Lutie braced her body against the wind’s attack determined to finish thinking about the apartment before she went in to look at it. Reasonable—now that could mean almost anything. On Eighth Avenue it meant tenements—ghastly places not fit for humans. On St. Nicholas Avenue it meant high rents for small apartments; and on Seventh Avenue it meant great big apartments where you had to take in roomers in order to pay the rent. On this street it could mean almost anything.
– The Street by Ann Petry (1946)
Who were the originators of intersectional knowledge on housing instability and poverty in urban America, and how is their work being sustained today?
Ann Petry became the first Black female novelist to sell more than a million copies of a book when she published the novel The Street, in 1946. Petry saw the ways that the accounts of Black women’s lives were either demonized or completely unexamined by not only Black thinkers but also a nation of White onlookers pushing policy changes that aimed to name the Black woman as the scapegoat for urban America’s social and economic problems. It is no coincidence that Petry named her book The Street, because it served as a metaphor for the multiple forms of oppression and exploitation that Black women faced every day as they tried to navigate the streets: unscrupulous landlords, uninhabitable living conditions, street hustlers, tumultuous intimate partner relationships, discriminatory social service agencies, and full-time domestic work while trying to raise their own children.
In “The Ownership Society, or, Bourgeois Publicity Revisited,” Robert Asen (2010) argues that we live in a society that values engaged participation from homeowners via property ownership, privileging their experiences in social and political reforms. An ownership society then resists meaningful participation from non owners (i.e., renters), who bring “new experiences, raised different concerns and asked alternative questions.” For landlords, they are then in a unique position to aid or disrupt the unequal power dynamics within a society that differentially values whose lived experiences frame our understanding of what a safe, dignified, stable, and healthy community looks and feels like, thereby guiding policy imperatives. Whereas landlords are often shunned by homeowners if they are determined to be a part of the problem, other housing providers with a mission-based ethic are presumably helping to build and sustain underserved communities that cannot participate in the private market.
Valuing multiple forms of knowledge must first recognize that those most impacted by the exploitative realities of urban America have always been Black women and their families. For far too long they have been locked out of traditional means of producing knowledge about evictions, which does not mean they have not been producing knowledge. Rather it just means we often do not recognize those most impacted as the experts on their own realities. This situation is further exacerbated in the academic literature. The realities of eviction did not become a part of the nation’s popular discourse when Ann Petry wrote The Street in 1946, which was after the Great Migration turned a mostly rural Black population into highly exploited urban dwellers. It was when Matthew Desmond wrote the book Evicted in 2016 that policymakers across the nation began to invest in an intentional dialogue about the ways inner-city Black women and their families were being pushed out of their housing as the intersecting realities of gentrification and evictions became too stark to ignore.
We begin this literature review with the acknowledgment that there are multiple forms of knowledge production that have not always been highly regarded in public discourse or public policy discussions. Many of these forms have come before those scholars most recognized for their scholarly work on evictions.
Desmond Book and Eviction Lab
Matthew Desmond’s Evicted outlined an ethnographic account of the stories of eight families and their experiences with housing instability and eviction in Milwaukee, WI. Although evictions had been relatively absent from academic literature (Hartman and Robinson, 2003), Desmond (2016) almost immediately popularized the issue through the popular press and his book tours, calling readers to understand evictions as a cause of poverty rather than a consequence. Evicted won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction and made the New York Times best-seller list (Badger and Bui, 2018). This notoriety opened the doors for Desmond’s Eviction Lab at Princeton University, one of the first attempts at compiling a comprehensive national database on evictions. Desmond’s work has been met with accolades, and its impact is not to be undervalued or underestimated. He has been able to take an issue that has been historically invisible to a nation of White onlookers and disengaged power brokers and highlight how evictions disproportionately impact low-income Black mothers.
Simultaneously, Desmond’s work has been met with some skepticism over a lack of transparent engagement with housing activists and community-based organizations in regard to how his Eviction Lab data are collected across the country (Aiello et al., 2018). Additionally, Desmond’s position, with the Eviction Lab, allows his voice to be heard as the expert, which he has used to share the stories and narratives of tenants and landlords in Milwaukee. However, much of the national attention has focused on Desmond himself as the scholar, without elevating the millions of low-income women of color who experience evictions on a daily basis.
Power is reflected in who gets to tell the story, a frame that this project seeks to change. The truth about eviction research is that outside of Desmond’s work, there has been little attention paid to those who are impacted the most by the phenomenon. Perhaps this is because in the housing literature, as Hartman and Robinson (2003) propose, homeowners are privileged over renters, a suggestion that illustrates the weight of position and voice within the academy and in our popular housing policy discourse. Another analysis would include the fact that the eviction process is complex, often it is difficult to pinpoint, and data collection has been anything but uniform. Although the Eviction Lab has made some progress in this area, there is no comprehensive or reliable data source for understanding the scope of evictions, the underlying causes, and the inevitable outcomes of a phenomenon that is wreaking havoc in urban centers across the country. Finally, we would be remiss not to acknowledge the racialized, gendered, and income-based realities of evictions, which unless examined through a lens that is willing to problematize the welfare state are rarely seen and heard. The Illusion of Choice: Evictions and Profit in North Minneapolis project seeks to illuminate how and why evictions occur from the perspectives of landlords and tenants themselves. In doing so, we aim to address the inequity in whose voices are centered in the development of evictions research questions and public policy solution making.
Evictions and Housing Instability in the Urban Center
The Cause of Evictions
Housing insecurity, displacement, and dispossession have cycled throughout the history of the United States (Bratt et al., 2006; Madden and Marcuse, 2016; Wacquant, 2008), and in the urban center they are once again on the rise. Tight housing markets, combined with issues of low wages, a strangled and diminishing welfare state, racial discrimination, and gentrification pressure in previously disinvested areas, are causing a historic rise in housing instability and evictions (Desmond, 2012; Elliott-Cooper et al., 2019; Madden and Marcuse, 2016; Purser, 2016). In CURA’s The Diversity of Gentrification report, historic residents across the Twin Cities noted a fear of displacement, including cultural and political displacement, highlighting a heightened precarious reality due to increased costs of living in once affordable neighborhoods. Yet again, historically low-income communities of color have always faced housing instability due to a political economy that is not grounded in the provision of affordable, accessible, and quality housing to all residents but rather to a capitalist, profit-driven market for investment (Bratt et al., 2006; Madden and Marcuse, 2016).
Multiple Forms of Eviction
An eviction often elicits the vision of a sheriff knocking on a family’s door with a writ of eviction and a group of workers placing a family’s belongings on the curb. In its narrowest form, an eviction can be described as the forced removal from someone’s home. In reality, evictions in the United States are much more complex. They are not only an event but a process. The use of an eviction filing does not necessarily result in a tenant leaving the home. For example, “serial evictions,” which involve the filing of multiple evictions on the same household, can be used as a continuous threat and punishment for tenants (Immergluck et al., 2019; Madden and Marcuse, 2016). Evictions are also used as a strategy for policymakers and law enforcement to control crime (Ramsey, 2018). Additionally, when tenants do vacate their homes as a result of an eviction, it is not always the result of a formal writ. In a study on foreclosures and evictions in Chicago, Hiller (2013) cites a strategy known as “cash for keys,” which became a popular mutual termination tactic for landlords during the foreclosure crisis. When landlords utilize cash for keys, tenants are offered small amounts of cash to vacate the property in an effort to avoid a formal eviction filing. This strategy continues to be on option for mutual termination of a rental agreement rather than formal eviction actions (Hare, 2018).
A significant challenge for research on evictions is that it is difficult to quantify evictions that do not occur as a result of a writ of eviction or formal eviction action. In addition to the millions of individuals and families who experience formal eviction actions annually (Desmond and Kimbro, 2015), the actual number of individuals and families who vacate their space voluntarily or through mutual agreement with a landlord is unknown. A more holistic definition of an eviction filing includes “any involuntary move that is a consequence of a landlord-generated change or threat of change in the conditions of occupancy of a housing unit” (Hartman and Robinson, 2003, p. 466).
What is quite evident from both housing literature and the daily reality illustrated by Housing Court tenants and community-based narratives collected by the CURA research team is that evictions severely and disproportionately impact low-income women of color with a significant overrepresentation of Black mothers with children (Desmond, 2012; Hartman and Robinson, 2003). In a 2017 national survey of renters, Black households were found to experience the highest rate of eviction, with high risk for tenants without a college education, households with children, and households led by single parents (Salviati, 2017). Additionally, based on a national sample, Desmond and Wilmers (2019) found that tenants who rent in low-income neighborhoods, particularly those with a high percentage of Black residents, are more likely to experience exploitation, meaning they pay higher rents in relation to property values.
The process of a forced eviction from a home is larger than just physical displacement. Particularly in gentrification literature, the definition of displacement has garnered significant debate (Elliott-Cooper et al., 2019; Goetz et al., 2019). Elliott-Cooper and colleagues refer to the forced removal from one’s home as the process of “un-homing,” whereas the displacement impact is more than just tenants vacating a physical place but also their connections to neighbors and often the community as a whole. Additionally, there is an economic, social, and psychological impact of eviction displacement (Elliott-Cooper et al., 2019; Hartman and Robinson, 2003). For those who experience evictions, research has shown higher mobility rates, including to neighborhoods with higher poverty and crime rates (Desmond, 2012; Desmond and Shollenberger, 2015), job loss (Hartman and Robinson, 2003), increased depression and mental health hardships (Desmond and Kimbro, 2015), risk for suicidality (Fowler et al., 2015), and broken neighborhood relationships (Sampson et al., 1999). Additionally, there is a significant link between evictions and homelessness. In a national study on homelessness, lack of rent resources, job loss, and forced displacement were cited among the top reasons for becoming homeless (Burt, 2001). As Desmond (2012) has theorized, the impact of an eviction helps to replicate a cycle of poverty for future generations.
The disproportionate impact on low-income Black residents is about more than the economic and social implications of poverty. Both individuals and systems help to reinforce this reality. As Desmond and Wilmers (2019, p. 1092) note, “Inequality is not benign; someone profits from it. Thus, a relational perspective sees exploitation as the foundational mechanism of inequality.” Landlords are in a unique position to aid or disrupt the unequal power dynamics within a society that differentially values the voices of owners versus renters, which is what makes the inclusion of landlord voices in a study of evictions a powerful component to understanding how and why eviction trends take place.
The imbalance of power between landlords and tenants in the rental market is a fairly understudied component of housing instability literature (Rosen, 2014). While tenants are seeking a home for themselves and/or their families, these homes also represent investment properties for landlords. Although not all landlords enter into the market for the same reason, renting properties is a business proposition based on risk and reward within the housing market. Landlords are left balancing their motivations for entering the housing market with the risks that they associate with certain tenants and the regulation pressure of the state.
Within a tight housing market, Rosen (2014) points out that rental housing selection has become a “reverse selection” process of landlords selecting tenants, rather than tenants having a choice on where to live. Much of this is due to a tenant’s lack of resources, knowledge of opportunities, and urgency of housing need. Using Section 8 voucher holders in Baltimore as a case study, Rosen describes a process where landlords seek out tenants who have the ability to pay, match them with units that are harder to rent, and often look for tenants who have fewer resources that would allow them to move. Conversely, Immergluck (2013) found that although housing voucher holders in Atlanta provided more housing stability and low turnover, some property managers were incentivized to bring in new tenants, potentially spurring high turnover. In this context, tenants are often left with less of a choice than an urgency to find a property that will accept them.
Be it based on perceived risk, property maintenance, housing stock, or other factors, landlords in high-poverty neighborhoods also contribute to higher rental rates versus property market value (Desmond and Wilmers, 2019). Often landlords raise rental rates in an effort to mitigate loss based on issues such as previous experiences with bad tenants and/or the perceived “risk” of renting to tenants in low-income neighborhoods—often a stigma that has been perpetuated rather than experienced.
Not all motivations for renting homes in low-income neighborhoods are profit-driven. At the same time, a national study of median rental rates in low-, middle-, and high-income neighborhoods found that even when adjusting for the cost of housing stock, landlords in low-income neighborhoods net higher profits compared to the higher-income neighborhoods. Additionally, when adjusting for property values, Desmond and Wilmers (2019) suggest that when landlords purchase rental properties in high-poverty neighborhoods, they do so with a short-term profit investment strategy based on low property values and taxes, but market value rental income.
Particularly since the Great Recession, the ownership of rental properties in low-income neighborhoods has changed the landscape of eviction impact as well. For example, Raymond and colleagues (2016) from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta found that large corporate owners were 8% more likely to file eviction actions than small landlords for single-family homes, and that evictions as a whole were spatially located in primarily Black neighborhoods. In a separate study, Travis (2019) outlines the role that the limited liability company (LLC) has had on rental ownership. LLC ownership decreases the liability and personal risk for individual investors. In a study in Milwaukee, WI, LLC ownership was positively associated with housing disinvestment.
The landlord and tenant relationship is not an isolated interaction, rather, actions taken at the federal, state, and local municipal levels intersect in this dynamic. Understanding the role of the state is a critical foundation to illuminating how and why eviction trends take place in North Minneapolis.
The Role of the State: Public Housing and the Use of Regulation
The Influence of “One Strike, You’re Out” on Rental Housing Regulation
The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provides housing subsidies for low-income individuals and families through local public housing authorities. In 2016, over 2.2 million households in the United States utilized a Housing Choice Voucher (HCV), with an additional 1.0 million public housing households (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2017). Although the impact of evictions in publicly subsidized housing is relatively universal, living in subsidized housing can afford a resident greater protection as well as greater surveillance. For example, according to HUD’s public housing occupancy handbook, public housing residents must be given a 14-day notice prior to filing an eviction action on a tenant for nonpayment of rent, a timeframe that is not currently afforded to non–public housing residents. However, HUD, in partnership with the US government, also reinforces the precarious nature of public housing and subsidized housing residency through policies such as “one strike, you’re out.” In partnership with HUD, the Reagan administration laid the foundation for the “one strike, you’re out” policy for subsidized housing residents, whereas tenants and/or their guests who engage in criminal activity are subject to a termination of housing benefits (Johnson, 2001). This policy was reinforced by the Clinton administration in 1996, the same year that the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), or modern welfare reform, as we know it, was enacted (Johnson, 2001; Lethabo King, 2010). “One strike, you’re out” infers that if anyone in HUD-subsidized housing is accused of criminal activity, including drug activity, regardless of the tenant’s knowledge of the crime, or a conviction, that should result in an immediate filing of an eviction action (King, 2010). Although housing authorities hold some discretion in the application of this policy, the policy itself has been upheld by the Supreme Court (HUD v. Rucker, 535 US 125, 2002).
The use of this policy has extended beyond HUD-subsidized residents. Across the United States, including in Minneapolis, many local municipalities have implemented regulation changes in city ordinances to increase pressure on landlords to monitor and surveil not only their residents but residents’ family and friends. These ordinances put pressure on landlords to evict tenants or their guests who have been accused of participating in criminal activity, even if the tenant had no knowledge of the activity (Ramsey, 2018). New public ordinances have included parental liability ordinances, which “threaten parents with fines and other penalties if they do not prevent their children from bullying others, or if their children engage in other targeted behaviors” (Swan, 2015, p. 825); crime-free ordinances, based on the one-strike policy (Ramsey, 2018); and nuisance laws, which are a set threshold for police calls (Swan, 2015).
Through an ethnographic study in Cleveland, OH, Greif (2018) found that city ordinances, particularly on water use and nuisance, played an integral role in landlords’ reports of assessing their risk with potential tenants and moving toward eviction. Landlords mitigated their own risk by increasing screening criteria, rent amounts, and family structure. These state oversight regulations potentially create a more volatile relationship between tenants and landlords, with tenants risking access to affordable housing and/or paying the literal price for increased state oversight.
Although there has been a dearth of literature on eviction, more attention has been paid by the legal community to the repercussions of an eviction filing once the action enters legal proceedings (Purser, 2016). In 1991, Bezdeck critiqued the process of rent court in Baltimore, where tenants are virtually silenced through lack of representation, due process, and a complex set of rules unknown to the tenant. Although a function of the state, housing courts across the nation provide little in the way of tenant protections and due process (Bezdeck, 1991). Additionally, while tenants face court with an overwhelming lack of representation, data clearly show that legal representation matters in this context (Grundman and Kruger, 2018).
Purser (2016) also points out another area where eviction data are growing—the tenant screening industry. This industry allows data on potential tenants to be accessed and bought by landlords to assess risk by examining credit, criminal backgrounds, and other relevant housing histories. This lack of due process, as well as growing access to personal data, reinforces the notion that an eviction action in the context of housing has become synonymous with a criminal record, limiting the access to quality, accessible, and affordable housing for low-income women of color.
State of Evictions Research in the Twin Cities
On a local level, several agencies have examined the process and outcomes of evictions across the Twin Cities metropolitan area utilizing available quantitative data. These projects are briefly outlined here.
City of Minneapolis Innovative Team Evictions Report
Motivated by Dr. Matthew Desmond’s work regarding evictions in Milwaukee, WI, the Minneapolis Innovation Team (2016) set out to examine the prevalence, trends, and underlying issues related to evictions in Minneapolis in its report Evictions in Minneapolis. The report maps the geographic distribution by zip code of eviction filings, conducts a case file review of a random sampling of eviction cases in 2015, and provides detailed state data extract analysis from 2016. The report effectively identifies eviction trends in the city of Minneapolis using quantitative data and mapping of a small sampling of eviction court case files. Besides spurring greater conversation within the city of Minneapolis and Hennepin County to further analyze evictions and address their serious social consequences and implications, the Innovation Team’s research concludes that of over 3,000 evictions filed in the 4th District Housing Court each year, 45% to 48% of renter households experiencing evictions in the past 3 years were taking place in two Minneapolis zip codes, 55411 and 55412. These two zip codes make up a majority of North Minneapolis, influencing the CURA Evictions research team’s decision to study evictions in North Minneapolis.
Hennepin County Exit Interviews
In the summer of 2017, the Hennepin County Office to End Homelessness staff conducted a 7-week voluntary and anonymous survey of 67 people exiting Hennepin County First Appearance Housing Court. The purpose was to decipher the intricacies of the evictions process and the people involved and affected by eviction actions (Hennepin County Health and Human Services, 2017). The overall goal was to inform new strategies to strengthen housing stability for residents of Hennepin County through research that produced startling and informative results. Notably, 67% of people surveyed identified as Black or African American and 61% were women. Additionally, the average family household size was 4.6 people, with an average rent of $1,006/month. Approximately 63% of those surveyed reported never applying for emergency assistance. This information further illustrates that evictions disportionately impact single Black mothers with children, most of whom are cost burdened.
HOMELine City of Brooklyn Park Evictions Report
To further examine the state of evictions in Brooklyn Park, the city of Minneapolis Innovation Team partnered with HOMELine, a Minnesota nonprofit tenant advocacy organization, for an August 2018 report titled Evictions in Brooklyn Park. In 2016–17, HOMELine partnered with a team of University of Minnesota Humphrey Institute Policy Fellows to produce a report for the city of Brooklyn Park. Through a geographic distributional analysis of zip codes and addresses of evictions in Brooklyn Park, randomly selected case file reviews of eviction cases filed between 2015 and 2017, and a detailed state data extract analysis of evictions filed in the city, the team determined that, on average, evictions were filed after 16 days in nonpayment cases and 53% of all eviction filings resulted in tenant displacement (HOMELine, 2018a). Moreover, 61% of the evictions filed between 2015 and 2017 were filed by four frequent filers, who in total own just 28% of rental units. Finally, similar to other evictions research, Black and African American women faced the highest rate of eviction actions in Brooklyn Park yet were the least likely to have access to an attorney.
HOMELine City of Saint Paul Evictions Report
The same group of collaborators also produced a September 2018 report titled Evictions in Saint Paul, utilizing the same methods to examine evictions in the Saint Paul housing context (HOMELine, 2018b). In 2017, landlords filed an estimated 1,710 residential eviction actions against tenants in Saint Paul, which accounted for 3% of residential rental units within the city. The team found that 24% of all evictions filed between 2015 and 2017 occurred in the 55106 zip code, a neighborhood of predominantly Asian Americans, specifically Hmong people. Furthermore, nonpayment cases accounted for 94% of eviction filings and 62% of cases ended in a tenant displacement.
These reports add substantially to our understanding about the state of evictions in the Twin Cities metropolitan area and provide a strong foundation for The Illusion of Choice project. Nevertheless, a fuller picture of how and why eviction filings occur from both the perspectives of tenants and landlords is critical to our ability to assess the causes and consequences of eviction actions in North Minneapolis, which necessitates a mixed methods approach that equally values qualitative data.