Analysis Violence

How Domestic Violence Survivors Get Evicted From Their Homes After Calling the Police

Annamarya Scaccia

An examination of a city ordinance in Norristown, Pennsylvania, reveals a nationwide problem: In dozens of cities, "disorderly conduct" ordinances discourage domestic violence survivors from calling the police, lest they face eviction from their homes.

On June 23 of last year, Lakisha Briggs’ ex-boyfriend, Wilbert Bennett, went to find the 33-year-old mother of two at her house in Norristown, Pennsylvania, which she rented with a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Section 8 voucher. Bennett, who was just released from prison, wanted to get back together, and he refused to take no for an answer.

“You are going to be with me or you are going to be with no one,” he allegedly threatened.

Even though Briggs was terrified Bennett would hurt her or her 3-year-old daughter if she forced him to leave, there was something she feared even worse: calling the police for help. If she did, she could be kicked out of her home, and that wasn’t a risk she could afford. Feeling defenseless, Briggs succumbed to his intrusion and demands, allowing him and the friends he invited over to stay.

As outlined in the federal lawsuit filed April 24 on behalf of Briggs by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of Pennsylvania (ACLU-PA), and Philadelphia law firm Pepper Hamilton LLP, Briggs had already been given three strikes under Norristown’s discretionary Rental License Ordinance. The ordinance gives the Montgomery County municipality the right to countermand a landlord’s rental license and provoke a tenant’s eviction if police respond to three “disorderly behavior” calls in four months, including domestic disturbances in which a mandatory arrest in not required.

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The strikes Briggs received were the result of police calls made in April and May of last year—two of which were due to acts of domestic violence committed against her. In May, the borough began proceedings to revoke her landlord Darren Sudman’s rental license, but granted the property—and by extension Briggs—a 30-day probationary period after a late May hearing. Any violation during that period would have resulted in rescindment and eviction, claims the lawsuit.

Despite her reluctant surrender, on the evening of June 23 Bennett assaulted Briggs, according to the suit. Her lip was bitten and torn. A glass ashtray was shattered against the right side of her head, leaving a two-inch lesion. She was knocked down. Grabbing one of the large glass fragments, Bennett stabbed her in the neck. Briggs become unconscious as blood surged from the four-inch-deep wound.

Though the attack was brutal, Briggs didn’t call the police, because she feared provoking eviction. But a neighbor did, and soon Briggs was airlifted to the University of Pennsylvania Hospital for emergency medical care.

According to the lawsuit, David R. Forrest, Norristown’s municipal administrator at the time and one of the defendants named, considered the police response a violation of her probation. Three days after the incident, he told Sudman his rental license was rescinded and Briggs had ten days to vacate. She had just returned home from the hospital when Sudman broke the news.

“[Sudman] tried very hard to help her. He was very supportive of her and didn’t think it was fair that he should have to evict her,” Sara Rose, an ACLU-PA staff attorney and representative on the case, told Rewire. “Ultimately, the borough gave him no choice.”

Although Magisterial District Justice Margaret Hunsicker overturned the eviction, allowing Briggs to remain in the unit, Norristown officials continued to pursue it, asserting they had an “independent right” to enforce the city’s ordinance. They ostensibly planned to remove Briggs from her home and condemn the property.

Legal Challenge

This is where the ACLU intervened. According to Rose, the group sent a letter to Norristown officials in September charting the ordinance’s First, Fourth, Fifth, and 14th Amendment infringements, as well as other legal issues identified under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the Fair Housing Act (FHA), which prohibits housing discrimination based on a number of identifiers, including sex.

The group was able to successfully sojourn Briggs’ eviction, as well as compel the municipality to repeal the ordinance. But according to the lawsuit, the council proposed a new adaptation the very same day Norristown annulled the old one, on November 20. Under the current version, which passed in December, the chief of police still has the discretionary power to govern what constitutes “disorderly behavior,” but instead of revoking a landlord’s license, the landlord is penalized with mandatory fines that escalate with each violation (plus all court and attorney fees incurred by Norristown): $300-$500 for the first, $500-$750 for the second, $750-$1,000 for the third, and $1,000 for the fourth.

The federal lawsuit challenges the new ordinance’s constitutionality just the same, arguing that, much like its predecessor, the threat of eviction due to the need for police protection violates the First Amendment’s Petition Clause, which the Supreme Court has recognized to encompass requesting law enforcement assistance, as well as the Fourth Amendment’s “unreasonable search and seizure” clause and the 14th Amendment right to due process.

Norristown officials disagree. In an April 25 statement, interim Municipal Administrator Robert Glisson wrote, “The ordinance provision currently in effect contains all of the constitutional due process provisions required to protect the residents of Norristown” and “does not, in any way, discriminate against any persons, nor does it punish victims of domestic violence.” Glisson and other Norristown officials did not return repeat requests for comment, nor was a Right to Know request filed by Rewire fulfilled.

“I don’t think the intention [of these ordinances] was to ever prevent victims from calling to report offenders’ behavior, but that’s the unfortunate consequence of it,” Maria Macaluso, executive director of the Women’s Center of Montgomery County, told Rewire. “I really think they need to seriously look at it and see who’s going to be impacted.”

“Chilling” Effect on Domestic Violence Survivors

Norristown isn’t the only Pennsylvania municipality with this type of ordinance. According to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence (PCADV), there are 19 known “disorderly conduct” or “nuisance” ordinances reaching across the Commonwealth, in cities from Pittsburgh to Wilkes-Barre. There are also 59 others known throughout the country.

The umbrella organization first became aware of these regulations around 2006, when the city of Reading passed a similar rule. But PCADV didn’t become directly involved in efforts to track these ordinances until 2011, when it teamed up with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project and ACLU-PA to develop tool kits and training for attorneys and advocates addressing the potential impact on domestic violence survivors. Since the work is fledgling, the exact number of ordinances in existence throughout the state is unknown, but Laurie L. Baughman, PCADV’s senior attorney, suspects there are many more—and the ramifications far greater—than what is currently known.

“In the last three years, we’ve been hearing [about more ordinances], and the impact has been a lot more detrimental in the anecdotes we’ve heard about, similar to what happened with Ms. Briggs,” Baughman told Rewire. “The tough part is, often times, the victim may not even know what’s the underlying cause [of eviction] because the landlord can be pretty non-specific, and just [write] ‘breach of lease.’ With a lack of resources, with a lack of access to attorneys, folks who are facing eviction don’t tend to go to hearings and challenge [it].”

While the ACLU claims nuisance ordinances are deleterious to all tenants, there’s special concern for how they may disparately impact domestic violence survivors. As seen with Briggs, survivors may be less likely to call police, fearing their need for protection will be labeled “disorderly behavior” and count as a strike toward eviction—and, subsequently, homelessness.

In numbers, this translates to 20 percent of homeless women citing domestic violence as the primary reason for homelessness, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. Studies show that women of color, like Briggs, face “particularly high eviction rates,” while women in lower-income households and neighborhoods experience repeated or severe domestic violence the most—a rate twice that of women in higher-income neighborhoods.

“[Housing] is one of the biggest barriers to getting and staying safe,” Baughman told Rewire. According to HUD, 58 out of 217 sheltered homeless persons in Montgomery County are domestic violence survivors. “When you have an ordinance layer that says, ‘Look, you can’t call the police and after so many times, you potentially will be evicted,’ that has a pretty daunting and chilling impact on a victim.”

It’s not merely conjecture. A 2012 study analyzing a similar Milwaukee ordinance showed that 39 of 71 evictions or threats of eviction by landlords whose citation letters included domestic violence incidents involved women tenants—many of whom weren’t residing with their abuser. That’s compared to four cases of men, and nine cases of couples living together.

The Affordable Housing Problem

For many survivors abetted by the Women’s Center of Montgomery County, a volunteer-driven domestic violence organization based in Norristown, finding a new home rarely involves unimpeded choice. Instead, scouting housing is restricted by a survivor’s lack of resources and a deficiency in affordable and inhabitable residences, particularly in wealthy cantons like Montgomery County, ranked Pennsylvania’s second-richest county. According to Macaluso, low-income housing is scarce in Montgomery, and the little that is available tends to exist in urbanizing municipalities like Norristown and Pottstown, which are already battling high violent crime rates. In fact, the Montgomery County Housing Authority (MCHA) website lists only three public housing communities for general occupancy and four buildings for the elderly and people with disabilities.The MCHA also isn’t currently accepting public housing or Housing Choice Voucher (Section 8) applications at this time, according to the site.

“[For domestic violence survivors] it’s, ‘Who will let me lend from them? I don’t have enough money. How will I do this? I have kids. Will they take my kids?’ It makes it much worse for them in those situations,” Macaluso said. “They’re in a panicked, frustrated, and desperate situation when they’re fighting not to get thrown out of this place. … They’re desperately holding on to whatever small scrap of home they have.”

Nationwide, the demand for affordable housing exceeds supply by 4.5 million people, with 87 percent of cities surveyed in 2007 claiming the dearth of affordable housing as a cause of homelessness, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. What’s more, in a 27-city survey from 2004, the law center found the average wait for Section 8 vouchers, which help subsidize rental costs, is 35 months; it was 20 months for public housing.

“One of the biggest problems is that tenants who receive Section 8 housing assistance, if they are evicted, may lose that housing assistance,” Rose told Rewire. “That’s a really big problem with these ordinances. It really does pile on to that chilling effect because not only does the tenant have to be afraid of losing their home if they call the police, but they can be afraid of losing their ability to even get another home if they lose their Section 8 voucher.”

That’s exactly what happened to a domestic violence survivor living in Pennsylvania’s rural northeast in the fall of 2011. Baughman explained the survivor (whose identifying details were withheld) and her children were evicted by her landlord under a similar ordinance because of “too many police response calls to her residence”—calls related to domestic violence incidents committed by her children’s father. After learning of the eviction, the local public housing authority terminated her Section 8 benefits, “ignoring that [it] was based on the incidents of domestic violence.”

As a result, the family became homeless, couch-surfing with different family members for a “considerable time.” Eventually, the survivor connected with local domestic violence services and was able to retain an attorney, who, along with the PCADV, ACLU Women’s Rights Project, and ACLU-PA, sent a letter to the county’s housing authority outlining the various legal breaches the termination triggered—particularly against VAWA’s public housing provision and fair housing laws. After receiving the letter, the public housing authority agreed to reinstate benefits, and now the survivor and her children are living in their own home again. (This past Friday, PCADV also filed an amicus brief in the Briggs v. Norristown case, along with 18 state domestic violence programs and four national programs.)

In fact, VAWA, which was reauthorized this year after much contention, establishes widespread protections for domestic violence survivors in public housing and housing assistance programs. Eligible public housing and Section 8 tenants cannot be “denied admission to, denied assistance under, terminated from participation in, or evicted from housing” on the basis they are or have been “a victim of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking.” More importantly, VAWA prohibits criminal activity directly stemming from domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking to be used as cause to evict, penalize or terminate benefits for a victimize tenant—meaning, under the act, a police response to a domestic violence call could not be considered a strike against the tenant pursuant to an ordinance.

Still, the loss of housing is further compounded by the concern other landlords will refuse to rent to the survivor despite that legal protection, said Macaluso, who has 20 years of experience in fair housing work. Many survivors using the women’s center’s TANF-funded Relocation Assistance Program are hesitant to allow the non-profit to send the security deposit check directly to the prospective landlord, said the executive director, for fear they’ll learn “there’s a problem.” Some landlords involved with the program have indeed withdrawn from an agreement, Macaluso said, because they’re “convinced the offender will start coming around, and they don’t want to deal with it.”

It’s not completely far-fetched. In 2008, the law center reported that 65 percent of Washington, D.C., landlords tested by the Equal Rights Center refused housing to domestic violence survivors, and 27.5 percent of New York City landlords either denied housing or failed to follow up with applicants after learning they were domestic violence survivors.

“The [landlords] who really get it and want to reach out and help people, we really appreciate. It’s the ones who don’t want to reach out who are concerned about their property values than helping another human being,” Macaluso told Rewire. Of the 4,000-plus survivors the center aids each year, around 50 to 100 use its relocation services. “That’s when it becomes very frustrating for us. It’s like, ‘How could you not want to see someone get help? How could you not want this woman to call the police and get the services she needs? Is this piece of ground more important to you than her life?’”

Even if survivors are able to secure other housing, there’s the issue of relocating their children. For example, said Macaluso, if the survivor is separated from their batterer and they have children together, they may have to stay within a certain school district in a certain community so the father can have access to their kids.

It’s a restriction not always conducive to a survivor’s situation, creating another barrier to finding alternative housing, said Rose. Consider Kulpmont Borough, in Pennsylvania’s Northumberland County. In an effort to “combat blight and deterioration of local residential property,” the district adopted its own discretionary rental ordinance in August 2010 that allows its Department of Code Enforcement to close a rental unit if three “disruptive conduct” or police reports are filed within a 12-month period. Kulpmont also prohibits tenants evicted for “disruptive conduct”—defined as “any form or conduct, action, or behavior … that is so loud, offensive, riotous or otherwise disturbs other persons of ordinary sensibility”—from renting in the borough for a year from the eviction date.

Protecting Survivors

But the adverse effects of nuisance property ordinances aren’t relegated to housing or benefit issues. Mere knowledge of these ordinances—and the fear a survivor may have about contacting police—can empower abusers to commit even more grievous crimes without consequence, said Rose.

This is evident with Briggs. Rose theorizes that Briggs’s now-incarcerated batterer, who she broke up with in April of last year, continued to harass and abuse Briggs partly because “he realized she was so afraid to call the police that he could act with impunity.”

“The [June 23] injury that Ms. Briggs suffered at the hands of her ex-boyfriend is attributable to Norristown, because they are the ones who threatened to kick her out of her home if she requested any police assistance,” Rose said. Although she lives in a new location, Briggs is still frightened to call the police because of the ordinance.

It’s that state of terror Reps. Mike Vereb (R-Montgomery) and Todd Stephens (R-Montgomery) want to eliminate. In an April 30 press conference, the two representatives urged Norristown officials to repeal the ordinance, as they believe it discourages domestic violence survivors from seeking help—“a clear and conscious right” all tenants should have “without the threat of eviction looming over their heads,” Vereb said. The two politicians plan on drafting legislation in the near future that would prevent districts across the state from “enforcing nuisance ordinances which threaten to displace victims of crime who contact the police.”

“The primary obligation for all levels of government is to protect its citizens,” said Stephens at the event. “It is unconscionable to me that any government anywhere would penalize someone who simply called for help to prevent them from being injured or killed.”

Correction, June 5, 12:00 pm: A version of this article included a misspelling of Laurie L. Baughman’s name. It is Baughman, not Baugham. We regret the error.

Analysis Economic Justice

New Pennsylvania Bill Is Just One Step Toward Helping Survivors of Economic Abuse

Annamarya Scaccia

The legislation would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have "a reasonable fear" that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit.

Domestic violence survivors often face a number of barriers that prevent them from leaving abusive situations. But a new bill awaiting action in the Pennsylvania legislature would let survivors in the state break their rental lease without financial repercussions—potentially allowing them to avoid penalties to their credit and rental history that could make getting back on their feet more challenging. Still, the bill is just one of several policy improvements necessary to help survivors escape abusive situations.

Right now in Pennsylvania, landlords can take action against survivors who break their lease as a means of escape. That could mean a lien against the survivor or an eviction on their credit report. The legislation, HB 1051, introduced by Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery County), would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have “a reasonable fear” that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit. The bipartisan bill, which would amend the state’s Landlord and Tenant Act, requires survivors to give at least 30 days’ notice of their intent to be released from the lease.

Research shows survivors often return to or delay leaving abusive relationships because they either can’t afford to live independently or have little to no access to financial resources. In fact, a significant portion of homeless women have cited domestic violence as the leading cause of homelessness.

“As a society, we get mad at survivors when they don’t leave,” Kim Pentico, economic justice program director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), told Rewire. “You know what, her name’s on this lease … That’s going to impact her ability to get and stay safe elsewhere.”

“This is one less thing that’s going to follow her in a negative way,” she added.

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Pennsylvania landlords have raised concerns about the law over liability and rights of other tenants, said Ellen Kramer, deputy director of program services at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which submitted a letter in support of the bill to the state House of Representatives. Lawmakers have considered amendments to the bill—like requiring “proof of abuse” from the courts or a victim’s advocate—that would heed landlord demands while still attempting to protect survivors.

But when you ask a survivor to go to the police or hospital to obtain proof of abuse, “it may put her in a more dangerous position,” Kramer told Rewire, noting that concessions that benefit landlords shift the bill from being victim-centered.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” she said.

The Urban Affairs Committee voted HB 1051 out of committee on May 17. The legislation was laid on the table on June 23, but has yet to come up for a floor vote. Whether the bill will move forward is uncertain, but proponents say that they have support at the highest levels of government in Pennsylvania.

“We have a strong advocate in Governor Wolf,” Kramer told Rewire.

Financial Abuse in Its Many Forms

Economic violence is a significant characteristic of domestic violence, advocates say. An abuser will often control finances in the home, forcing their victim to hand over their paycheck and not allow them access to bank accounts, credit cards, and other pecuniary resources. Many abusers will also forbid their partner from going to school or having a job. If the victim does work or is a student, the abuser may then harass them on campus or at their place of employment until they withdraw or quit—if they’re not fired.

Abusers may also rack up debt, ruin their partner’s credit score, and cancel lines of credit and insurance policies in order to exact power and control over their victim. Most offenders will also take money or property away from their partner without permission.

“Financial abuse is so multifaceted,” Pentico told Rewire.

Pentico relayed the story of one survivor whose abuser smashed her cell phone because it would put her in financial dire straits. As Pentico told it, the abuser stole her mobile phone, which was under a two-year contract, and broke it knowing that the victim could not afford a new handset. The survivor was then left with a choice of paying for a bill on a phone she could no longer use or not paying the bill at all and being turned into collections, which would jeopardize her ability to rent her own apartment or switch to a new carrier. “Things she can’t do because he smashed her smartphone,” Pentico said.

“Now the general public [could] see that as, ‘It’s a phone, get over it,'” she told Rewire. “Smashing that phone in a two-year contract has such ripple effects on her financial world and on her ability to get and stay safe.”

In fact, members of the public who have not experienced domestic abuse may overlook financial abuse or minimize it. A 2009 national poll from the Allstate Foundation—the philanthropic arm of the Illinois-based insurance company—revealed that nearly 70 percent of Americans do not associate financial abuse with domestic violence, even though it’s an all-too-common tactic among abusers: Economic violence happens in 98 percent of abusive relationships, according to the NNEDV.

Why people fail to make this connection can be attributed, in part, to the lack of legal remedy for financial abuse, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, a public interest law center in Pennsylvania. A survivor can press criminal charges or seek a civil protection order when there’s physical abuse, but the country’s legal justice system has no equivalent for economic or emotional violence, whether the victim is married to their abuser or not, she said.

Some advocates, in lieu of recourse through the courts, have teamed up with foundations to give survivors individual tools to use in economically abusive situations. In 2005, the NNEDV partnered with the Allstate Foundation to develop a curriculum that would teach survivors about financial abuse and financial safety. Through the program, survivors are taught about financial safety planning including individual development accounts, IRA, microlending credit repair, and credit building services.

State coalitions can receive grant funding to develop or improve economic justice programs for survivors, as well as conduct economic empowerment and curriculum trainings with local domestic violence groups. In 2013—the most recent year for which data is available—the foundation awarded $1 million to state domestic violence coalitions in grants that ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 to help support their economic justice work.

So far, according to Pentico, the curriculum has performed “really great” among domestic violence coalitions and its clients. Survivors say they are better informed about economic justice and feel more empowered about their own skills and abilities, which has allowed them to make sounder financial decisions.

This, in turn, has allowed them to escape abuse and stay safe, she said.

“We for a long time chose to see money and finances as sort of this frivolous piece of the safety puzzle,” Pentico told Rewire. “It really is, for many, the piece of the puzzle.”

Public Policy as a Means of Economic Justice

Still, advocates say that public policy, particularly disparate workplace conditions, plays an enormous role in furthering financial abuse. The populations who are more likely to be victims of domestic violence—women, especially trans women and those of color—are also the groups more likely to be underemployed or unemployed. A 2015 LGBT Health & Human Services Network survey, for example, found that 28 percent of working-age transgender women were unemployed and out of school.

“That’s where [economic abuse] gets complicated,” Tracy told Rewire. “Some of it is the fault of the abuser, and some of it is the public policy failures that just don’t value women’s participation in the workforce.”

Victims working low-wage jobs often cannot save enough to leave an abusive situation, advocates say. What they do make goes toward paying bills, basic living needs, and their share of housing expenses—plus child-care costs if they have kids. In the end, they’re not left with much to live on—that is, if their abuser hasn’t taken away access to their own earnings.

“The ability to plan your future, the ability to get away from [abuse], that takes financial resources,” Tracy told Rewire. “It’s just so much harder when you don’t have them and when you’re frightened, and you’re frightened for yourself and your kids.”

Public labor policy can also inhibit a survivor’s ability to escape. This year, five states, Washington, D.C., and 24 jurisdictions will have passed or enacted paid sick leave legislation, according to A Better Balance, a family and work legal center in New York City. As of April, only one of those states—California—also passed a state paid family leave insurance law, which guarantees employees receive pay while on leave due to pregnancy, disability, or serious health issues. (New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, and New York have passed similar laws.) Without access to paid leave, Tracy said, survivors often cannot “exercise one’s rights” to file a civil protection order, attend court hearings, or access housing services or any other resource needed to escape violence.

Furthermore, only a handful of state laws protect workers from discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy or familial status (North Carolina, on the other hand, recently passed a draconian state law that permits wide-sweeping bias in public and the workplace). There is no specific federal law that protects LGBTQ workers, but the U.S. Employment Opportunity Commission has clarified that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily translate into practice. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 26 percent of transgender people were let go or fired because of anti-trans bias, while 50 percent of transgender workers reported on-the-job harassment. Research shows transgender people are at a higher risk of being fired because of their trans identity, which would make it harder for them to leave an abusive relationship.

“When issues like that intersect with domestic violence, it’s devastating,” Tracy told Rewire. “Frequently it makes it harder, if not impossible, for [victims] to leave battering situations.”

For many survivors, their freedom from abuse also depends on access to public benefits. Programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the child and dependent care credit, and earned income tax credit give low-income survivors access to the money and resources needed to be on stable economic ground. One example: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where a family of three has one full-time nonsalary worker earning $10 an hour, SNAP can increase their take-home income by up to 20 percent.

These programs are “hugely important” in helping lift survivors and their families out of poverty and offset the financial inequality they face, Pentico said.

“When we can put cash in their pocket, then they may have the ability to then put a deposit someplace or to buy a bus ticket to get to family,” she told Rewire.

But these programs are under constant attack by conservative lawmakers. In March, the House Republicans approved a 2017 budget plan that would all but gut SNAP by more than $150 million over the next ten years. (Steep cuts already imposed on the food assistance program have led to as many as one million unemployed adults losing their benefits over the course of this year.) The House GOP budget would also strip nearly $500 billion from other social safety net programs including TANF, child-care assistance, and the earned income tax credit.

By slashing spending and imposing severe restrictions on public benefits, politicians are guaranteeing domestic violence survivors will remain stuck in a cycle of poverty, advocates say. They will stay tethered to their abuser because they will be unable to have enough money to live independently.

“When women leave in the middle of the night with the clothes on their back, kids tucked under their arms, come into shelter, and have no access to finances or resources, I can almost guarantee you she’s going to return,” Pentico told Rewire. “She has to return because she can’t afford not to.”

By contrast, advocates say that improving a survivor’s economic security largely depends on a state’s willingness to remedy what they see as public policy failures. Raising the minimum wage, mandating equal pay, enacting paid leave laws, and prohibiting employment discrimination—laws that benefit the entire working class—will make it much less likely that a survivor will have to choose between homelessness and abuse.

States can also pass proactive policies like the bill proposed in Pennsylvania, to make it easier for survivors to leave abusive situations in the first place. Last year, California enacted a law that similarly allows abuse survivors to terminate their lease without getting a restraining order or filing a police report permanent. Virginia also put in place an early lease-termination law for domestic violence survivors in 2013.

A “more equitable distribution of wealth is what we need, what we’re talking about,” Tracy told Rewire.

As Pentico put it, “When we can give [a survivor] access to finances that help her get and stay safe for longer, her ability to protect herself and her children significantly increases.”

Culture & Conversation Economic Justice

‘Evicted’: How Renters, Especially Poor Black Women, Are Locked Out

Eleanor J. Bader

Matthew Desmond compellingly focuses on the ways race, class, and gender intersect with housing loss in Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.

When Harvard sociology professor and 2015 MacArthur Fellow Matthew Desmond moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to study housing policy, homelessness, and the politics of eviction, he came to a conclusion that startled him: “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”

In Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, out this month from the Crown Publishing Group, Desmond compellingly focuses on the ways race, class, and gender intersect with housing loss. His focus is Milwaukee, a city he got to know while in graduate school in nearby Madison. Evicted offers an in-depth, heart-rending look at eight families caught in the struggle to find decent, affordable housing in the city. To write the book, Desmond spent more than a year living in two of Milwaukee’s most impoverished neighborhoods and interviewing residents.

“In Milwaukee and cities across the country,” Desmond writes, “as affordable rental stock has been allowed to deteriorate and eventually disappear, low-income families have rushed to occupy cheap units. Nationwide, vacancy rates for low-cost units have fallen to single digits … The high demand for the cheapest housing told landlords that for every family in a unit, there were scores behind them ready to take their place. In such an environment, the incentive to lower the rent, forgive a late payment, or spruce up your property was extremely low.”

“Among Milwaukee renters,” he writes, “over 1 in 5 black women report having been evicted in their adult lives,” compared with one in 12 Latinas and one in 15 white females.

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Escalating housing prices in “Beer City”—the fourth-poorest large city in the United States, according to Census reports—and the loss of decent-paying manufacturing work over the last few decades have contributed to a demand for low-cost housing that, in turn, leaves tenants vulnerable to eviction and ill treatment from landlords.

One of the book’s most moving sections tracks Arleen, a Black single mother of two boys, ages 5 and 13. As Desmond tells it, Arleen relies on a disability benefit that provides her with $7,536 a year, or $628 a month, because of chronic, clinical depression. Health issues make it impossible for her to work, and although she has applied for both public housing and a Section 8 shelter voucher—both of which would cap her rent at 30 percent of her income—neither has come through because waiting lists are frozen. Many of America’s poorest residents face similar roadblocks, Desmond explains, and cannot access public housing or subsidized units because there are none available. In fact, he reports that three-quarters of families that qualify for assistance are unable to obtain it.

In Arleen’s case, she and her boys have spent years bouncing from one substandard apartment to another, more often than not paying between 60 and 70 percent of their household income to do so. Eviction has become routine. One building they lived in was condemned by the city, rendering it uninhabitable. A second eviction resulted from non-payment of rent; arrears mounted after Arleen buried a close friend and then fell behind in her bills. In still another instance, the family was removed after Arleen called the police for protection from an abusive partner. Unbeknownst to her, she had been dubbed a “nuisance tenant” for making “too many” 9-1-1 calls in a 90-day period, something Desmond and Arleen subsequently learned from city records.

Not surprisingly, Arleen and her sons eventually ended up in a shelter. From there, finding a new home has become her full-time occupation. Desmond reports that, to date, the family has been rejected by 89 potential landlords for reasons ranging from anticipated trouble paying the rent to fear that her sons will disturb other residents.

It’s horrifying.

And it’s a struggle 54-year-old Larraine knows well. A former tenant in a trailer community called College Mobile Home Park—nicknamed, according to Desmond, “The Shame of the Southside” by the news media because of the homes’ appalling conditions—Larraine, like Arleen, has lived a tumultuous life, a situation that was exacerbated by the jailhouse death of her most recent beau, Glen. As her life cascaded downhill, and she tried to cope with fibromyalgia and cluster migraines, she lost the trailer and all of her belongings. A washing machine, refrigerator, stove, dining table, clothing, and personal items were placed in storage.

According to Desmond, the average evicted family’s possessions require four pallets, or approximately 400 cubic feet of space, and costs about $100 a month. Failure to pay a storage sum, he continues, means that after 90 days, someone like Larraine’s possessions can be sold. Roughly 70 percent of the goods that are confiscated through evictions and foreclosures meet this end, Desmond writes.

Larraine, however, was relatively lucky; she was able to move in with her brother, making it possible for her to pay the storage costs and hold onto her furniture. But it has not been an easy or desirable transition.

In addition to speaking to tenants, Desmond also shadowed two landlords, Tobin Charney, owner of the College Mobile Home trailer park, and Sherrena Tarver, a former teacher turned landlord.

Both, Desmond notes, have demonstrated kindness. Tarver, for example, once bought groceries for Arleen. Similarly, Desmond writes that Charney “worked with his tenants. He let them pay here and there. When tenants lost their jobs, he let some of them work off their rent … He lent a woman money to attend her mother’s funeral.”

At the same time, Desmond said, “a tenant would say she owed $150 and [Charney] would say it was $250 or $600.”

What’s more, both owners boasted of huge earnings, which seem especially striking in comparison to their tenants’ financial situations. “Every month,” Desmond writes, Tarver “collected roughly $20,000 in rent. Her monthly mortgage bills rounded out to $8,500. After paying the water bill, [Tarver]—who owned three dozen inner-city units, all filled with tenants around or below the poverty line—figured she netted roughly $10,000 a month.”

As Tarver told him, “The ‘hood is good. There’s a lot of money there.” By her own estimate, she and her husband are worth about $2 million.

Likewise, owning a trailer park has been lucrative for Tobin Charney. In Evicted, Milwaukee Alderman Terry Witkowski, whom Desmond interviewed, estimates Charney’s annual take to be approximately $1 million, a sum that enables him to live in a posh Chicago suburb.

The upshot of Evicted is a tableau in which renters, for the most part, lose out. Though protections vary from city to city, power, and the law, tends to be skewed toward property owners, not tenants. For example, as Desmond reports, the 1968 Fair Housing Act “did not consider families with children a protected class.” Although the statute was amended 20 years later to make this unlawful, Desmond acknowledges that many landlords continue to refuse to rent to families with children.

In addition, in much of the country owners can reject a person who has a recent history of eviction—no questions asked. Other cities and towns allow landlords to bar potential tenants with felony, misdemeanor drug, or disorderly conduct charges from signing—or sometimes even being on—a lease. Public housing imposes a separate brand of stringent rules, regulations, and guidelines.

Small wonder that Arleen, or Larraine, or many others in Milwaukee, have been unable to find a permanent place to call their own.

Desmond ends the book with a series of policy recommendations that he believes will benefit low-income individuals and families. The first involves a clearly articulated assertion that every human being has the right to a decent residence, regardless of income, whether or not they live with children, have a criminal history, or use illegal drugs or alcohol. Desmond also supports the provision of a free lawyer for anyone facing eviction, just as pro-bono lawyers are provided in criminal cases.

Lastly, he supports the expanded use of housing vouchers. Under his plan, low-income tenants meeting a particular financial threshold will be able to present a voucher—essentially an agreement guaranteeing that the government will pay 70 percent of a fair market rent to a landlord. This, Desmond says, will allow poor people to choose where they want to live so that they do not have to remain in unsafe housing conditions.

I disagree with this approach. Since vouchers subsidize private owners—people like Tarver and Charney—I think the profit motive should be completely removed from low-income housing. As I see it, rebuilding and renovating the diminishing stock of publicly owned, nonprofit housing or abandoned properties—and building new, low-rise units in small towns and suburbs throughout the United States—should be a top priority for local, city, and state governments.

But this is a relatively small quibble. Desmond’s central point, that no one should be without shelter, is well taken. While we can disagree over what it means for a private landlord to make a “reasonable” rate of return, or even whether low-income housing should be profit-generating, Evicted is an important and compassionate plea for housing justice.

As Desmond concludes, “Without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.” The case studies he presents underscore the veracity of this claim.