Michelle Walston was confused. Did she just hear right?

“Sorry," she said. “What?”

Many times the 49-year-old single mother had stood right here at the court clerk’s window in Stafford, Va., untangling the legal jargon related to the eviction case that had cost Walston her home. But what she heard on this January morning didn’t make sense.

“Your case has been dismissed," the clerk repeated from behind protective glass. “We got a letter this morning.”

Walston hugged closer to her chest the file in her hands, a paper trail stretching back to when she lost her job last February, to her ensuing struggles paying her $1,550 rent starting in the fall, and to her December eviction. She had stopped at the counter to find out which courtroom she needed to go to for a hearing about the money she still owed her former landlord. Now, this.

“What does that mean?" Walston asked. “He’s not still coming after me after he already put me out?"

“The case is dismissed,” the clerk shrugged. “The court is actually shut down today. Someone here came down with the covid. Sorry."

Walston began to step away from the counter, then hesitated. The legal drama that had swallowed her life whole — her financial security, her emotional well being, her family stability — was now technically closed, one of the estimated 240,000 evictions filed in 27 American cities since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March, according to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, a national coalition of researchers who track and study eviction data.

But it wasn’t really over yet, for Walston or those 240,000 others. Eviction hits a tenant with the blunt force of dislocation; its second act, however, is a years-long slow burn of shrinking options. Credit scores tank. Court records scare off prospective landlords. The stigma, what a legal scholar has termed a “modern-day scarlet letter,” sticks.

So Walston had a question: “What does that mean for my credit score?”

She stepped outside without a definite answer from the clerk but with a growing feeling that the dismissal was not a fresh start but a step behind. Yes, she had a job now. Yes, she had a place to stay; she and her daughter were bouncing between friends’ apartments in Stafford and Walston’s parents’ house 90 miles away in Petersburg, Va. But what she needed most, the first step to returning to normal, was also what seemed to be the most out of reach: a new home.

“I left court after the judge ruled against us on the eviction and started looking that day, and I’ve been looking every day,” she said. “It’s been bad news ever since.”

A barrier to future housing

Stripped down to simple numbers and court docket appearances, Walston has a credit score now in the 500s and three evictions on her record.

For the numerous for-profit tenant screening companies and the landlords who pay them for background checks on potential renters, those data points told a simple story, one that’s enough to bar Walston from accessing future housing opportunities. And with eviction now hanging over tens of millions because of the pandemic, those simple stories pulled from records and shorn of context will be roadblocks to full recovery.

Critics argue that these scores alone reflect filings only, not whether the case was thrown out by a judge or settled or led to a physical eviction. Those reports also do not explain the circumstances behind the eviction filing.

“This is why an eviction is not a single event in a person’s life, but it could be one of the most traumatic events in their lives,” said Emily Benfer, a visiting professor of law at Wake Forest University. “It can stay on your credit for up to seven years, and that means far down the line, it keeps you from opportunities and pushes people to the outskirts of the housing market.”

A 37-year-old U.S. Navy veteran and single mother recently felt the aftershocks of an eviction that she thought had been settled.

In 2014, she moved into an apartment in Southeast Washington as part of a program for former members of the military. The rent was set at 30 percent of her income, which at the time included court-ordered child support payments from her daughter’s father.

Those payments, however, came infrequently, said the woman, who asked that her name not be used because she is petitioning the court to seal her eviction records. In 2018, she asked for her rent to be lowered based on that loss of steady income. She was told the landlord needed proof of six consecutive months of missed child support to lower the cost.

“Then he might go three months without paying and then pay the fourth month and mess me up,” she explained. “I never went a month then without paying something, but I paid what I could pay.”

In August 2018, the landlord filed for eviction, claiming she owed nearly $1,300. But in court, the mother worked out a payment plan and received rental assistance, paying off her debt and remaining in the unit. The eviction didn’t come up again until last year, when she and her 15-year-old daughter applied to move into a new place. The application was denied at first; the landlord eventually accepted her application after learning the debt had been paid off.

“It’s frustrating because it was two years ago,” she said. “It makes you feel like you are in a trap and you can’t get out. The balance is zero, so why are you keeping this on my credit report?”

A 31-year-old Washington woman was less lucky. In May 2019, she came home to the apartment she had been living in since 2014 to find an eviction notice on the door. She had been fighting with the landlord for years over repairs and noise complaints. She didn’t bother to contest the removal and moved in with a relative.

At the same time, the woman, who also asked that her full name not be used because of a current family court case, was working with the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency to get back full custody of her two sons, who were living with family. In November, she found a new apartment and brought along her two boys to the office to sign the lease. But the agent had bad news.

“He said they ran my name in the system and now they were taking back the approval,” she said. “I never knew that eviction goes on your record. I never knew that it decreases the chances that you can find another apartment.”

Her children — 9 and 11 — remain with family. The woman is now living in a shelter.

“I’m still trying to get my kids back, but it doesn’t help that I don’t have a safe place for us,” she said.

Critics of the system say that such entrenched practices make it all but impossible for renters who have gone through eviction to later secure stable housing. Paula A. Franzese, a professor at Seton Hall University School of Law, likened it to being put on an unofficial “blacklist."

“The practice of gaining a tenant’s record without proper context denies the very fundamental opportunity for a fresh start,” Franzese said. “It is wrong to deny that opportunity to begin again in a context that is as vital as housing.”

Inequalities in the American housing landscape have deepened during the pandemic. And Black women like Walston have disproportionally felt the impact.

According to the Eviction Lab, women make up 51 percent of the tenants facing eviction filings since March 2020; Black Americans account for 35 percent of eviction filings since the pandemic’s start, and Black women were filed against 25 percent more than Black men.

“Black women are evicted at the highest rates,” Benfer said. “They’re being treated by the civil courts like Black men have historically been treated in the criminal courts.”

‘I have to take care of this person’

Walston walked into the townhouse in Stafford with a silent prayer going through her head. Her eyes clinically swept across the first floor, then the kitchen on the main level, then the third-floor bedrooms. She opened closet doors, snapped light switches, hunted for stains on the carpet.

“Lot of steps, but it doesn’t bother me,” she said, climbing to the third floor. “I need the exercise, anyway.”

The rent was $1,700 a month, more than Walston’s last rent but doable with her job. The location was perfect, still within the same school district and high school for her daughter. Walston had already put an application in, and the leasing agent had waived the fee — a good sign? she wondered.

After a few minutes, Walston could picture her own life filling the empty rooms. There was an extra bedroom for when her parents were in town. The first floor had a big room that could be a rec room where her daughter could blast all the music she wanted without Walston having to hear.

“I really love this,” she concluded. She expected to hear next week. “I’m keeping my fingers and toes and everything crossed,” she said.

She had been through this four times already. There was the brick-fronted three-bedroom. Then the townhouse with the wood flooring she liked. The next place had a walk-out basement leading to a deck. Then another townhouse with a good location. Walston had put in applications for each, and each had been rejected, even though she was making $55,000 a year and had entered a debt consolidation program to repair her credit score.

And as she stood in the empty townhouse, Walston knew her suitability as a renter was being churned through a system that she did not completely understand, that would not tell her full story.

The background report wouldn’t tell a potential landlord that her first eviction came after she had just separated from her daughter’s father and found herself dealing with a landlord who took an inappropriate interest in her. Or how her second eviction happened when she was between jobs. And the report wouldn’t show how she was laid off right before the pandemic hit. She was able to cover rent and bills with stimulus money and unemployment benefits all summer while looking for a new job. But the landlord still filed for eviction when she fell behind in the fall before her first new paycheck came through.

When she appeared at her December court date, the judge determined that because her lease had already expired in October, her eviction actually wasn’t about a failure to pay rent, and therefore wasn’t covered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s pandemic eviction moratorium. They had 10 days to move out.

“And now we’re out here in limbo,” she said.

But each day without permanent housing felt like a defeat, particularly for her daughter, a high school freshman, already dealing with online classes and the social isolation of the pandemic. One reason Walston wanted to stay in Stafford was so her daughter could stay in the same school. She had made the varsity basketball team, one of the few bright spots during all the upheaval.

“I’m a parent, I have a child, and stabilization is a big thing for a child, so she can concentrate and go to school. She needs her space, her room. I’m trying to get back to some type of stability. I have to take care of this person. I’m responsible for someone else.”

She looked around the first floor one last time before walking out. “I really love it,” she said again. “Even with the steps.”

Looking, looking, looking

Walston’s weekdays started when she rolled out of the futon in a guest bedroom she shared with her daughter. Elsewhere in the house in Stafford, her friend, her friend’s husband, and their two school-age boys stirred.

“I try to be as considerate as possible,” she said. “We’re in their space.”

She worked from the dining room table. Her daughter and the other kids followed online classes from their own computers in the living room. When she has a free moment, Walston steers her browser back to Zillow.com or HotPads.com. Even while waiting for news on the townhouse, she kept checking, just to see what might be out there, just in case.

“I’m doing everything I can,” she said. “Just looking, looking, looking.”

As a gesture to her hosts, Walston likes to prepare as many meals as she can. But she’s so used to cooking for two that it took her a few weeks to figure out how to cook for six. “I always want to make stuff that’s to their liking and be accommodating to them,” she said. “When you live with somebody, even if they are your friend, it’s totally different because you are in their space. You overcompensate for a lot.”

The only space Walston can call her own now is in the car, she said.

Each weekday, she drops her daughter off at school for basketball practice. Because of the pandemic restrictions, parents can’t stay to watch, so Walston returns to her friend’s house. She has found herself padding the commute with extra turns or purposeless drives down side streets — anything to stretch out the time alone.

Denied, again

The day after the presidential inauguration, Walston was on her laptop at a friend’s house when her email pinged. It was from the rental company for the townhouse.

“It came back as denied," the leasing agency wrote. They could offer the lease if Walston had a co-signer. “Is that something you can do?”

Reading the words, she sank into a fog, and the rest of the day went by in an unfocused blur.

Around the same time, Walston received a separate email from her former landlord. When she opened up an attachment, she realized she was looking at a balance sheet showing she still owed nearly $2,000, mostly in legal fees tied to her eviction. The landlord noted the number but said he was not planning on pursuing the money at this time.

When her thoughts snapped back into focus, she immediately began hunting online for other apartments. Briefly, she thought about asking her parents to co-sign, but Walston said that would feel like another failure of her responsibility to take care of her daughter.

“It’s not their responsibility, it’s mine,” she said. “I don’t know what I’ll do.”

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