‘Scarlet E’: An eviction in the US can become a life sentence
Activists are warning of an unprecedented evictions crisis brewing, with state moratoriums set to expire this month.
Sandi Bachom, 75, never expected to be evicted. She once earned a six-figure salary at a New York City advertising firm and lived a comfortable life. But after getting divorced, losing her job and getting hit by a car, she fell behind on her $3,000 monthly rent payment.
In April 2012, she came home to find an eviction notice slapped on the front door of her apartment.
“It’s so shameful, it’s like everybody knew, and I was feeling bad enough as it is. I was just riddled with fear,” Bachom, now a freelance filmmaker and journalist, told Al Jazeera. “I went to the worst-case scenario: I was evicted. For me, it can’t get any worse than that.”
Bachom’s son, then in his late teens, went to live with his father and she moved in with a friend. When Bachom later tried applying for the city’s affordable housing lottery, she said a credit check stopped her application in its tracks.
“They found that I had been evicted,” she said. “I never thought about credit [checks] because I always paid my bills and bought stuff and could rent apartments, and I was kind of rich. Then I went from Prada to nada.”
Bachom said she still lives with her friend and has never attempted to rent another apartment, fearing she would be turned down again or charged more because of the eviction on her record. She supplements the income she makes as a video journalist with her Social Security cheque and food stamps.
“I’m 75 years old. I had bills and I just stopped paying them – like my credit card – and I thought, what are they going to do? It’s like blood out of a rock. I don’t have any money to live off of, let alone pay my American Express card,” Bachom said. “If you miss one rent payment, you’ll never catch up. There’s no way to catch up.”
If you miss one rent payment, you'll never catch up. There's no way to catch up.
A crisis that predates the pandemic
While President Donald Trump signed an executive order earlier this month instructing officials to find solutions for keeping tenants in their homes, it failed to extend a federal moratorium on evictions that expired in July.
Across the country, advocates warn that the US is poised for an unprecedented crisis. Landlords in 17 cities have already filed for 36,581 evictions during the pandemic. That’s expected to surge as some states’ eviction moratoria expire as soon as the end of this month, according to a tracker created by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.
As COVID-19 relief funds dwindle, unemployment remains high and some jobs may never return. And though tenants are already struggling to pay their rent during the pandemic, the crisis has been brewing for much longer, said Alieza Durana, a media strategist with the Eviction Lab.
“Nearly three decades of rising rents and wage stagnation, coupled with centuries of systematic discrimination within our housing market and policies, have given rise to a housing crisis that predates COVID-19,” Durana told Al Jazeera. “In 2016, we saw 3.7 million eviction filings in our data, or seven eviction filings per minute, when unemployment was under five percent.”
“The current public health and economic crisis is already deepening inequalities felt across our society, and has the potential to increase experiences of eviction and homelessness in the absence of immediate and meaningful policy measures,” she added.
At 10.2 percent, the current unemployment rate is more than double the one in 2016 – and many in the US spend a huge chunk of their income on rent. Pre-pandemic, more than 46 percent of renter households were classified as housing-cost burdened, meaning they spent more than 30 percent of their income on rent, according to a Federal Reserve analysis.
Among lower-income households, that burden is even greater: a renter in the lowest-income quintile has less than $500 left to spend after paying their rent for the month, says the Fed.
The crisis is also disproportionately impacting people of colour. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that on average, Black tenants have evictions filed against them at twice the rate of white tenants in 17 out of the 36 states the ACLU analysed.
You can't shelter in place without a place to shelter.
A traumatic event for communities, too
“An eviction is a traumatic event, not simply at the individual level, but also to our families and communities across the United States,” said Durana. “An eviction can cause a family to experience a decline in mental and physical wellbeing, ruined credit, homelessness and job loss, to name a few of its devastating effects.”
The impact of eviction is felt far beyond the immediate crisis of finding another place to live. In the US, an eviction remains on a person’s credit report for seven years and an eviction judgment in court remains on a person’s record for 10 years, which means the coming crisis spawned by the pandemic is poised to have negative impacts for years to come, said Marty Wegbreit, the director of litigation for the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society.
Richmond, Virginia, where Wegbreit works, has the second-highest eviction rate among large cities at 11.44 percent, which puts it at more than 9 percent above the national average, according to Eviction Lab data.
We call it the 'Scarlet E'
Wegbreit has seen firsthand how each stage of eviction has a ripple effect on tenants’ lives, he said.
“We call it the ‘Scarlet E,'” Wegbreit told Al Jazeera. “The scarlet gets redder and redder as you go from an eviction lawsuit that was dismissed, to one that had possession and rent granted, to one that had a writ of eviction issued. In fact, even if a lawsuit was filed against you and dismissed, that alone is considered a black mark by landlords.”
With battered credit scores and evictions on their publicly-searchable court records, many tenants are forced to move into lower-quality housing – and pay more for it to boot.
“Inevitably, people will move into worse housing, because the ‘good’ landlords – the ones who have good-quality housing in a good neighbourhood with good schools – their risk tolerance is much lower than landlords who have the lower-quality housing in the lower-quality neighbourhood with lower-quality schools,” Wegbreit said. “These landlords charge higher rents than the market would ordinarily allow for just because they know that there’s a certain set of their tenants who are going to default.”
Getting back on track requires months of on-time rent payments, Wegbreit explained. One unexpected medical expense, car repair or a decrease in work hours could set someone back, especially when late fees are factored in.
“It just takes very little – the phrase we use is ‘one bad day’ – to throw that completely off kilter,” he said. “It’s very difficult to crawl out from under that.”
For families with children, eviction often means moving into housing that is within a lower-quality school district’s attendance zone as well, Wegbreit said.
I was evicted. For me, it can't get any worse than that.
Of the 25 elementary schools in Richmond, 18 are in attendance zones with eviction rates above the city’s average eviction rate, and 10 of those 18 schools are unaccredited, compared to just one unaccredited school in an attendance zone with a below-average eviction rate.
And while there is federal legislation that lets students finish the school year in the district where they started even if they are evicted, transportation to and from school can still be a challenge, particularly for lower-income families.
All of this has been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic, which shows no signs of slowing in large swaths of the country.
“Everything we’ve been told since mid-March is to shelter a place, and you can’t shelter in place without a place to shelter,” Wegbreit said. “Twenty million or more tenants could be facing eviction by October unless really serious efforts are done at all levels of government. It’s not just not just about the federal, state, or local level – it’s really about all three.”