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Grand Rapids has 1.67 housing evictions every day: What are we going to do about it?

April 17, 2018

Being evicted is an awful thing for anyone to experience. It is humiliating. Eviction can be the result of poverty and it can be a cause of poverty. Eviction is also a form of structural violence, which can take a tremendous toll on individuals and families alike.

A new project called Eviction Lab, a project through Princeton University, provides us with some great tools to understand the eviction crisis in the United States, something that is part of the larger affordable housing crisis.

According to Eviction Lab:

Today, most poor renting families spend at least half of their income on housing costs, with one in four of those families spending over 70 percent of their income just on rent and utilities. Incomes for Americans of modest means have flatlined while housing costs have soared. Only one in four families who qualifies for affordable housing programs gets any kind of help. Under those conditions, it has become harder for low-income families to keep up with rent and utility costs, and a growing number are living one misstep or emergency away from eviction.

The most current data provided by Eviction Lab is for 2016. During 2016, there were 34,016 evictions throughout the state of Michigan, which translates to 92.94 evictions per day. In Grand Rapids, the number of eviction in 2016 totaled 611, which means that 1.67 evictions happened every day.

Now, data doesn’t give us the whole picture, since we don’t know how many people these 611 evictions in Grand Rapids impacted in 2016. The data also does not adequately communicate the harm and humiliation that those being evicted must endure.

First, evictions are often posted on your door and/or are sent to you via the mail that you have to appear in court.

People being evicted must show up for this court hearing, which might be listed as appearing before a judge at 9:00am, but in reality, possibly dozens of other people have received similar eviction notices and they are all waiting to go before a judge. This means that people might have to wait hours.

Landlords and property management companies often send their lawyers to the court hearing, which means that they don’t even know the person who is being evicted. People being evicted have to defend themselves in front of a judge, who generally sides with those issuing the eviction notice. Renters might be “offered” some conditions in order to have the eviction notice dropped, but these conditions are also often humiliating.

People who are at most risk of being evicted are low-income women, especially poor women of color. Also, individuals and families who are the victims of domestic violence, are also at high risk of being evicted.

So, people being evicted are disproportionately women of color who are experiencing poverty. They have to find transportation to get to the court hearing and no doubt bring their children because they can’t afford day care. Then these people who are being evicted, must sit through a dozen or more eviction proceedings and witness the humiliation that several other people are going through, before being subjected to this process themselves.

What is to be done?

In most cases people are evicted and then fall further into poverty, since they now have a record of being evicted, which often results in making it difficult to find future housing. Therefore, evictions often result in perpetuating poverty and social marginalization.

Last year, the Steelcase Foundation and the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, together contributed $300,000 towards an eviction prevention project. This project is a partnership between the 61st District Court, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the Salvation Army.

This project will pay for a full-time DHHS staff person to work with people who are at risk of eviction. The goal is to negotiate an agreement between landlords and tenants before they come to court and avoid an eviction on their official court records.

This project is an important safety net, but it doesn’t offer any longterm solutions.

What people have done in other cities is to form Tenant Unions to fight against no cause evictions, to negotiate a rent freeze or rent control with individual landlords and property management companies.Tenant Unions can provide important support to individual renters by offering solidarity and resources to collectively fight exploitation by landlords and property management companies.

However, even this is not enough. People need to make a livable wage/livable income, which means that fighting poverty is also fighting an unjust economic system that does not support millions of people who are facing eviction. These same people are also experiencing food insecurity, have limited access to affordable health care and other basic necessities. In other words, there needs to be major systemic and structural changes. Dr. King called for that very restructuring of society, when he said:

“We have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights,, an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society. We have been in a reform movement… But after Selma and the voting rights bill, we moved into a new era, which must be the era of revolution. We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power… this means a revolution of values and other things. We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together… you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others… the whole structure of American life must be changed. America is a hypocritical nation and [we] must put [our] own house in order.”  Dr. King, report to his staff – 1967

We just commemorated the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Let us make his call to embrace revolutionary values in order to restructure this society.

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