Evictions: a hidden scourge for black women

Matthew Desmond
June 16
Matthew Desmond is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Social Studies at Harvard.

Occupy Chicago Protests Foreclosure Evictions At Fannie Mae Office. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Patrice is, in many ways, typical. A low-income woman, she’s struggling to find affordable housing in Milwaukee. The 24-year-old single mother of three shares a two-bedroom apartment with her mother, her three young children and her three siblings. It’s on the same block as abandoned buildings and memorials for victims of shootings. The back door does not lock, the kitchen window is broken, the toilet and shower remain stopped up for days, and the apartment crawls with roaches.

Despite the substandard conditions, Patrice was thankful for a roof over her head. However, after her $8/hour wages were cut, she fell behind on rent and was evicted. She and her children would join the  steady migration of poor families in search of new housing.

It’s an all-too-common story. Low-income women are evicted at much higher rates than men. The reasons are varied, including lower wages and children, but one rarely discussed reason is the gender dynamics between largely male landlords and female tenants.

In Milwaukee, where I conducted my research on this subject, 16 families lose their homes each day. That’s 16,000 people being forced out of 6,000 housing units every year. And those statistics don’t even account for informal evictions, like using strong-arm tactics or paying unwanted tenants to move. Even more disturbing, women from black neighborhoods in Milwaukee represent only 9.6 percent of the population, but 30 percent of the evictions.

Poor black men are locked up while poor black women are locked out.

Why? Low wages is one reason. Although women in high-poverty black neighborhoods are more likely to work than men, their wages are often lower than the wages of working men from these neighborhoods.

Children also pose a challenge to single mothers, even beyond the cost of larger rental units to accommodate them. Children result in landlords coming under increased state scrutiny. They might test positive for lead poisoning, for example, forcing the EPA to step in. Child protective services may be alerted if the home is unsafe or unsanitary. Overcrowded children are also hard on apartments. Calls to the police to report domestic violence could also provoke the ire of landlords or lead to eviction if a male abuser was not on the lease.

But the interactions between predominantly male landlords and female tenants is also a culprit, and it often turns on gender dynamics. Men who fall behind on rent, for example, often went directly to the landlord. When Jerry was served an eviction notice, he promptly balled up and threw it in the face of his landlord. The two commenced yelling at each other until Jerry stomped back to his trailer.

Meanwhile, Larraine, who had also been served notice, recoiled from conflict. “I couldn’t deal with it. I was terrified by it, just terrified,” she told the researcher. After Jerry calmed down, he returned and offered to work off his rent by cleaning up the trailer park and doing some maintenance work, something men often offer to do, I found. The landlord accepted his offer. The outcome for Larraine was different. After avoiding her landlord, she would eventually come up with the rent, borrowing from her brother. But by that time, her landlord had had enough. He felt that Lorraine had taken advantage of him. In keeping with women’s generally non-confrontational approach, Larraine, like many other women renters facing eviction, engaged in “ducking and dodging” landlords often put it.

This dynamic has long-term implications. An eviction record can make it extremely difficult for them to find housing again. Evictions can ban a person from affordable housing programs. And many landlords will not rent to someone who’s been evicted. As they like to say, “I’ll rent to you as long as you don’t have an eviction or a conviction.” These twinned processes—eviction and conviction—work together to propagate economic disadvantage in the inner city.

In other words: Poor black men are locked up while poor black women are locked out.

How much of this  is a result of racism or poverty is hard to say.  To date, efforts to monitor and reduce housing discrimination have been almost wholly focused on getting in, not getting (put) out of housing.But the impact is lasting. Tenants who are evicted often lose not only their homes but their possessions as well, stripping them of the few assets they had. Once evicted, tenants often find themselves forced to move from one undesirable situation to another.

Despite the fact that many are one paycheck away from not making the rent, only one in four households that qualify for housing assistance receive it. Even as demand is rising, the supply of affordable units is dwindling—and rents are rising.

This article was drawn from a research report that was originally published by the MacArthur Foundation.

 

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