The Courage of Her Evictions (Or, Working on a Night Move)

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A recent  New York Times article on eviction and low-income black women offered the following:

“New research is showing that eviction is a particular burden on low-income black women, often single mothers, who have an easier time renting apartments than their male counterparts, but are vulnerable to losing them because their wages or public benefits have not kept up with the cost of housing.

And evictions, in turn, can easily throw families into cascades of turmoil and debt.

‘Just as incarceration has become typical in the lives of poor black men, eviction has become typical in the lives of poor black women[.]'”

While job losses and the bleak economic picture are to blame in some cases, and tenant misbehavior in others, as the article point out, evictions sometimes occur when tenants complain to authorities about housing violations, making landlords angry. Eviction in these circumstances may be a textbook case of  retaliatory eviction, which is, under certain circumstances, a defense to eviction. However, it is sometimes difficult to prove the reasons for an eviction, and, as in many legal matters, poor people of color often lack the resources to raise such defenses. Eviction appears to play a significant role in the cycle of poverty that traps some black women, but, unlike the attention given to foreclosures, evictions sometimes go unremarked and there are few bodies of data enumerating them. Indeed, one challenge to accurately counting evictions is the fact that a large number of evictions are not court-ordered:many people under the threat of eviction move before the process is completed. Some people still engage in what we in my childhood called a “night move”:moving out under cover of darkness to avoid the embarrassment of being seen by neighbors (or the landlord) when there was no hope of getting current on the rent. My aunt, with whom I lived for almost two years, was a night move professional. With her own ten children and the extra children (like me) that she often had residing with her, affordable, suitable housing was a continuous challenge. Note that engaging in a voluntary “day move” doesn’t necessarily mean that all is well in your life. My mother used to tell me stoically of the morning that she smiled and waved my father off to work, then packed her personal items and her two children to get away from an abusive relationship. My mother firmly believed that women in situations of domestic abuse did best to avoid confrontation and to disappear while the abuser was away. Sadly, some types of domestic violence “day moves” feature the removal of the entire household even when abused persons don’t wish to move out. As the New York Times article remarks, sometimes landlords evict tenants who have made domestic violence reports to police out of fear that authorities will somehow hold landlords liable for tolerating such disturbances.

As the article indicates, some temporary government programs have offered subsidies to those facing crisis in rental housing. The larger, longer term problem, however, goes unaddressed: housing represents a substantial expense even for people with middleclass incomes. This is even more true for the poor, as the cost of housing sometimes means choosing between shelter and food, clothes or medicine. To quote from the article:

“A minimum-wage worker may gross little more than $1,100 a month; a welfare recipient in Wisconsin receives $673 a month, while two-bedroom units start at about $475.

‘On $673 a month, how do you buy tennis shoes for the kids, clean shirts for school and still pay your rent?'”

-Lolita Buckner Inniss

(cross-post from Ain’t I a Feminist Legal Scholar, Too?)

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