shrinking middle class.
I can’t say I was surprised by the notice on my door that day. I’d been unemployable as a political journalist for almost a year, due to a series of events that began the summer before. The first domino fell in June 2012, when I suggested Mitt Romney, then the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, had problems relating to minority voters.
During a live panel discussion on MSNBC, I said Romney was “more comfortable” around “white folks” like himself—rich and conservative and unlikely to have two black friends to rub together. Angry Romney supporters combed my Twitter feed and found a tasteless joke about Romney I’d thoughtlessly repeated, along with criticism of the racial climate at Politico, my employer at the time. (I was one of only a handful of African Americans working there.)
Outraged, activists in the conservative media called me biased and a racist; the Romney campaign rang up my bosses directly, demanding my head. I was immediately suspended, then fired a week later.
Just days after that, a Washington gossip columnist, checking out a tip, obtained a court file detailing how I hit my ex-wife in February during an argument. In court, I pled guilty to second-degree assault and received six months probation, paid several hundred dollars in fines, and was ordered to complete an anger-management program.
The salacious news—the black guy who suggested Romney was a racist also beat his ex-wife—ricocheted around the internet, and my job prospects evaporated. I suddenly became unhireable, even for bottom-rung media jobs. The modest severance package I got from Politico drained away in a few months, along with my ability to pay my bills and child support.
Before I knew it, the rent was past due three months, going on four. Not long after that, the arrearage climbed to five figures, a serious problem I knew I couldn’t ignore, yet felt powerless to fix.
Whenever I entered or left my apartment building, I held my breath and scuttled on tiptoe past the leasing office near the front entrance. It was as if I believed denial made me invisible, or that the increasingly urgent messages that Jen, the property manager, left on my voicemail, and the invoices she slipped under my door, would magically vanish if I ignored them.
The information on that yellow sheet, however, hit like a sledgehammer, smashing my imaginary anti-eviction forcefield. The county sheriffs would come soon to throw me out; I was pretty sure Jen and the building’s owners would insist. I was renting on borrowed time, without the means to pay back what I owed.
It’s a sharp reversal from the early decades of last century, when evictions were considered so rare—and the right to housing so sacrosanct—that entire communities would come out to stand with tenants in trouble, and an anti-eviction movement sprang up during the Great Depression. Now, property managers and large real estate companies have professionalized the forced removal of residents. Evictions have their own divisions within law enforcement agencies and a specialized arm of the court system.
Experts say gentrification is partly to blame: Real estate developers from red-hot San Francisco to up-and-coming Buffalo are cashing in on a booming urban rental and condominium market. Builders are ditching affordable housing for upscale apartments and condos with all the trimmings—granite counters, slate floors, stainless steel appliances, in-building rec rooms, coffee bars, and tenant-only gyms—that only the affluent can realistically afford, driving up housing costs for everyone in the process.
But while economists say as many as one in five renters nationwide faced eviction in 2017,precise numbers (and policies to address them) are next to nonexistent. Meanwhile, the pandemic of individuals and families swept from their homes due to financial instability is creeping up the class ladder, from the poor and working class into the white-collar, middle-income bracket, where I used to be.
“We have these demographic shifts that are happening,” says Mary Cunningham, co-director of the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank. “There’s income stagnation, and there just isn’t the [housing] supply needed to meet the demand. There’s this rising number of renters, and people are coming out of the homeownership market. That’s putting a lot of pressure on rents all across the income spectrum.”
Yet policymakers in D.C. and elsewhere have seemingly put the issue on the back burner, and some doubt it’s on the stove at all. President Donald Trump has not prioritized affordable housing, and Housing Secretary Ben Carson has been practically invisible since his Senate confirmation. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the nation’s most powerful economic-inequality avengers, haven’t said much about affordable housing now that the 2016 presidential campaign is over.
Nevertheless, like my pretend-stealth comings and goings past the landlord’s office in the weeks before I lost my home, ignoring what’s become a national epidemic won’t make it go away. It will only make things worse.
It’s practically impossible to pinpoint how many evictions take place per year in the U.S. That’s because housing and eviction laws, as well as public records statutes, vary from state to state. No one government agency is responsible for keeping track, not even HUD. In 1990, Sen. Dennis DeConcini, an Arizona Democrat, introduced a bill to require HUD to establish a national eviction data center, but the bill went nowhere. The 2017 American Housing Survey will likely include eviction data, but the numbers are not yet available.
Redfin, a national realty data company, took a stab at quantifying the problem last year, compiling millions of pages of documents from the previous year. But Redfin could find data for only 19 states, or a bit more than a third of the country. The result: In 2015, roughly eight years after the housing crash that preceded the Great Recession, about
2.7 million people were kicked out of their homes.
Apartment List, another nationwide realty service, tried to measure evictions in October, using current and prospective renters who visit their website as a survey sample. Collecting data from more than 41 million people, they found the crisis had grown since Redfin’s assessment: An estimated 3.7 million renters have experienced an eviction.
That somewhat grainy snapshot reveals a perfect confluence of factors, says Robert Silverman, a University at Buffalo urban planning professor. Market forces unchecked by government economic policies—including flat wages, soaring living expenses, and college-educated millennials working entry-level jobs—have combined to push up rental prices across the board, particularly in desirable metro areas like Washington.
“Rents have been outpacing income growth, even in terms of other housing markets, like the mortgage market,” says Silverman, a specialist in affordable housing and urban gentrification. Clamoring for upscale tenants, he says, “Landlords have been raising rents even though [household] income hasn’t kept up with costs.”
Factor in the post-recession “gig economy”—in which workers hold down a day job and a side hustle to make ends meet—and the conditions are near-perfect for an eviction boom. Freelance consulting or driving for a ride-sharing service after hours can help pay the bills, Silverman says, but moonlighting income can be inconsistent at best and unreliable at worst. Sometimes there’s enough money to pay the landlord and the rest of one’s creditors; sometimes one of the kids gets really sick or the car needs repairs, and the rent goes unpaid.
But the corporate landlords and real estate companies cornering the market on urban rental housing don’t really care why the money’s short; they only care that you don’t have it, and they’d really prefer to rent to someone who does. Miss the rent often enough, for whatever reason, and the eviction machinery kicks in: a summons on your door, then an appearance in housing court.
And if you can’t work things out in the courtroom, then a professional eviction crew, escorted by a law enforcement agency, will soon appear at the door.
When the date on my summons arrived, I headed to Montgomery County’s modern, glass-and-concrete district courthouse in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland. Not knowing what to expect, I donned a jacket and slacks to make a good impression; more likely, it was another haughty act of self-delusion: I’m middle class, with a white-collar career. I shouldn’t really be here. Even if my landlord, the past-due balance I owed, and the summons said otherwise.
When I got there, the assigned courtroom, number 303, was locked, and the hallway was crowded with my fellow scofflaws. Nearly all of them were people of color; judging by clothing and accented English, most seemed to be immigrants, blue-collar workers, or both.
That shouldn’t have been surprising: “Evictions disproportionately impact the most vulnerable members of our society,” according to the Apartment List report. Renters whose education stopped short of college, Apartment List says, are more than twice as likely to face eviction than the college educated—unless you’re black, like me.
Apartment List found that “black households face the highest rates of eviction, even when controlling for education and income.” African Americans with at least a bachelor’s degree are around twice as likely to face eviction as whites, and about three times more likely than Hispanics to get evicted.
That day in housing court, the judge entered the courtroom about 10 minutes after the bailiffs opened the door. Two by two, the litigants marched up and stood before the bench, lawyer on the right, debtor tenant on the left. Then, His Honor fired off a series of questions by rote: tenant’s name, address, name of landlord, amount owed. Each case took just a few minutes, start to finish; there were at least two dozen cases’ worth of people waiting for their turn that day.
As the hearing ground on, I kept thinking that a housing-court case was less like a legal proceeding than a bizarre mutation of a marriage ceremony, with penury, not love or fate, uniting the two parties. Much like the groom in a shotgun wedding, the outcome of a case—and the tenant’s access to housing—hinged on whether he or she could answer “I do” to two fundamental questions: Do you have the past-due rent? If not, do you have a plan with the landlord to settle the debt?
More often than not, the answer that day—including mine—was no.
Organizations do exist to help tenants facing eviction remain in their homes. They range from government-sponsored agencies attached to local social services offices and housing agencies to faith-based outfits or nonprofits that use grants and donations to help tenants pay back rent or keep the lights on.
The abundance of organizations and the lack of coordination among them, however, can be overwhelming for tenants. And it’s a roll of the dice whether the agencies, usually private charities or municipal-budget afterthoughts, are flush—particularly when lawmakers are usually more interested in cutting taxes (and choking off revenue) than expanding the social safety net.
Two weeks before my day in housing court, I went to my local social services office, put my name on the waiting list, and subsequently found myself in the cramped office of a Montgomery County social worker. Maria, as I’ll call her, was a petite woman with shoulder-length silver hair, a warm demeanor, and the sort of earrings and bracelets you’d find at an arts-and-crafts festival. She was empathetic but frank.
”Oh my,” Maria said, trying to mask her alarm when I showed her an invoice of my past-due balance, which approached the yearly salary of a burger-flipper. “This is far too much for us to help you. Why didn’t you come to us sooner when you first fell behind? We could have worked with you.”
A block of ice melted in my gut; for an instant I saw myself in tattered overalls and a beat-up fedora, shuffling from my luxury apartment building with a hobo bindle on my shoulder. I mumbled to Maria something about not knowing that the county did this sort of thing—I’m from the middle class; I used to be a homeowner. I haven’t ever really had to think about it.
”Well, even if I could give you some financial assistance, the county requires some kind of financial work-out plan, so you don’t end up in this situation again,” Maria said. “And since you’re unemployed, and no job on the horizon…”
I filled in the blank: “I can’t qualify for a workout plan to get the money and show that I’ll stay out of trouble.”
”Yes,” she said. “That’s right.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised, says Silverman, the University at Buffalo housing specialist.
In areas where the real estate market is hot, “there’s more incentive [f
or developers] to target higher incomes for new housing,” he says. Construction cranes are sprouting like daisies across metro Washington, but they’re building high-end units for upper-middle-income earners who’ve dropped out of the mortgage market and into rental housing. Not a lot of units are being built for middle-class incomes, let alone the working poor. That’s not where the incentives or profits are.
Even in a city like Buffalo, “there’s not a lot of construction to kind of relieve that pressure. And when new houses aren’t built, affordable housing isn’t always factored into the development project,” Silverman says.
At the same time, he says, “middle incomes aren’t growing like they used to be.” That includes some of the new-economy jobs in the technology and service sectors. Those facts, he says, lead to a bitter conclusion.
“People who were middle-income in the past,” he says, “might be lower-income now.”
What I remember most about my eviction is how smooth, efficient, and surreal the process was.
Lacking the several thousands I’d need to stay housed and without even a nibble on the job front that would encourage a new landlord to rent to me, D., my girlfriend at the time, helped me make a strategic decision: Don’t avoid the inevitable; lean into it.
So one Thursday evening in July, she and I boxed up the bulk of my belongings: dishes, books, photos, posters, winter clothes, spare bedding, knick-knacks. I rented a storage locker two blocks away, then hunkered down, waiting for my fate.
It arrived the following Tuesday morning with several sharp, authoritative raps on the front door. On the other side of the peephole I saw two 20-something Montgomery County sheriff’s deputies—a man and a woman. When I let them in, I noticed the property manager and a dozen or so people lined up along the hallway outside my apartment, wearing identical red T-shirts stamped with a logo of some kind. They were holding thin black plastic garbage bags, the cheap kind I used to avoid, from the grocery store bargain aisle.
The professionalism of the move is an indicator of the exponential growth of evictions, Silver says. It makes sense: The quicker a landlord can turn over a delinquent property, the faster he can recoup his losses with a new tenant (and perhaps a higher rent).
Like HUD, the American Moving and Storage Association, an industry trade group, doesn’t keep track of how often its members get hired by landlords to remove people from their homes. It also doesn’t have an official position on the matter or a list of protocols for movers.
But after observing my own eviction up close, I came to a few conclusions. It’s likely that the labor costs are offset by stuffing a soon-to-be-former tenant’s belongings in plastic bags instead of packing them carefully in boxes. And, since the ex-tenant’s stuff is going to the curb instead of to a new home or storage unit, there’s no need for a moving van or driver. Ironically, several professional eviction companies in the Washington area use homeless people as moving crews for evictions, paying them a few bucks an hour—far below minimum wage. Eviction companies elsewhere even have ratings on Yelp.
Having never experienced an eviction, I was taken aback when the deputies told me I couldn’t stay on the premises to supervise, and one of them escorted me through my soon-to-be-former home as I gathered up toiletries and other last-minute personal effects. As I left the apartment for the final time, walking past Jen and the movers, I noticed their chatter had ceased, and no one would make eye contact with me.
Twenty minutes later, everything I owned was piled on the apartment building’s vast loading dock. Within three hours, using a borrowed dolly, I’d moved most of my stuff to the storage locker I’d rented earlier, $1 for the first month. Within a few weeks, after a couple rounds of house-sitting for vacationing acquaintances, I crash-landed in the spare bedroom of a family I barely knew, extraordinarily kind, unbelievably generous friends of a friend from my church.
We all thought the arrangement would last a few weeks, tops. It stretched nearly three years.
While policymakers on a national level haven’t done much to stem the tide of evictions, some municipalities are taking steps on their own to address what they call an unseen element of the housing crisis. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has set aside millions to provide attorneys for everyone who needs one in housing court, a promising experiment designed to keep people in their homes, while authorities in Milwaukee broke ground by conducting a yearlong study of housing and evictions. Both cities have reached the same conclusion:
Helping people stay in their homes yields big dividends, not only for the city—which saves on welfare and emergency social services costs—but for tenants. A single eviction, studies show, can demolish a tenant’s credit, undermine job opportunities, exacerbate homelessness and health, and make it far more difficult to keep one’s place on the class ladder, let alone advance a rung. I finally got my own place this year: a single room in a split-level family home, all I could manage after getting a journalism job that pays me far less than I earned at Politico.
And I’m one of the lucky ones: I have a roof over my head, and home stability.
“Staying in a stable home is a part of that. What’s on the [government policy] horizon isn’t really well mapped out yet,” says Silverman, the University at Buffalo professor. “Not a lot of concrete policy proposals out there that would talk about how that would happen.”
Joseph Williams is a Senior News Editor for U.S. News & World Report, covering the Supreme Court and national legal issues. He lives and works in Washington, D.C.
Co-published with Curbed.