There was an excellent article by Julia Terruso in last week’s Phila Inquirer, “Many in Philadelphia Live on the Edge of Eviction.” Its part of the new “Broke in Philly” project, a collaboration of 19 local media organizations. This article takes inspiration from Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize Winning book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City , which I am currently rereading closely. This month Desmond’s Eviction Lab released the first national database on evictions. It’s well worth examining the data on this growing and under-reported national crisis.
Following Desmond, Terruso finds that more than 20,000 Philadelphians, or about 1/14 renters, will face legal eviction proceedings in a typical year, and half will be put out of their homes. This does not count informal evictions, where landlords simply lock out tenants, remove their front doors or pay them to leave. In the poorest big city in America, I suspect these are just as common. Only 8% of tenants have legal representation, while 81% of landlords bring lawyers – guess who prevails in the vast majority of cases? 1/3 of tenants don’t bother to show up for the hearing – they just filed as a delaying tactic to buy more time before vacating.
Tenants sometimes withhold the rent as a means of compelling the landlord to make necessary repairs; their chances of prevailing are precarious. Terruso does make a nod to the landlords in one brief paragraph, quoting Victor Pinckney, Vice President of the Homeowners Association of Philadelphia: “People don’t have jobs. They need money, and the city is trying to turn us into a social service. The bottom line is most of us who are in this business are in it to feed our families.”
Well, isn’t that precious and classic – pitting small landlords with thin profit margins and debts against poor tenants paying 50, 60, 70% or more of their income in rent for substandard units. Turn a public problem (lack of affordable housing) into an arena of private profit and let the chips fall where they may – including eviction, homelessness, foster care and incarceration – good call! There’s always a buck to be made off of someone else’s misery – strike fast before another beats you to it!
The City of Philadelphia is taking some modest steps to address the problem. They currently have a modest, six month, $500,000 pilot program to provide enhanced legal representation for tenants facing eviction – compared to a $155 million, permanent program New York City provides its low income population. An Eviction Task Force has been studying the problem and has made some modest recommendations, including: 1) low interest loans for small landlords to make repairs; 2) a pre-complaint resolution process to reach a compromise before court; 3) a permanent fund to increase legal representation for low income tenants; 4) expunging eviction filings and judgments after three years (currently they’re permanent); 5) providing a bridge fund to prevent tenants who are only a few hundred dollars behind from being evicted.
All good and helpful, but guaranteed not to solve the basic, structural problem: the rent is too damn high, the income is too damn low, and the government is too damn cheap in failing to provide subsidized housing to more than a fraction of those who qualify for it. Both Terruso’s article and Desmond’s book highlight individuals who are on Social Security Disability (SSI), which means they don’t work and receive a check of around $720 per month, plus food stamps. It’s really hard to pay rent and survive in an urban area, or anywhere, on $720 per month.
When I was a small landlord, renting rooms in my house after my wife left, I had a stream of disabled roommates. They paid me between $500-600 per month, leaving them $5-7 per day for expenses – and they all smoked, at $8-10 per pack! Don’t know how they made it but they never worked, even though they weren’t completely disabled and were capable of employment, at least part time, if they weren’t afraid of losing their benefits. They rarely left my house and spent their days cooking, eating, smoking, sleeping and watching television – what a waste of human potential!
People need to work more and be paid a decent wage for doing so. Businesses should be made to pay a living wage of at least $15 per hour for adults, which is bare survival in urban America. Governments should adjust their “cut off” points to encourage, rather than punish, people for working. They also must compel developers to include more affordable units in their housing projects and provide sufficient vouchers and public housing units for those who genuinely need them. Housing is a basic need, so should be a right, as long as an individual is willing, if able, to work for it. The current disability system is a scandal, but that will be the subject of a future post.