In the Indianapolis eviction court where my law students and I work, we are fighting to keep Natasha and her kids in their home. (I will not use our clients’ real names here.) Natasha’s life isn’t easy. She commutes thirty-five miles each evening to a suburban warehouse, where she stocks shelves and fills orders until four o’clock in the morning. Despite having steady employment, the rising costs of overnight childcare, medical debt, and car repairs have caused Natasha to fall behind on her rent. She has no help watching the kids during the day, when she should be sleeping, so she comes to court exhausted.
Amanda is another client. She receives a monthly Supplemental Security Income check because of her disability. But it is less than $900, while her monthly rent exceeds $1,000. My students and I filed motions and begged for extensions for Amanda. Even so, she lost her apartment and is now homeless.
Unfortunately, Amanda isn’t the only one. After another client, Patricia, was evicted, she lived amidst rusty rakes and lawn mowers in a friend’s garden shed. Kenneth and his three young sons slept in a 2004 Buick LeSabre. Elise snuck in each night to lie down in her rented storage unit, then cleaned herself the next morning in the bathroom of the fast-food restaurant where she works. All of them had sought subsidized housing, only to discover that the local application list already contained thousands of names, with an average wait time of five years.
Our clients have a problem that even the best housing attorney can’t fix. They simply cannot afford to keep a safe and secure roof over their heads. Their predicament is more common than many Americans realize. Across the country, one in every five U.S. households does not earn enough income each month to reliably afford market-rate housing. Seventeen million U.S. households meet the threshold of being “severely housing cost-burdened,” meaning they pay half or more of their pretax income on housing.
Abstract terminology like “cost-burdened” obscures the grim reality that my students and I often witness firsthand: our clients desperately juggling different gigs only to fall short every month. A single turn of bad luck often has outsized effects. A child gets sick. The used car they rely upon to get to work breaks down. There is an urgent need to flee from an abusive partner. These crises lead to paychecks shrinking or disappearing altogether. The rent comes due, and they can’t pay. And then we see them in court.
Though U.S. eviction rates dipped due to pandemic moratoriums, they have since climbed back to pre-Covid levels. And we have every reason to expect that those rates will continue to rise: 10.4 million U.S. renters currently report being behind on their rent (65 percent of them are people of color), while more than four million people feel they are at least “somewhat likely” to be evicted in the next two months. This all comes at a time when average rent costs have increased more than 20 percent over the past two years, and even more in some U.S. cities.
Federal emergency rental assistance approved earlier during the pandemic has been a lifeline for millions, including many of our clients. But some states and cities have already run out of funds, and others are on the verge. The effects can be devastating. Tisa, a mother of three young children, was waiting for her eviction hearing when she learned that she had reached the limit of her benefits and was blocked from further aid. She cried out, “I don’t know what I am going to do! I want to die!” Then she ran out of the courthouse in tears.
Tisa’s despair is neither an accident nor a rarity. It is the predictable result of decades of U.S. housing-policy choices that have lavished rewards on wealthy corporations and individuals while shrugging at the struggles of those who can’t afford to house themselves. The problem isn’t that federal, state, and local governments are absent from the housing sector. It’s that, often in the name of “free markets,” they have used their heavy hand to tip the scales in favor of the wealthy.