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Tuesday, May 11th, 2010

Megan Cottrell: Eviction Is to Black Women What Incarceration Is to Black Men

[ Here’s another piece from Megan Cottrell’s incredible blog on poverty and housing issues, One Story Up. If you saw the article on Matt Desmond’s work in the New York Times, just for the record, Megan had the story first – Aaron. ]

Among young black men in America, about 10 percent are currently incarcerated. It’s shocking, but we’ve almost grown used to it.

But while those young men are in prison, what’s happening to their wives, girlfriends, mothers and sisters?

Eviction. A new study coming out of Milwaukee shows that eviction is for black women what incarceration is for black men. One in 20 households there are evicted every year. In predominately black communities, that rate doubles to 1 in 10 families.

For those of us who are affluent, with relatively stable incomes, we’ve never even had to think about what it would be like.

Getting the eviction notice in the mail. The knot in your stomach, knowing you can’t pay the rent you owe. The court case, and the eventual knock on the door from the sheriff, telling you it’s time to go.

We’ve been talking about eviction a lot lately, from the near eviction of three orphans and their guardian, to the protested eviction of a Cabrini-Green mother, to the Chicago campaign to stop evictions from happening this winter.

Matt Desmond
Matt Desmond

When I heard about Matt Desmond’s research out of Milwaukee, I was shocked and intensely interested. It turns out, while many people have studied poverty and poor communities, no one has ever really studied evictions before, at least not the way Matt has.

“Eviction is probably the most under-studied process affecting the lives of the urban poor,” said Matt, a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We know nothing about it.”

To figure it out, Matt dove into neighborhoods where evictions are common place. He took up residence in a trailerpark outside of Milwaukee, living there for several months before he moved into an inner-city neighborhood. He talked with people, poured over eviction records, and asked people to record their experiences with eviction through a large survey effort.

What he found, he said, surprised him.

“Eviction isn’t rare. It’s quite common in the lives of poor families,” he said

I asked him about families that he got to know – people he spent hours talking with. Was it hard to see them face these troubles?

It’s always hard to tell over the phone, but I could swear I heard a quiver in his voice as he replied.

“It was difficult,” he said, “It’s a bit hard to talk about, actually.”

It’s not just that eviction happens a lot in poor neighborhoods, but Matt’s was also stunned by who eviction was happening to.

“Eviction is disproportionately experienced by women and black women. It’s the feminine equivalent of incarceration,” he said. “There’s a lot of young black men being locked up and young black women being locked out.”

And eviction has consequences, more consequences than just getting put out on the street. One eviction on your record makes it harder to find your next apartment. Your security deposit might be higher. Your rent might be greater. For families who are already struggling that much, that kind of pressure leads to more trouble, more evictions. Many of the families Matt talked to were paying 80 to 90 percent of their income in rent per month.

It’s just not sustainable, he said. We’ve got to do something about it.

“We’ve reached a breaking point, Megan,” he told me. “We can’t go on like this.”

The solutions, he says, aren’t so easy. Just because eviction is bad, he says, doesn’t mean no one should be evicted. It means we have to pay more attention to this process that’s directly impacting the lives of the poor.

“We know a lot about the consequences of incarceration. That doesn’t mean that no one should be locked up,” he says. “But it probably means that not so many people should. It may be the same for eviction.”

That means anti-poverty programs need to listen up. Free school lunches are nice. But no amount of school lunches make up for not having a home and not being able to get one. We’ve got to figure out what’s going on in our communities and what solutions can help.

We’ve still got a lot to learn. But to begin, I think we need to start seeing eviction – witnessing what’s happening in our city.

Imagine it’s you. You lost your job. The bills are piling up. The rent is three months late. You’ve borrowed money from everyone you can think of, and there’s nothing left. The notice comes, and you pray it won’t happen, but it does. Your stuff – in boxes. Your children don’t have a place to come home to after school. Where will you go? And how will you put your life back together?

Hundreds of families in Chicago are experiencing this right now. We have to listen to their experience, open our eyes and figure out what can be done.

This article originally appeared in One Story Up. Reprinted with permission of the author.

24 Comments
Topics: Public Policy
Cities: Milwaukee
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24 Responses to “Megan Cottrell: Eviction Is to Black Women What Incarceration Is to Black Men”

  1. Several immediate questions which comes to mind, not answered by the above:

    * When evicted, where are people going? To shelters? To the street? Moving in with friends and relatives?

    * How soon, generally, before evicted persons (here I’m assuming evictions only for non-payment of rent; not for other causes) are able to find housing (of their own) again?

    * What happens to the rent in arrears? Are landlords generally engaging in post-eviction collection activities, or writing off the debts once the tenant is out? Do landlords frequently attempt to seize personal property (in places where that is allowed)?

  2. kevin c says:

    very interesting article.
    Here in Canada, circumstances can be similar, though based not so much upon race as on social/economic level, First Nations status, and for those on public assistance.
    One finds themselves in poorer and poorer quality residences once a cycle of eviction begins as described in the article. Apartments are usually found by referral, availability due to someone else having been evicted. One can often “work out a deal” for security deposits etc with such landlords as they are used to less stable tenants, though rent is often high priced given the size and quality of residences available. One is forced into a community in similar circumstance. Obvious solutions such as shared accommodation can be a problem as one’s peers are often unsuitable roomates (or are their friends/partners). If the tenant is a single parent, child safety is a significant issue. Progressive tenant’s rights legislation can worsen the problems, as property owners are forced to be more conservative in their tenant selection.
    So it goes.
    I’m not sure if anyone in Canada has studied the effects of serial evictions as described, but it is definitely worth analysis, as the maintenance of a stable residence of any form is of primary importance for family health and well being, and for the development of stable communities and neighbourhoods.

  3. EngineerScotty, I don’t know. Perhaps Matt Desmond would. But it illustrates the kind of questions that come to mind.

    I lived in a neighborhood in Indianapolis that was largely poor and white, with a large number of people with marginal incomes. My evidence is entirely anecdotal, but it appeared to me that people frequently moved, often bouncing between roommates. The big question for me is what Desmond counts as an eviction. Is it only a formal sheriff’s eviction? Or does it include informal evictions? From what I’ve seen, a lot of the displacement among the poor come from the latter. People who have falling out with roommates, people kicked out of a house by family, landlords that just tell people they have to go, etc. I did not hear of anyone who became physically homeless.

  4. AmericanDirt says:

    Like most people (Matt Desmond excepted), I have little to no knowledge or experience with eviction. But I would agree with Urbanophile’s speculation that homelessness does not immediately follow eviction. My experience working with homeless men (the sex of the majority of homeless, as we know) is that most were chronic and few of them were ever couch surfing–their strongest connections were with other homeless men. Obviously I have no intention of overlooking homeless women, but my suspicion is the numbers are smaller at least in part because of an innate tendency for women to cultivate relationships and networks far more strongly than men. A similar, less noticeable gulf exists between homeless who stay at shelters and those who panhandle. Virtually no panhandlers use the shelters–they save their money for hotels. Women facing eviction would most likely turn to the street only as a last resort, while men are far more like to make that choice even when other options are available.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Keeping in mind the law of unintended consequences – Would stricter anti-eviction laws make landlords therefore less likely to rent to very low-income tenants?

  6. anon 11:48, I am not advocating any particular policy, but I’d look at it differently. Namely, I believe there are trade-offs to be made in any situation. I certainly have a Burkeian respect for institutions that evolved over time and seem to function at least reasonably well. I don’t think we’d ever get to a perfect and cost free solution. but focusing on only the downsides of a policy change ignores the potential benefits of change, and to believe that the cons must outweigh the pros, is to posit that the current policy is ideal. I’m not sure I’d buy that, though of course we should be aware of the tradeoffs we are making in any change.

  7. Adam P says:

    Megan commented on children having no place to come home to after school. I think a significant concern relates to the schooling directly. As households are evicted and move or move because they are behind on rent and see an eviction forthcoming, this often means relocation to a different school. My girlfriend teaches at an inner-city, public elementary school as has commented that the school sees four or five new students shortly after the beginning of each month. There are multiple occurrences of a fourth or fifth grader having been in 7, 8, or even 9 different schools. It puts tremendous stress on the children and undoubtedly affects their ability to establish a routine of learning.

  8. Anonymous 4PM says:

    “Imagine it’s you. You lost your job. The bills are piling up. The rent is three months late. You’ve borrowed money from everyone you can think of, and there’s nothing left. The notice comes, and you pray it won’t happen, but it does. Your stuff – in boxes. Your children don’t have a place to come home to after school. Where will you go? And how will you put your life back together?”

    When does the black community at large, especially in the inner city, take a look at these issues and start to understand that they are a direct result of initial poor choices? I don’t want to sound too harsh; however, who told these women to procreate and then become dependent of men so lacking in quality and character that they would be incarcerated and thus be left on their own with children?

    I fancy the day when we can talk about historical causality as it relates to current reality within the black community.

  9. Regine says:

    Anonymous, one never knows what the future holds. Remember “There by the grace of God, goes I.”

  10. Minch Lewis says:

    There is a culture of survival in our city neighborhoods. In that culture, incarceration has no stigma and eviction has no consequence. Both events are part of the on-going struggle for survival. The culture includes a set of support mechanisms that are generally unrecognized by those of us who come from the mainstream culture. The survival culture deserves study. But most of all, it deserves respect. The student who drops out of high school because he cannot sit in a classroom for ten minutes has no difficulty adopting a super-disciplined code of conduct to become a gang mamber.

  11. JasonM says:

    How many of these women are single women with many children?

    How about “Don’t start having a lot of babies until you have a husband, and maybe even a job”???

    I clicked on that blog and the first thing I saw was a “family” that consists of one woman and her four children.

    In what universe are such life choices economically productive?

    The tender solicitude of bleeding-hearts for the economic welfare of the black underclass never extends to telling them that they should not make catastrophically bad judgments about how to live their lives.

  12. Unfortunately, Aaron, when you touch a subject such as this one–it’s not long before the trolls and racists arrive…

  13. John Morris says:

    This sort of touches on the subject of “Root Shock” and the unseen effects of social disruption on cities in general.

    I’ve been meaning to do a major post about that on my blog ever since I read Mindy Fullilove’s book. This is likely one of the biggest elephant’s in the room that nobody talks about.

    I’m really going to be dead honest here Aaron. The subject isn’t popular among city officials anywhere because a serious examination would implicate them in the destruction of their own cities and call into question a lot of the power they seek.

  14. Alon Levy says:

    The trolls are actually enlightening. You can’t really discuss social issues or race without discussing racism. There are a host of good government programs that would work at fighting the eviction problem: subsidized housing, tenant protection laws, means-tested welfare, public housing. Many of those are found even in the most capitalist countries in the world when affordable housing is a general problem. The problem with implementing such policies is political, not economic. By and large the white middle class wants welfare programs to be maximally humiliating and cost-ineffective, in order to get back at the black underclass.

  15. The trolls are enlightening in that they lay bare some of the attitudes that others may not utter in polite company–on the other hand, they muddy the waters by speaking as though certain social pathologies, which are certainly present among poor blacks, are exclusive to them.

    There’s just as much pathology in the trailer park as in the ghetto; the difference is that poor whites who screw up get a lot more sympathy and forgiveness from the power structure–poor blacks who screw up get thrown in jail, tarred as “welfare queens”, etc.

    I can only imagine the reaction of much of society were Barack Obama’s daughter to get knocked up, instead of Sarah Palin’s….

  16. Anonymous 4PM says:

    “Unfortunately, Aaron, when you touch a subject such as this one–it’s not long before the trolls and racists arrive…”

    Scotty, what’s unfortunate is the very thing I pointed out in my first post; any truthful illumination on anything to do with the quandaries of the black community is met with loathsome hyperbole, and claims of racism.

    So, in the interest of clearing the air of the allegations of racism, let me start by stating something that I thought unnecessary to do in the company of otherwise intelligent people; I’m black.

    Now, back to the point I was trying to make…

    There is much written about the plight of the black community in this country from many sources. Although it’s hard not be sympathetic to the thousands of sad stories that are out there, I can’t help but to point out that most of these stories aren’t unique. In life we all have choices to make; and we make them based on the information we have at the time. The black community isn’t ignorant to the fact that having children before you’re ready or able to face the responsibility of parenthood is a bad idea. This assertion is flanked on all sides with empirical examples so great in number that one would have to be blind not to see them.

    It’s no secret that nearly every predicament in the black community has stemmed from the destruction of the family, and the values that emerge from traditional family life. I don’t want to belittle the sincerity of their efforts; however, most advocates of the black community fastidiously hover in politically correct air and choose to only address symptoms instead of the disease itself. My assumption is that it’s more important to avoid claims of racism than utter an ounce of truth.

  17. John Morris says:

    That pretty much hits the nail on the head. Race throughout history and seemingly very strongly in the U.S., is the topic you turn to when you don’t want to talk about other subjects.

    This is really why, I’ve felt intimidated and unqualified to do a big post about Root Shock. I’m not a scholar with a comprehensive knowledge and more importantly so little data or study has been done on the subject. This can’t be an accident. It’s just not a can of worms the powers that be want to open up.

    From what I can tell from my reading and a certain amount of personal knowledge, the black community in America fit the pattern we saw among most “poor immigrant groups”. They mostly migrated from the deep South, where they had suffered tremendous levels of oppression. Even, so within a relatively short period from say 1900–1955, they made amazing strides. The figures I think somewhat obscure the reality–in that new poor people kept piling in from the South. This is the typical story of the American immigrant.

    Then, within a period of a few years, something dramatic seemed to start to go wrong. Usually, this is pinned on the loss of lower skill manufacturing jobs but this doesn’t explain things right. Why didn’t new jobs develop? What happened to the thriving and growing black owned business community? Why such a rapid turn towards social and family breakdown?

    Government welfare programs may indeed have played a big role–but that was later. The biggest factor was likely the rapid destruction over a period of not much more than 15 years of the core of almost every major black community (Harlem is probably the exception) in America. Mindy puts the count at more than 1600 communities, including Newark’s Central Ward, Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the central core of Allegheny City in Pittsburgh.

    In fact, she really understates things, in that urban renewal destroyed not just black communities but many of the most important central urban areas of the country, Italian areas (East Harlem) Jewish neighborhoods (East Tremont) and lots of places that were really pretty integrated.

    It’s very likely that the rapid decline of the Jazz music scene is because of this.

    Anyway, this is a vast and important subject.

  18. When this subject comes up, it always seems that two camps swiftly form:

    1) It’s all whitey’s fault
    2) It’s all the fault of African-Americans themselves.

    In reality, it’s probably a whole lot of both: Much things which occur in African-American communities are highly self-destructive–and yes, a large number of single-family households is one of them. OTOH, blacks face a whole host of prejudices (and have suffered numerous depredations over the years–including within the past century) which have not been visited on other minority communities.

    This discussion reminds me of ex Atlanta mayor Andrew Young’s unfortunate comments in praise of Wal-Mart several years ago–wherein Young undelicately stated a preference for Wal-Marts in urban neighborhoods over local merchants (of various ethnicities other than black), whom Young suggested were exploiting neighborhood residents by selling shoddy merchandise at inflated prices.

    Many Wal-Mart defenders in other contexts (such as rural white America) often say essentially the same thing, without the racial component added by Mr. Young–that the Main Street merchants so beloved by Wal-Mart critics were overcharging customers to begin with. On the other hand, Main street merchants are frequently from the same community as their patrons, whereas the inner-city vendors Young was deriding were outsiders. One wonders how Young would feel about an African-American vendor who lived in the same neighborhood charging high prices for wilted lettuce, or an African-American who lived elsewhere, or a Korean who chose to live in the neighborhood–in other words, what defines the community in his mind?

    In both cases, WalMart critics frequently note that WalMart enjoys such vast economies of scale, that mom-and-pop stores generally cannot hope to compete with it on price, and that in poorer communities, price is the only thing that matters. WalMart is careful not to engage in predatory pricing (by which I mean charging low prices in order to drive out competition, then raising prices once it is gone), which would be a red flag for anti-trust authorities, but its business model is such that it excludes a whole lot of other possibilities.

    It seems that the shadow cities concept can work on neighborhood scale, as well–neighborhoods which neither house businesses attracting outside capital and customers, or whose residents lack well-paying jobs elsewhere–tend to die. And at the neighborhood level, death generally means degeneration into a slum–where no business wants to relocate, and nobody with a choice wants to live.

  19. Alon Levy says:

    Meh. The whole discussion about welfare is US-centric beyond belief. There are multiple countries with lush welfare without any of the social problems conservative Americans scaremonger about.

    In general, a good rule of thumb is that before suggesting some explanation for the plight of black America, you should look at other situations where the same explanation applies, or at other situations where the problem you’re trying to explain applies. For examples:

    – Black America has received welfare. But so has Scandinavia – in fact, the welfare programs in Scandinavia are more generous than in the US and don’t even require proof you’re seeking employment.

    – While black America has had a family breakdown, Hispanic America hasn’t. The single motherhood rate for Hispanic Americans is barely lower than the rate for white Americans (Hispanics give birth out of wedlock more, but divorce less). So if Hispanics are suffering from the same

    – Black America carries the scars of slavery, but so does black Barbados, whose performance on health and education metrics is (marginally) better despite much lower incomes.

    – Blacks in the US have suffered from intense discrimination and from the uprooting effects of urban renewal, but so have Jews.

    A good theory may apply multiple of those facts – for example, the mainstream explanation in African-American studies is a combination of slavery and discrimination. Alternatively, you could look at differences from the other situations: US welfare has such ghettoizing features as public housing and inner-city public schools, blacks are more visible than Jews and Italians. But you need to argue this – you can’t just say something as obnoxious as “Every problem is traceable to ____.” The world is more complicated than that.

  20. Anonymous 4PM says:

    “But you need to argue this – you can’t just say something as obnoxious as “Every problem is traceable to ____.” The world is more complicated than that.”

    Alon, as obnoxious as it sounds, it’s actually just as simple as that. You have to understand that the past 3 generations of black Americans have enjoyed unprecedented growth in the areas of education and economics; however, these generations have also exponentially increased every negative social metric that can be tracked. As a bonus, all of this has occurred post civil rights era, so we’re talking about the group of black people the farthest removed from the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. In essence, we have to query factors that weren’t present in pre-1965 black communities against those that are present now.

    Since the marriage and illegitimacy rates for blacks was almost the same as whites up until the 1960’s, there’s only one thing that comes to mind, and that’s the installation of the Great Society. It first destroyed the black family by incentivizing mothers to trade in men for government, and then decimated it by absolving women of the responsibility to choose quality mates because of the government safety net. The result; a community where women saw no value in marriage, and men had no reason to be enterprising in the care of their family. It’s the same thing that happened to Scandinavia.

  21. Joshua Daniel Franklin says:

    I have no insights, but I did recently watch this profile of an evicted single mom who became homeless, done by “America in 5″:
    http://vimeo.com/10987154

  22. Alon Levy says:

    It’s the same thing that happened to Scandinavia.

    You know nothing of Scandinavia. Scandinavian countries tend to have high labor participation and low unemployment; they have the highest employment-to-working age population ratios in the world. Nobody wants to be on welfare. The Swedish guaranteed minimum income is $14,000, which isn’t a starvation wage, but isn’t middle-class income, either. So the effect of the guaranteed minimum income program has been to raise wages and encourage people to get higher education or training so that they can get better jobs. This hasn’t happened in the US because welfare does not let you go to school: there’s tuition, which is free in Scandinavia, and nowadays welfare-to-work doesn’t recognize schooling as work.

    While there are quite a large number of out of wedlock births in Sweden and Norway (I don’t know about Finland and Denmark), this is because parents choose to cohabit instead of marry. The single motherhood rate is low, but it doesn’t matter because single mothers’ poverty rate is in the single digits.

    Even if you look at US welfare, any correlation between it and social ills is incidental. If welfare made people more dependent and more asocial, you’d expect states like New York and California to have the biggest underclasses, the highest crime rates, the highest teen pregnancy, and so on. Instead, they all rank better than average on those metrics. The worst states on those social metrics are in the South, even rich states like Texas. I don’t buy that the Great Society made people dependent, but then the extra programs in the Northeast and California made them less dependent.

  23. John Morris says:

    “Since the marriage and illegitimacy rates for blacks was almost the same as whites up until the 1960’s, there’s only one thing that comes to mind, and that’s the installation of the Great Society. It first destroyed the black family by incentivizing mothers to trade in men for government, and then decimated it by absolving women of the responsibility to choose quality mates because of the government safety net. The result; a community where women saw no value in marriage, and men had no reason to be enterprising in the care of their family.”

    You are correct. The data and strong anecdotal evidence (like say the Teeny Harris Archive, for instance) show that a lot of the problems we now “associate with the black community” took off in the post civil rights era and were not that common before it. However, one missing link here is probably urban renewal itself as well as the general loss of huge amounts of manufacturing jobs.

    The tearing down of hundreds of whole communities broke all the social and business links built up over generations and worked aggressively to separate people from easy access to jobs, retail and the basic services. In most cases the original loss of housing stock was never replaced.

    If we take all of the basic benefits a dense, mixed use viable city offers to all it’s residents for free. The stuff Jane Jacobs talks about and throw this process into reverse–this is what happens.

    However, it’s worse than that in that each failed “renewal attempt” in almost every case lead to more and more experiments. Anyone with a brain and a little observation can guess which areas not to invest in or start a business–the places the government considers “important”, or “blighted” are going to be set aside for “connected developers”; urban planning experiments; highways, stadiums and parking lots.

    Of course, many ethnic communities were damaged by these policies, but most were already much further along in terms of built up social capital and there’s no doubt, that these programs targeted black communities.

    The last 60 years has been a failed attempt to replace the normal bottom up, organic social order of civil society with government.

    This is the sick joke. When, Hillary made her, “it takes a village” remark everyone knew she was talking about the government. But, in a lot of ways it does take a village and that’s what the government tore down.

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