“Roughly 70 percent of tenants summoned to Milwaukee’s eviction court didn’t come. The same was true in other major cities. In some urban courts, only 1 tenant in 10 showed,” writes Matthew Desmond in Evicted. An inherent power dynamic exists between the poorest renters in our nation and the landlords who rent to them. There are more poor people who are desperate for even the worst quality housing than there are low-rent units available for rent. This means that poor individuals are at the mercy of landlords as they compete for the worst of the worst housing units. As Desmond’s quote above demonstrates, eviction courts end up being another avenue through which landlords exercise unequal power over tenants.
Desmond continues, “Some tenants couldn’t miss work or couldn’t find child care or were confused by the whole process or couldn’t care less or would rather avoid the humiliation.” For a variety of factors, eviction court is harder to attend for those getting evicted than for those doing the evicting. Landlords who don’t work a typical 9 to 5 have more time and flexibility to attend court hearings than low-income renters who work strict schedules. Landlords have more ability to learn the eviction court process, familiarizing themselves with the right procedures and arguments to win cases if a tenant were to show up. Eviction court often doesn’t end up serving as an aid or a protection to low-income tenants who hit an unlucky spell or who had to face unreasonable living conditions due to landlord neglect. Instead, it reinforces the power dynamics that exist between landlords and low-income renters.
I understand that being a landlord to low-income renters is not easy. I recognize that landlords are property owners and need to make money on their rental investments. I can understand how frustrating it would be to have tenant after tenant fail to pay their rent, continuously providing excuses for why they need a break, and to deal with damage to rental properties that barely provide a profit. However, the power dynamics backed by legal structures like eviction court often set poor renters back and prevent them from ever finding stable footing. If the rental market is so terrible for landlords and creates such deep problems for renters, then is it worthwhile to find a different mechanism, other than markets, to ensure low-income individuals have stable housing?
Clearly dense housing projects are not the answer, but something outside of slumlord arrangements needs to be done. Lacking stable housing makes it harder for the poor to work, harder to raise their children without their kids facing adverse childhood experiences which make their life outcomes worse, and harder for them to be functioning members of society. Skipping eviction court, Desmond argues, is a symptom of the broken down system for low-income market provided housing. One way or another, we have to innovate to help our poorest find some stability from which they can begin to live better lives without the humiliation and threat of constant eviction.