Artwork for podcast Trending Globally: Politics and Policy
Less to Lean On, Part 3
14th December 2020 • Trending Globally: Politics and Policy • Trending Globally: Politics & Policy
00:00:00 00:37:41

Share Episode

Shownotes

This is the third part in a special series from Trending Globally exploring the housing crisis in the United States, and in Rhode Island in particular. The crisis has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but as we’ll show, it’s a problem that has been with us for much, much longer.

On this episode, we follow one Rhode Island family's story in order to understand the psychological and economic costs of eviction, and we examine the state-level policies that make the experience so much more punishing than it has to be. We look at the long-term causes of housing insecurity, and explore what it would actually mean to make housing a human right.

Contributors to this podcast include students from Brown University and the media collective Signs of Providence. You can learn more about their organization here.

Listen to Parts 1, 2, 4, and the series epilogue.

You can learn more about the Watson Institute's other podcasts here.

Transcripts

[MUSIC PLAYING] SARAH BALDWIN: From the Watson Institute of Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin. And this is part 3 of Less to Lean On, our special series on America's housing crisis.

In the second episode of Less to Lean on, we looked at the US government's long history of racial discrimination in housing. We saw how the main pathway to personal wealth in America-- homeownership-- has been systematically closed to people of color. And we saw how generations of this discrimination have helped create what can only be described as a chasm between the average wealth of white families and that of Black families.

And race aside, the gap between the haves and have nots in this country grows wider every year. In this episode, we're looking again at eviction, a punishing act that was already shattering millions of lives before the pandemic, and which threatens to become a national emergency in the coming months, especially when the federal moratorium on evictions comes to an end on January 1.

Through one family's experience, we'll learn about policies in our home state of Rhode Island that make eviction particularly devastating. We'll investigate the effects of eviction on children. And we'll break down why secure and decent housing for everyone should matter to everyone.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

For Ketia, the mother of two we introduced in the first episode, it started with a fire.

KETIA: I had a really good job. I was working in Boston. And I had a car fire.

[FIRE CRACKLING]

That's when everything kind of went downhill. I had to take a lower-paying job in Rhode Island because I just couldn't keep up with going to Boston and having someone to watch the kids. So of course, I lost my income.

And I had my two bedroom apartment with the kids. And it just started being an issue with not being able to meet my financial obligations. So I would pay one bill, and I would partially pay my rent because I was not making enough money.

SARAH BALDWIN: Ketia fell further and further behind on her rent.

KETIA: Eventually, the day before Christmas I went to check my mail, which I had stopped doing because all I received were bills late notices and so on. And I think I was going to be $2,000 in arrears from late fees and paying partial rent and not full rent. So I decided to check, and I, of course, got an eviction notice from my landlord. And I had court the day after Christmas, the 26th.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

SARAH BALDWIN: Ketia wasn't alone. Some 3.6 million eviction cases are filed in the United States every year-- most of them for non-payment of rent. There are several reasons more and more people are finding themselves unable to make rent. The main reason-- for decades, wage increases in most jobs haven't kept up with increases in rent prices.

Today, a full-time worker earning the federal minimum wage cannot afford to rent a two bedroom apartment anywhere in this country. To do so, that worker would have to work more than three full-time jobs. On top of that, many of the people who used to buy houses, like middle class families with children, are now renting and often able to pay higher rent. Wealthy people are pushing everyone else out of more and more cities and neighborhoods.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Then there's the lack of public and subsidized housing. This is often and rightly attributed to budget cuts starting in the nineteen-eighties.

RONALD REAGAN: Our fellow citizens, let's talk about getting spending and inflation under control and cutting your tax rates. Our government is too big, and it spends too much.

[APPLAUSE]

SARAH BALDWIN: Here's Eric Hirsch, the urban sociologist we heard from in episode 1.

ERIC HIRSCH: What happened in the nineteen-eighties is we started to see this rise in income inequality that has continued until now. At the same time that the income inequality was going up, the federal government under Ronald Reagan was eliminating support for public housing. Really, since the '80s, there's been no support for public housing. The result of that has been a rise in homelessness.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

SARAH BALDWIN: Bear with me as I throw out some dates and figures. In the United States, from Nineteen-Seventy-Six to Nineteen-Eighty-Two, more than 750,000 public units were built. By Nineteen-Ninety-Six, that number had been slashed by almost half. By Twenty-Eighteen, there was zero federal funding for new public housing. It didn't stop with President Reagan. A bill signed into law under the Clinton administration actually prohibits the construction of more public housing.

BILL CLINTON: Tonight I present to the American people a plan for a balanced federal budget. My plan cuts spending by $1.1 trillion. Make no mistake, there will be big cuts, and they'll hurt.

SARAH BALDWIN: In Rhode Island, the situation seems particularly bad. In a state where 40% of the population rents, 8,350 evictions are filed every year on average. And that's just the evictions we know about, the legal ones.

According to some estimates, there are two to three times as many illegal evictions, also known as self-help evictions. These occur when a landlord bypasses the courts and forces someone out by changing the locks or cutting off heat and utilities or even removing a tenant's belongings from the rental unit.

So while it's impossible to know just how many people are turned out of their homes every year, one thing is certain-- housing in Rhode Island and in America just isn't made for people who are barely making ends meet.

ERIC HIRSCH: Many European countries understand that the housing market does not serve the needs of low- and moderate-income people. And so they really massively subsidize those people with public housing and some kind of rental subsidies.

We don't really do that in Rhode Island. We only have 37,000 publicly subsidized units. And I've calculated that the need is closer to 140,000. So we're meeting about 20% of needs. If you think about it, the only kind of housing that we're building, certainly in Rhode Island, is housing for the rich.

SARAH BALDWIN: And that, Eric explains, causes some problems down the line.

ERIC HIRSCH: We're not building any moderate income housing at all. And so in terms of low-income people, they usually live in housing that was built for the middle class and then filtered down to them over time. When you stop building housing for the middle class, that doesn't happen.

And you get a shortage of low-income housing. And that's all we have now. There are literally 100,000 people in need of rental subsidies at this point in Rhode Island.

SARAH BALDWIN: For the many low- and middle-income renters who can barely afford their rents-- that is, who are housing insecure-- this has essentially locked them into a position of never ending debt. There's just no way to put money aside. And when you've got so much less to lean on, it takes only one misfortune to make you fall behind with little chance of ever catching up.

Attorney Jennifer Wood is the Executive Director of the Center for Justice, which protects the legal rights of vulnerable people in Rhode Island. She puts the problem this way--

JENNIFER WOOD: We really view eviction as the symptom, and a lack of safe, healthy, affordable housing as the cause.

SARAH BALDWIN: Provide affordable housing, and you reduce the number of people being turned out of their homes. Seems pretty straightforward, doesn't it? Back to Ketia.

It was the day of her court date, December 26. She parked outside district court, a hulking, almost windowless pile of bricks in downtown Providence. She was broke, and she didn't feed the parking meter. She had no idea what to expect inside, but she thought to herself--

KETIA: It's the day after Christmas. No one's going to be here, but me. So I when I get up there, it's like, 200 people in court. And I'm like, are you serious? Are you kidding me?

[GAVEL BANGS]

And as embarrassing as that process was to be in that grouping, it was a relief to see that, OK, I'm not alone.

SARAH BALDWIN: Before the pandemic shut things down, courtroom E was the scene of up to 50 eviction case hearings a day. Tenants shuffle in and sit on wooden benches. The lawyers, in suits, sit in the front row. As the judge takes attendance, the bailiff patrols the middle aisle. The names called out by the judge are grouped by landlord attorney, who often represent multiple clients per hearing.

KETIA: So when I get to court, my landlord has an attorney-- I don't. And she doesn't recognize me, but I recognize them. They call out names from my apartment building. I say, I'm here. And then they ask to speak to me outside. And I go in the hallway, and I speak to the attorney and my landlord outside.

SARAH BALDWIN: As with many cases in civil court, most eviction proceedings don't happen in front of the judge. Instead, informal negotiations between the tenant and the landlord's lawyer take place outside the courtroom in a loud and chaotic hallway.

Depending on the landlord's wishes, the lawyer will argue for the tenant either to agree to move out by a certain date or accept a payment plan to make up for lost rent, even though, by all appearances, the tenant cannot even afford the current rent. Tenants have plenty of plausible defenses.

For example, it's normal to be granted a decrease in rent and if you're living in a property with housing code violations. But the vast majority of tenants don't know this because, according to a recent study by Brown University undergraduates, while landlords have representation nearly 100% of the time, 93% of Rhode Island tenants in eviction court do not have lawyers. Those tenants are five times more likely to be removed from their home than the few tenants who do have a lawyer to represent them. So tenants are often pressured into payment plans they'll never be able to honor just to avoid immediately losing their homes.

KETIA: At this point, I'm begging. I'm like, can I stay, and I'll pay you guys? And I'll come up with the money, and I'll borrow it, whatever. And she says, well, we've already done everything. We want you to leave.

I said, well, it's going to be New Year's. I can't leave tomorrow. I need a few weeks. So they give me until, I think, January 10th. And I had to pay half of whatever money that I owed in order to stay up until that date.

That was the only thing they were going to do. And I signed the paper in the hallway. And I tried not to cry because I told myself that day, don't cry. Don't cry.

SARAH BALDWIN: She goes back into the crowded courtroom.

KETIA: The judge is sitting up there-- again, a courtroom full of people. They call my case. And the attorney says, yes, she agreed to leave on such and such at date, and she's going to pay such and such. And this is a paper she signed. And the judge asked me, ma'am, is this what you agreed on? And I said, yes, 'cause I was scared.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

SARAH BALDWIN: Now imagine how things might have gone differently that day if Ketia had known her rights or been provided a lawyer to even the playing field. According to attorney Jennifer Wood, if Rhode Island had a right to counsel-- that is, if the state provided legal support to eligible tenants-- it would prevent a lot of the trouble that comes crashing down on you when you lose the roof over your head.

JENNIFER WOOD: By creating a right to counsel, getting people good representation, we begin to stop the flow of newly created homeless.

SARAH BALDWIN: Legal representation does two things-- first, it keeps people in their homes. Jen points out that in some cities right to counsel is already working.

JENNIFER WOOD: In New York City there was actually a cost benefit analysis made, and it demonstrated that the city would actually save money by having individuals represented by a lawyer when they were going to court for their eviction.

SARAH BALDWIN: In its first two years, New York's new law enabled 84% of tenants in eviction court to remain in their homes. Last year, evictions in the city were down 15%. Using eviction as a scare tactic looks a lot different when your tenant has a lawyer. And this does save money because homelessness is expensive in so many ways.

JENNIFER WOOD: You get a lot more economic value out of keeping a family stable in housing than in paying the lawyer. So the cost of counsel to represent someone to sustain them in their home is way less than the societal costs and the individual costs and the economic costs related to actually disrupting a family out of its housing on an emergency basis.

SARAH BALDWIN: The other benefit of legal representation is that it can address the condition of the rental unit itself, because the fact is, lots of rental apartments in Rhode Island are in bad shape. According to another Brown research group, in Twenty-Eighteen, there were more than 2,000 properties all over Providence with documented code violations, and these are only the reported cases. Almost half the city's renters live in buildings that are more than 40 years old.

Because rental properties don't have to be inspected before they're put on the market, the burden of reporting code violations falls on tenants. But when they do report, they put themselves at risk of retaliatory eviction. So if your roof leaks, or there's a hole in the floor, or your walls are speckled with mold, or there are rats under the radiator, or bare wires in the kitchen, you might be scared to say something to your landlord.

Retaliatory evictions are illegal, but it's almost impossible to prove that an eviction is retaliatory or otherwise unjustified, especially without the help of a lawyer. See, it's messy and complicated. Eviction is a costly, unpleasant business for many landlords, too. One thing is certain-- everyone would benefit from tenants being represented and knowing their rights.

On December 26, Ketia didn't know any of this. She only knew she wanted to get out of that courtroom.

KETIA: I agree, and I leave the courthouse. And I have to now prepare to leave after New Year's and also tell the kids when they get home that we're moving; we're losing our apartment.

SARAH BALDWIN: When she walked out of district court that morning, there was a parking ticket on her windshield.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Ketia had no idea of what a truly vicious cycle she had entered. Like a nefarious Rube Goldberg machine, eviction triggers a cascade of harmful consequences. For one thing, landlords can raise the rent after evicting a tenant, making their unit even less affordable.

Actually, landlords can raise the rent however much they please at the end of any rent cycle, even if the current tenant wants to stay. These, quote unquote, "financial evictions" don't count as actual evictions either, nor are they illegal because Rhode Island does not have any form of rent control or stabilization, which partly explains why, in this state, where 40% of the people are renters-- half of those households-- nearly 67,000 people are cost-burdened, meaning, they spend more than a third of their income to stay housed. For many, it can be half their income.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

One of the hardest discoveries for Ketia was finding out that the eviction would remain on her record for life. Those records are publicly available. And many landlords can and do access them to search for the names of people seeking to rent their units. There are even companies landlords can hire to perform such searches. Even if you win a case, the only thing that shows on your record is that a case was filed against you.

KETIA: Who was going to rent to me knowing that I have this scarlet letter that's going to follow me everywhere? I went and I asked-- I've been paying rent. Maybe there's a way that this can come off my name? And they're like, no, it's with you forever.

I'm like, OK, there's people that have criminal records. They could get it expunged. This is impossible that this cannot be expunged if your name.

SARAH BALDWIN: Also, landlords in Rhode Island are allowed to report missed or late rent payments to credit agencies. So on top of everything else, even if you eventually get back on track, your credit can be ruined, too.

Ketia had two weeks to find a new place for her family to live. At this point, you might be thinking, well, there's a social safety net, right? Not so much.

You don't qualify for a social worker unless you're officially homeless. And if you're officially homeless, you risk losing your kids. So with the clock ticking, Ketia began knocking on the doors of housing advocacy groups and state agencies. She filled out reams of paperwork, completing application after application. But what she found was a drastic disproportion between supply and demand. This comes as no surprise to Brenda Clement of HousingWorks RI.

BRENDA CLEMENT: When we open up waitlists for public housing units or Section 8 lists--

SARAH BALDWIN: Section 8 is the federal government's housing choice voucher program for very low-income families.

BRENDA CLEMENT: --5,000 plus people apply, and it's a list to get on a list. And the wait list could be five to 10 years long.

SARAH BALDWIN: In April Twenty-Nineteen, the Rhode Island's centralized waiting list for subsidized housing had nearly 41,000 names on it. Frustrated with the process, Ketia decided she would work as hard as she could to get enough money together to try the private market. Talk about rubbing salt in the wound. Simply applying to rent an apartment can be an expensive proposition, up to $50. Supposedly, that money is to cover processing costs like background checks. But last we looked, a state background check cost $5.

KETIA: I would try to make it on a Sunday to go look at apartments. And we'll probably be going to church or something. So we'll be dressed in our Sunday best and look at these apartments.

And I'm thinking, all right, they're going to think we're top class citizens. We're not going see anything with these apartments. We're definitely going to get it. And I would show up, and there would be about 50 people looking at the same apartment.

SARAH BALDWIN: Time and time again, Ketia came close to securing a place, only to lose it.

KETIA: I told myself, I'm a pretty meticulous person as far as paperwork goes and everything. And I was even promised an apartment. And then I went and drove by and showed the kids the apartment that I was supposed to get.

SARAH BALDWIN: At the last minute--

KETIA: I didn't get it.

SARAH BALDWIN: --the apartment was rented to someone else. Meanwhile, the family spent a lot of time in the car.

KETIA: Sometimes I drove around with the kids until they were tired. And we woke up at truckstops just because I didn't want to be a burden to someone all the time. And there were no shelters for us to go to.

SARAH BALDWIN: You heard that right. Even the homeless shelters were at capacity. Before COVID-19, there were 480 shelter beds in the state. Now, there are 325. And yet, on any given night, more than 1,000 people are homeless.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Eviction is a deeply destabilizing experience, not just because your basic needs aren't being met, but also because of the toxic burden of shame. During America's last housing crisis in the two-thosuands, eviction- and foreclosure-related suicides doubled.

KETIA: From having a place to stay to waiting for someone to come home so you can get into their house or whatever it was, that's devastating. And I remember one day we had a little issue with I think there was mice in my current apartment. And we had to pack up everything.

And my little boy, he was asleep, so I packed everything up and put it on the table with totes. And he woke up freaking out, oh, my god. Are we going to lose our house again? What's going on? Until that point, I didn't know how devastating this whole process was for him.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

SARAH BALDWIN: Last year in our state, kids made up one-fifth of the people who used shelters. Nearly half of them were not yet five years old. According to Kids Count Rhode Island, during the Twenty-Eighteen-Twenty-Nineteen school year, public health personnel identified almost 1,500 children as homeless.

Losing a home wreaks havoc on kids well-being and their education. Kids experiencing homelessness are more likely to change schools, be chronically absent, and have lower academic achievement. Only 65% graduate from high school. And lacking a high school diploma is the single greatest risk factor for guess what? Future homelessness.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

To understand just how much eviction affects children's lives, I talked with Ravi Razu. Ravi is a pediatrician and researcher who studies the brain. He wants to understand how exposure to adversity in childhood affects health in adulthood.

During his training, he treated patients at a clinic in East Boston, an economically and socially disadvantaged area that's home to many central and South American immigrants. The physical and mental health issues he saw in the children he was treating, or the downstream effects of the trauma of forced migration and displacement.

RAVI RAZU: Children are supposed to be healthy. They're supposed to thrive, and they're supposed to be resilient in their communities. And any time I started to see a child that was struggling, whether it was in school or whether it was socially with friends or family members or physically from any sort of presentation like rash or even a cough or an asthma attack, it made you wonder and sort of question was this a result of the trauma that this child was exposed to?

SARAH BALDWIN: Ravi was also treating kids who were dealing with the opioid crisis and its destabilizing effects on families. He remembers one kid, whose mother was homeless, staying with friends, family members, and partners. She was under so much stress that she went into preterm labor. And because of her opioid use, her baby was born suffering from neonatal abstinence syndrome.

RAVI RAZU: I just remember being in the hospital with that child and seeing and thinking, like you see his future written out. You see the instability in the environment that he is going to be raised in, whether it's with his mom or whether it's in the foster system, as really sealing his destiny as being more suboptimal than it could be. And you just see that play out multiple times every week, every month.

SARAH BALDWIN: To describe what this can mean for kids and ultimately our society, Ravi cites the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study or ACEs.

RAVI RAZU: This is one of these studies that, in my mind, is one of the most important public health studies of our time. And what the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study tried to do was chronicle the exposures of different types of adversity that children were living through, and ask, can we then understand what their long-term health outcomes are going to be as a result of exposure to this adversity?

SARAH BALDWIN: The children in the ACEs study had been exposed to a range of difficult life situations. They were followed for 30 years.

RAVI RAZU: And what they found is an incredible association between exposure to these ACEs and you name it. Whether it's cancer or heart disease or substance abuse or mental health, the number of cases that you were exposed to as a child predicts what your health outcomes are going to be long-term.

SARAH BALDWIN: The study exposes a tipping point when a person experiences four different adverse events like divorce or having a parent with substance use disorder, homelessness, hunger, and yes, eviction. It found that quote, "children growing up with toxic stress may have difficulty forming healthy and stable relationships. As adults, they may struggle with finances jobs and depression. And they can pass these effects onto their children," unquote.

RAVI RAZU: They were 30 times more likely to commit suicide than children who are not exposed to more than four adversities. There were four times more likely to suffer from anxiety. They were three times more likely to suffer from diabetes or cardiovascular disease.

I began to see that poverty and these early life environments were the reason that we were seeing all these symptoms later on. Eviction and housing instability are incredible stressors. And so to imagine that they don't have an effect is silly. We view victims at a young age with sympathy and sorrow and empathy, but somehow there's a switch. When we see an adult who is suffering from homelessness or is committed and sent to jail for a crime, we tend to lose that sympathy.

SARAH BALDWIN: Here's a simple exercise. The next time you walk past someone on the sidewalk holding a sign that says, homeless, please help, imagine that person as a child.

RAVI RAZU: But what we forget to realize is that adult was exposed to these issues before they had any agency to have a say in the matter. The adults that we see today that need help were the children that we didn't help, but felt sorry for. I really believe that if we gave every child a more supportive environment and allowed them the chance to thrive and succeed, that a lot of the things that we try to remedy when people are adults would disappear.

[MUSIC - MICHAEL KIWANUKA, "HOME AGAIN"]

(SINGING) Home again, home again. One day I know I'll feel home again. Born again, born again. One day, I know--

SARAH BALDWIN: As Michael Kiwanuka says in Home Again, Ketia did eventually manage to feel home again. But for months, she and her kids lived with a lack of privacy, a lack of security, a lack of all the things that families with stable housing have, a simple sense of belonging. And she continues to feel vulnerable.

What if one day her landlord wants her to leave for whatever reason? Her eviction record haunts her. Instead of addressing the root causes of economic inequality, eviction pushes the problem downstream from landlord to tenant to homelessness. So eviction is not a solution; it's a problem-- a living nightmare that creates problems like homelessness and trauma. And those problems are costly for everyone. Here's Eric Hirsch again.

ERIC HIRSCH: The problem is you're depending on the private market to solve a problem that they've created, and it's never really worked. The bottom of our housing system is homelessness. It's built in. It's structurally built into the system.

In the '80s what we did was create, quote unquote, "emergency shelters." And it's not an emergency. It's built into our housing market.

SARAH BALDWIN: Our housing system was already failing in normal times. So what does that mean now with stay at home orders and a crippled economy?

[MUSIC PLAYING]

REPORTER: Renters in 42 states have been protected under eviction moratoriums, but 40% of those moratoriums have lifted. And more than 45 million Americans are still without a job.

KETIA: I've heard people saying, oh, if you lost your job, they're saying you don't have to pay your rent. I'm like, oh, boy, this is not going to be good because how are these people going to be protected when this is all over with? Are they going to have to pay back rent? Are they going to have to pay late fees? What's the law on that?

SARAH BALDWIN: Once the current moratorium expires, it's estimated that 440 more Rhode Islanders will face eviction for not paying rent.

GINA RAIMONDO: Here's the thing-- we have an eviction crisis. And I have 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 people who are homeless. That's a real problem. Obviously, it's a problem for them because they're homeless. It's a problem because we have a disease, which flourishes unless people quarantine. It's all connected.

SARAH BALDWIN: Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo recognizes that when a lot of people can't follow stay at home orders because they don't have a home, that's a serious public health issue. The state has done some things to address housing insecurity during the pandemic. It provided $6 and 1/2 million in emergency housing assistance to low-income renters who were impacted by COVID-19 and were at immediate risk of homelessness.

It also set up an eviction diversion program. Not surprisingly, both programs were overwhelmed with applications, and distribution of the aid has been very slow. Recently, the state eased restrictions on the programs to help more people qualify.

That's better than nothing, of course. But Princeton University's Eviction Lab nevertheless gave our state a score of 0.5 out of 5 when it comes to COVID-19-related eviction protections. Even if people have experienced financial hardship because of the pandemic, landlords could still give them an eviction notice; law enforcement can still enforce in order to remove a tenant; And? What little protections there are have not been extended beyond the current state of emergency.

But as we've said before, losing your home is not only disruptive, it cost taxpayers more than actually housing people would. If you've got a job and a roof over your head, are you thinking, why should I care?

Well, for one thing, as Governor Raimondo just said, we're all connected. Now, during the pandemic, that is more significant than ever. Describing the challenge of containing COVID in San Francisco, the journalist Nathan Heller recently wrote that the city's homeless population is an epidemiological tinderbox.

And it's not just people experiencing homelessness who are at risk of catching and spreading the disease. Even if you have a safe place to come home to, that doesn't mean the person delivering your takeout dinner does. And even if you have medical insurance, it doesn't mean that the person bagging your groceries does, or that she or he can afford to get tested for the coronavirus. As Megan Coleman, a longtime supporter of affordable housing and an incoming state Senator from Pawtucket puts it--

MEGAN COLEMAN: That's become really clear that affordable housing and clean housing and safe and healthy housing, that's a health care basic. You can't quarantine if you don't have a healthy, safe place to quarantine. If you don't have a place to live, you can't quarantine.

When we're talking about housing as a specific thing is important, the more that we can point out the way that this is connects to all of the other both challenges that we face and solutions that we're working for, the stronger it's all going to be.

SARAH BALDWIN: Brenda Clement of HousingWorks RI puts it another way.

BRENDA CLEMENT: Housing advocates like me say all the time that nothing works right in your life if you don't have that safe and decent place to get up from every day and to go back to every night.

SARAH BALDWIN: And if this hasn't convinced you, let's talk about the economics. Here's Jen Wood again.

JENNIFER WOOD: Obviously, we believe that we can demonstrate the economics in Rhode Island or at the same as in New York City or any other place, which is that if we can keep people in their housing, not disrupt their employment, not disrupt the children's schooling, not have all the adverse health consequences of being put out on the street, we can both served as overall economy of the state and also greatly improve the lives of the tenants who manage to sustain themselves in stable housing. And it was actually cheaper just to keep them in an apartment in the first place.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

SARAH BALDWIN: The good news is Ketia did find a safe and decent place to live. But we should note that she got the apartment in part because her name was misspelled in the eviction filing. So she wasn't searchable in the database. What happened to her is a fluke, but it's also an example of how things could go if people weren't followed by the stain of eviction for the rest of their lives.

KETIA: And my kids know when it comes to rent, we'll eat noodles for about 15 days, but rent has to be paid. We'll eat noodles and bread, but they know that. They won't even ask you for anything because, there you have that mindset like, this is obligations.

And I put it on the calendar in the kitchen. And they know. And I don't know, it was a hard lesson to learn. If I have the money, I'm definitely going to pay my rent.

SARAH BALDWIN: "If I have the money," what a big if. We hope that this episode has brought you, our listeners, closer to understanding why it is that we as a society cannot continue to accept the eviction process as it stands today. Eviction frames the issue as a personal failure, when, in fact, it's the housing system itself that's broken.

Eviction is a legal process that ultimately relies on state violence-- the Sheriff knocking at the door, locking you out of your home-- to punish individuals with a sentence that carries life long, even generational effects. What if instead of calling on the state to force someone out of their home, landlords could connect struggling tenants with the correct social services to help them succeed?

This is an indictment of the system, not landlords. It's a call for all of us to step back and together envision something new. Perhaps this pandemic, for all its horror, makes room for such a step.

The moratorium shows that evictions can be halted in times of crisis. But housing was in crisis before the pandemic. With so many families facing homelessness once the moratorium is lifted, we cannot pretend that going back to normal in the case of evictions would be anything short of criminal.

In the short term, fixing the eviction process wouldn't take much. The courts could make sure all parties are informed of their rights and responsibilities before showing up. And the state could ensure that all tenants have access to qualified representation. These policies are in everyone's best interest, both financially and morally.

[MUSIC - LEON BRIDGES, "COMING HOME"]

(SINGING) Baby baby baby, I'm coming home to your tender sweet loving.

Like Leon Bridges, in the next episode, we'll be coming home to Brown. We'll look at the effects the universities had on its surrounding neighborhood and the people who used to live there. And we'll consider how it might do better going forward.

We'll ask what it would take to make housing a universal human right, and how that could change our society for the better. In short, we'll try to imagine a system that values people over property.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

This episode of Trending Globally was produced by Oscar Donchak with help from Dan Richards. We also received valuable input from Amelia Anthony, Steve Bloomfield, Lucas Friede, Gabe Mirnov, Nathaniel Pettit, and Drev Singh. The theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. I'm Sarah Baldwin.

This special series is a production of the Watson Institute. To learn more about Watson's other podcasts, visit our website. We'll put a link in the show notes. We'll be back in January with new episodes of Trending Globally. Thanks.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Links