I wanted to see what such a process looked like up close. So I asked a constable, Kristen Randall, if she would let me shadow her for a day. Two years ago, Randall left a stable job as a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey to become a constable in one of the neediest parts of Tucson, in Pima County. Arizona constables are elected court officers whose job includes serving orders of protection and hand-delivering criminal subpoenas. But evictions take up most of their time — and it has been that way since long before covid-19 changed how we live.
To Randall, the job is personal: She was 18 and pregnant when her parents kicked her out of the house, and she lived in a tent until she got a job cleaning toilets and saved enough to rent an apartment.
“I’ve been there,” she said. “I know what these tenants are going through.”
Randall told me that she rode the breakneck pace of evictions that preceded the pandemic and warily navigated the lull brought by the federal moratorium, all the while dreading an eviction tsunami that has not yet materialized, though millions of Americans are barely keeping their heads above water.
Today, in Tucson, “we’re back at pre-pandemic levels,” Randall said, “but pre-pandemic levels are horrible.”
Across the country, as many as 15 million tenants were at risk of losing their homes as of July. It’s difficult to know precisely how long the numbers have been so bad, because we have limited historic knowledge about evictions.
But here is what we do know: Black, Latino and Indigenous tenants were already struggling to pay rent before the pandemic. This is one reason the pandemic has been especially catastrophic for people of color, who have higher rates of poverty and are more likely to rent than own a home.
Randall works in a slice of Tucson that, she said, has one of the highest eviction rates in the city. She devotes her mornings to serving eviction orders, one of the requirements of her job. But she believes that constables can and should do more. So in the afternoons, she visits tenants whose names are on a court-generated list of forthcoming evictions and asks, “What’s your plan?”
“If all we’re doing is throwing people on the streets and into shelters,” she said, “then we’re only contributing to the problem.”
There are 10 constables in Pima County. According to a recent memorandum from the assistant county administrator, Mark D. Napier, “one faction of constables believes that an eviction order is black-white and must be rigidly adhered to, while another faction takes a more moderate and measured approach.”
Randall embraces the moderate, measured and, I would add, humane tack.
She works in a T-shirt and jeans, her badge dangling from a chain around her neck. “I make a point,” she said, “not to look like a cop.”
On her own time, she made a trifold brochure describing how tenants can access emergency rental assistance, and reach the lawyers and social workers assigned to a new county program that offers a range of wraparound social services to people facing eviction. On the back, she printed a list of possessions that evicted tenants should pack: medications, important papers, clothing for a few days. On the front, she included her cellphone number.
When we were together, her phone rang nonstop. I heard one woman tell Randall that she had just kicked an abusive boyfriend out of her home and now wondered if she, too, was going to end up on the streets.
I met a 62-year-old woman named Linda, who said she had lived for nine years in the same apartment, got sick, and was now on the verge of being evicted. She owed $1,280 in back rent.
I also met Calvin Long, 79, and his wife, Kim, 72, small landlords who own a humble complex of one-bedroom apartments that lease for $700 to $850 a month, depending on how recently they were renovated. Kim Long told me that each time a tenant skips on rent, she and her husband have less money for their bills.
I feel for the Longs and others like them. But I walked away from my day with Randall appalled at how little we have known (or cared) about the precarious lives of so many American tenants. Money alone won’t fix the problem. Punitive laws won’t fix the problem. What we need is a system that treats a late rent payment or an impending eviction not as an infraction, but as a cry for help.
An earlier version of this column misidentified the U.S. Geological Survey. This version has been corrected.