It is deeply ingrained among our most enduring clichés: "There's no place like home." "Home is where the heart is." "A man's home is his castle."
So, what happens when a family is evicted from their home?
"It's catastrophic," said Matthew Desmond, a sociology professor at Princeton University. These days, he is also is principal investigator of the university's Eviction Lab. "Let's put ourselves in the shoes of a family who gets evicted. We lose our neighborhood. Our kid loses their school. Often we lose all our things, our possessions, because they're piled on the sidewalk or taken by movers."
Back in 2008-2009, Desmond spent 18 months living in low-income neighborhoods, studying the impact of eviction. His 2016 book on the subject, "Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City" (Crown), won the Pulitzer Prize.
"Sunday Morning" special contributor Ted Koppel asked what has changed since.
"What the pandemic has done is made that situation much worse," Desmond said. "Ten million people have lost their jobs. Rents have continued. And we're seeing millions of people really at the threat of eviction during a time where your home is the best medicine. Your home is what can prevent you from getting sick."
COVID has already had a devastating economic impact: One in four American households has experienced job loss or diminished income. Predictably, perhaps, Black and Latino families are taking a disproportionate hit.
In Hampton, Va., Margaret Eaddy posted video online when garbage bags and boxes with most of her worldly possessions were about to join her and her husband, John, on the street. "We are going to be put out of this rental property," she said. "Can you please just share it to your friends?"
If anyone in the vast social media audience was listening, they didn't respond.
When Koppel spoke to Eaddy, they were living out of their car. Weather permitting, they'll eat in a public park. There are no designated bathrooms for the homeless. The Eaddys use the facilities at a chain gas station/convenience store. John's hours, driving a tractor-trailer hauling trash have been cut way back.
Koppel asked, "Tell me, what's the most difficult thing about not having a home?"
"Worrying about, am I going to catch COVID, for one," Margaret replied. "And also waking up in the mornings and realizing that I'm not in my room. And that I have to ride around all day to find places to go to shelter."
"So, everything you've got in the world is in that car, is that right?"
"Yeah, everything that we have. And then we have, like, some of our stuff in storage. But yeah, basically our life is in our vehicle."
"What are you gonna do when it starts getting cold?"
"I don't know. It was cold last night." Margaret replied.
Desmond said, "If you take that one situation, imagining that one family, and multiply it by millions, the country will be in a lot of pain if we don't address this crisis."
Early last September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, citing increased health risks from eviction during the COVID pandemic, issued an eviction moratorium through December 31 for people who can't make their rent. While protecting some, perhaps even most, renters from eviction, it still requires the payment of all that back rent on January 1, and provides no rent relief.
The order averted a wave of evictions, but it's a band-aid.
Jennifer Pierson is separated, and lives in a house with her three children. Last March, she lost her job working at a fast-food restaurant. Since the summer, she works a part-time job as a cashier in a grocery store. It pays roughly $225 a week.
Her monthly rent is $1,050.
She spoke to Koppel via the local library in Gloucester, Va., which gave permission to use their WiFi connection for the interview.
Kopopel said, "So, even if you handed over your entire paycheck, that wouldn't even cover your rent for a month."
"Not all the way, no," Pierson replied. "And that's why I'm looking for a second job."
In theory, Pierson and her kids are protected against eviction by that CDC order; but there are loopholes. In September, Jennifer's landlord filed for eviction.
"Not only am I facing the eviction for non-payment, he's also piled on what he calls violations that I have to fix, which I already have," she said.
What does he list as violations? "The grass wasn't cut. But my lawnmower had broken down. And I had let him know. So, in order to keep on top of it, the kids and I were taking turns with a weed whacker."
There's roughly two acres of grass. "And you were trying to go after that with a weed whacker?" asked Koppel.
"Uh-huh. We did it!"
"As you confront the possibility of eviction, I'm hoping it doesn't happen to you, but you must have had some sleepless nights thinking, 'What the heck am I gonna do?'"
"I have," Pierson said. "And yes, I have had many sleepless nights, but I know that even with being evicted I won't be homeless. I have family I can move in with. It'll just be really tight quarters. But all I care about is keeping a roof over my kids' heads."
"I don't wanna make your landlord out to be some kind of a villain," Koppel said. "I mean, a landlord or a landlady has a right to be paid."
"Oh, I agree with you, absolutely. It's a business. And, you know, in any business, you gotta pay for what you're getting."
- ("Sunday Morning," 9/6/20)
Rick Brown is not Jennifer Pierson's landlord. He does own eight similar properties in Winchester, Va., mainly single-family homes in roughly the same price range as Pierson's. He tries to maintain those homes himself.
He said half of his tenants aren't paying their rent now.
"I understand that we cannot go to court and evict people for nonpayment of rent," Brown said.
"You do understand that it's a moratorium," said Koppel. "In other words, they're not eliminating the rent. On January 1, that tenant would still owe you every nickel that he or she owed you before."
"Correct. We understand that," Brown said. "However, I'm struggling to pay my bills. I'm treading water. I mean, it's a tough deal right now for landlords. And like you say, we'll eventually get paid. Well, we might not get paid; but we need to get some money in there that pay these rents, and keep the banks from wanting to foreclose on us. 'Cause the banks need to get paid, and it can damage landlords' credit lines as well."
Brown is part of a lawsuit challenging the legitimacy of that CDC eviction moratorium. "This is my retirement, Ted. I mean, this is also my livelihood. So, I'm not a cold-hearted person, and the bottom line is, if I don't have my money, I have other tenants that their house would be put at risk, too. You know, it's a domino effect."
Koppel asked Desmond, "It's convenient to allocate blame, and I think our tendency is to blame the landlord, not the tenant. But I think you're saying neither one of those is totally appropriate, it's the system?"
"You know, we've reached a point in the United States where people aren't getting evicted because they're irresponsible, they're getting evicted because it's almost inevitable," he replied.
Winnie Dickerson would meet most people's definition of a good tenant. She and her family had lived in the same townhouse for 13 years. College grad, going for a Masters degree, she worked as a drug counselor, earning $50,000 a year, until the facility closed because of the pandemic. And for the first time in her life, she said, she faced eviction.
"I've also worked for the past 15 years with the homeless activity center down in Harrisonburg," Dickerson said. "So, the thought of being homeless and being in the line of the people that I had been serving, it was overwhelming."
Dickerson also has multiple sclerosis. "Being someone with an underlying condition like MS, my immune system is compromised."
Koppel asked, "Were they threatening to evict you?"
"Oh, yeah. Oh, I got the eviction letter, yeah," she said.
Dickerson has her pride. So, she withdrew all her savings and moved before she could be evicted. Eventually she found a job working with the mentally ill.
"So, I'm making not what I was making before, but I'm making nice money," she said.
"Tell me about the place you're in right now," asked Koppel.
"So, I'm paying more, way more than I was paying before," she said.
"So, maybe you should have stayed where you were?"
"Naah," she said.
Why? "It was a pandemic. I have multiple sclerosis, and you were OK with putting me out? So, that tells me you don't care about my life.
"I think that's what's missing out of America right now, is compassion for our brother. We are our brother's keeper. We bailed out Wall Street. We bailed out the airline industry because of COVID. What about giving this money to landlords, to help the tenant, so they don't have to pay back this money?"
Desmond said, "There's a moral cost to being the most resourced, the richest country on the planet, that chooses to see hundreds of thousands, potentially millions of families lose their home in January. We can do better than that as a country. We should."
For more info:
- Matthew Desmond, professor of sociology, Princeton University
- Eviction Lab, Princeton University
- "Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City" by Matthew Desmond (Crown), in Hardcover, Trade Paperback, eBook and Audio formats, available via Amazon and Indiebound
- Just Shelter
- National Low Income Housing Coalition
- Virginia Poverty Law Center Housing Advocacy
- Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement
- Photos by Michael Kienitz
Story produced by Deirdre Cohen. Editor: Ed Givnish.