Emma Grady-Pawl, a Master of Social Work (MSW) student in the Washington University Brown School of Social Work who is currently completing her practicum with PEP, wrote about the current eviction crisis and how racist housing policies have and will continue to disproportionately affect BIPOC communities, specifically Black women and formerly incarcerated people, leaving them vulnerable to being unhoused in the middle of a global pandemic. Read Emma’s full write-up below.
For many months now, the COVID-19 pandemic has further revealed the many ways in which our economy is unsustainable and deeply inequitable, and nowhere is this more apparent than in housing. Sub-standard, insufficient, and inaccessible affordable housing and the history of intentional segregationist policies and enforcement it represents has long been a part of St. Louis’s, and the nation’s, landscape. The impact of COVID-19 has highlighted that this is truly one of the most urgent and pressing issues facing our communities today. Since the start of the pandemic, housing experts have warned of an eviction crisis of “biblical proportions”[i] that, without meaningful intervention, will lead to mass homelessness, instability, an exacerbation of the public health crisis, and large-scale human suffering both nationally and in St. Louis. The end of a three-month eviction moratorium in the city of St. Louis led to hundreds of evictions being served during July. The concurrent end of unemployment insurance, which combined with stimulus checks allowed many tenants to make rent, means more households will be vulnerable to future evictions. Nationally, one-third of tenants were unable to pay their full rent in July.[ii] The disappearance of the patchwork safety net of eviction moratoriums and CARES Act benefits is compounded by the end of many utility shutoff moratoriums, the financial burden of which places more households in danger of becoming unhoused.
According to research done by the Aspen Institute, an estimated 30–40 million people in America could be at risk of eviction in the next several months[iii]. Based on 2018 data from the institute, 47.5% of all renter households were already housing-cost burdened[iv] (“Cost burden” means more than 30% of a household’s income is spent on housing costs. Once a home-owner or renter is paying more than 30% of their income on housing, it generally means that there is less money for other essentials like food and health care.) BIPOC communities are most likely to be disproportionately harmed by evictions—studies from cities across the country have shown that people of color, particularly Black and Latinx people, constitute almost 80% of people facing evictions.[v] In St. Louis specifically, Lee Camp, a staff attorney for ArchCity Defenders, predicts that the city will process three times the usual number of evictions (about 6,000 per year) in 2020.[vi] These staggering estimates don’t take into account informal evictions, when landlords make housing uninhabitable through threats, bribery, or maintaining deplorable conditions, which is one way landlords can push people out in the middle of a pandemic. A study from the University of Cincinnati indicates that for every formal eviction, there are two informal evictions.[vii]
Missouri is one of only nine states that has not enacted any state-wide measures to protect its residents and ensure people can stay housed during this unprecedented health crisis. In fact, Missouri received zero out of a possible five stars from the Eviction Lab’s COVID-19 Housing Policy ScoreCard.[viii] In St. Louis, Circuit Judge Rex Burlison has at least halted eviction proceedings until September 1st. Burlison had already halted evictions through a verbal agreement with Sheriff Vernon Betts on August 3; however, after reporting by the St. Louis American and on the advisement of the Joint Board of Health and Hospitals and St. Louis Health Department Director Fred Echols, Burlison issued an official order on August 6th. It is vital to note that while this order halts the Sheriff’s office from removing people from their homes, it does not prevent evictions from being filed, nor eviction hearings and judgements from taking place. This means that when the moratorium expires, a backlog of households could be in crisis.
The order raises the question of whether a three-week stop-gap measure grants enough time for households to obtain necessary rent, mortgage, and utility assistance (especially when those applying for assistance funded by the federal CARES Act may not receive that assistance until after September 1) and to prevent families and individuals from losing their homes during the pandemic in the long-term. The Joint Board recommended the order suspend evictions until October 1, and housing advocates are calling for a three-month eviction moratorium. Mayor Lyda Krewson reported to the Board that the city has already received 4,000 applications for the city’s $5.4 million in CARES ACT funding for rental and mortgage assistance from city and county residents.[ix] Eviction moratoriums are certainly necessary to give people time to apply for needed assistance, but they do not begin to encompass the range of policy decisions necessary to make sure safe, stable, and affordable housing is available to all, and to address the eviction crisis as the crisis of racial justice it is.
The historic and ongoing structural violence of redlining, racial zoning, urban renewal, racial covenants, and other public and private policies and practices that have prioritized and privileged white homeownership while economically draining Black communities and neighborhoods create and reinforce the context of stark racial disparities in evictions and utility shutoffs. Black St. Louis residents, particularly Black Women, will likely face the greatest hardships as eviction proceedings continue, exacerbating the existing racial inequities the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted. Black renters in St. Louis City were nearly twice as likely to have an eviction filed against them as white renters.[x] In St. Louis County, eviction rates are highly concentrated in North County. A 2014 study by Matthew Desmond found that Black women with low incomes were evicted at much higher rates than other racial groups due to factors such as having children, low wages, and landlord-tenant gender dynamics.[xi] In his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond explicitly connects the racist purpose and implications of mass incarceration and eviction, writing “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished Black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor Black men were locked up. Poor Black women were locked out.”[xii]
The racial inequity of the eviction process is exacerbated by inequitable legal access as well. Although tenants with legal counsel are much less likely to be evicted, research shows that fewer than 10% of renters have access to legal counsel when defending against an eviction, compared to 90% of landlords.[xiii] Due to COVID, eviction courts throughout Missouri have been conducting hearings online, meaning that tenants without access to reliable internet have no meaningful chance to defend themselves. The eviction process traps people in a cascading cycle of housing instability and poverty. Common tenant-screening policies shut tenants with prior eviction records out of future housing opportunities both private and public (when public housing is even an option—the Section 8 Housing Voucher waiting lists for St. Louis City and County are both indefinitely closed), regardless of the actual outcome or surrounding circumstances of the eviction.
This eviction cycle, exacerbated by the ongoing eviction crisis, leaves formerly incarcerated people, nationally and in St. Louis, particularly vulnerable. Securing stable housing consistently proves to be one of the biggest obstacles standing between successful reentry and the recently released. Poverty, housing discrimination, the criminalization of homelessness, lack of affordable housing, the inability to access public benefits and housing programs, post-release restrictions and probation policies, and other structural barriers create and reinforce a cycle of incarceration and homelessness. Indeed, research confirms that formerly incarcerated people are 10 times more likely than the general public to become homeless.[xiv] This inability to access stable housing and manufactured vulnerability to eviction is particularly distressing because housing provides a vital foundation for returning citizens to focus on finding employment, accessing treatment, and remaining compliant with the conditions of their supervision. In a series of pre- and post-release interviews with returning citizens conducted by the Urban Institute, the majority of interviewees identified stable housing as the key to not returning to prison.[xv] Past research has found that each change in home address among a sample of formerly incarcerated people in Georgia was associated with a 25% increase in the odds of re-arrest and that periodic homelessness more than doubled the risk of reconvictions and prison readmissions.[xvi]
Now more than ever, we must not underestimate how deeply housing and eviction is implicated in creating and shaping poverty. Eviction is a public health and racial justice crisis. More and more, households are living one small emergency or incomplete payment away from being unhoused in the midst of a global pandemic. However, there is also a rich history of tenant organizing and resistance to draw hope and inspiration from: from successful rent strikes in New York in the 1840s and early 1960s, and throughout the U.S. in the 60s and 70s, to examples of mutual aid like the fundraising ‘Rent Parties’ people like Langston Hughes attended in Harlem in the 40s and 50s, to the current work of tenant and advocate coalitions in pushing for eviction moratoriums and policy change in response to COVID-19. Renewed tenant organizing and advocacy in response to this eviction crisis is growing in power, and we can all do our part in raising awareness of this issue and working toward securing housing as a human right.
To Stay Informed about Advocacy and Actions Follow and Support:
- Homes for All St. Louis
- Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing & Opportunity Council
- STL Housing Defense Collective
- Empower MO Affordable Housing Coalition
- Affordable Housing Trust Fund
- ArchCityDefenders @ArchCityDefense
- On Instagram follow the hashtags #unhousedSTL and #evictedduringcovid for updates
Resources to Use and Share:
- Louis City CARES-Rental & Mortgage Assistance Program
- Utility and Rent Assistance St. Louis City & County List
- Community Action Agency of St. Louis County, Inc.
- Cool Down/Heat Up St. Louis (Utility Assistance)
[i] Kirby, Jen. How the Covid-19 pandemic exposed America’s affordable housing market crisis – Vox. (2020). Retrieved August 13, 2020, from https://www.vox.com/21301823/rent-coronavirus-covid-19-housing-eviction-crisis
[ii] Hartman, Mitchell. Nearly a third of tenants either missed or couldn’t pay full July rent, survey finds – Marketplace. (2020). Retrieved August 12, 2020, from https://www.marketplace.org/2020/07/10/rent-tenants-covid-19-federa-pandemic-unemployment-payments/?fbclid=IwAR35WQIEJHMDZy36bsWxlBrPMnb9wpC4DzysdHyxLVrWapLCQwkg2uNoyA0
[iii] The COVID-19 Eviction Crisis: An Estimated 30-40 Million People in America are at Risk – The Aspen Institute. (2020). Retrieved August 12, 2020, from https://www.aspeninstitute.org/blog-posts/the-covid-19-eviction-crisis-an-estimated-30-40-million-people-in-america-are-at-risk/
[iv] The COVID-19 Eviction Crisis
[v] The COVID-19 Eviction Crisis
[vi] Woodbury, Emily. Sheriff, Advocates Brace For Surge Of Evictions In St. Louis | St. Louis Public Radio. (2020). Retrieved August 12, 2020, from https://news.stlpublicradio.org/show/st-louis-on-the-air/2020-06-25/sheriff-advocates-brace-for-surge-of-evictions-in-st-louis
[vii] Johns-Wolfe, Elaina. A Study of Eviction in Cincinnati and Hamilton County, Ohio, 2014-2017. (2018). https://cincihomeless.files.wordpress.com/2019/09/eviction-report_final.pdf
[viii] COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard for Missouri. (n.d.). Retrieved August 12, 2020, from https://evictionlab.org/covid-policy-scorecard/mo/
[ix] Rivas, Rebecca. St. Louis city’s court must halt evictions and large venues must scale back capacity, says city’s health advisory board | Local News | stlamerican.com. (2020). Retrieved August 12, 2020, from http://www.stlamerican.com/news/local_news/st-louis-city-s-court-must-halt-evictions-and-large-venues-must-scale-back-capacity/article_67918504-d822-11ea-b75d-43059413bfef.html
[x] Evictions. (n.d.). Retrieved August 12, 2020, from https://www.stlouis-mo.gov/government/departments/mayor/initiatives/resilience/equity/justice/court-reform/evictions.cfm
[xi] Desmond, M. (2015). Unaffordable America: Poverty, housing, and eviction. www.irp.wisc.edu
[xii] Desmond, M. (2016). Evicted: Poverty and profit in the American city. Crown Publishers/Random House.
[xiii] Desmond, M. (2015). Unaffordable America: Poverty, housing, and eviction. www.irp.wisc.edu
[xiv] Burrowes, K. (2019). Can Housing Interventions Reduce Incarceration and Recidivism? | Housing Matters. Retrieved May 4, 2020, from https://housingmatters.urban.org/articles/can-housing-interventions-reduce-incarceration-and-recidivism
[xv] Clark, Valerie. (2014). Predicting Two Types of Recidivism Among Newly Released Prisoners. Crime & Delinquency. 62. 10.1177/0011128714555760.
[xvi] Clark, Valerie.