How power dynamics can lead to housing instability

– by Eric Hauge, Director of Organizing and Public Policy at HOME Line

“The 1968 Civil Rights Act made housing discrimination illegal, but subtler forms prevailed…equal treatment in an unequal society could still foster inequality.” -Evicted

“It was not that low-income renters didn’t know their rights. They just knew those rights would cost them.” -Evicted

A critical piece of Matthew Desmond’s research was the unique combination of housing court analysis, surveying, and in-person interviews that demonstrated the power dynamics of tenant/landlord relationships, the disproportionate influence of evictions on communities of color, and an emphasis on threats to housing instability beyond the formal court eviction process. While describing the uphill battle tenants face in court, Desmond reiterates that “for every eviction executed through the judicial system, there are two others executed beyond the purview of the court, without any form of due process.”

Locally, we’ve worked to reproduce aspects of Desmond’s analysis around formal, measurable court cases. A 2016 report identified that nearly half of renter households in North Minneapolis experienced an eviction filing in the past 3 years. Further, it showed that eviction filings resulted in tenant displacement in two-thirds of cases; either a result of a court order or a part of a settlement, and in the vast majority of cases renters did not have an attorney. It is clear that eviction filings are harmful to families: not only do they directly contribute to displacement, they also have long-term consequences on access to future housing, especially at a time when aggressive tenant screening practices are the standard.

Meanwhile, we know that renters face other risks outside of the judicial system. Those who are advised on HOME Line’s free legal tenant hotline–around 15,000 each year from throughout the state–are commonly facing issues directly influencing their ability to remain in their homes. Far too often, they are relying on “fragile leases:” those that renew on a monthly basis and can be terminated with minimal notice. Despite other legal protections that might be in place, those lease terms can lead a family to homelessness at a moment’s notice.

Frequent advice provided on our tenant hotline is around repairs of poor housing conditions, infestations, formal eviction cases and informal notices to vacate. While informed legal advice can help in some cases, in many others it unfortunately boils down to the power dynamic that led to those fragile lease terms. Couple that with the anxiety of facing retaliatory actions by a landlord; especially when tenants assert their rights to improve their home. Is it worth placing your family in a risky and adversarial situation with your housing provider, in an intimidating court system, with an eviction filing and a poor housing reference hanging over your head?

To address this housing instability, creating and preserving affordable housing is essential. However, important protections and interventions must also occur within tenant/landlord relations and the court system to level the playing field. This includes stronger tenant protections around displacement without cause, incentives for mediation and diversion programs outside of eviction court, and key investments in resources similar to NYC’s recently enacted “Civil Gideon” law, to ensure legal representation for all low-income renters experiencing eviction.

 

Eric

Eric Hauge is the Director of Organizing and Public Policy at HOME Line, an organization that provides free and low-cost legal, organizing, education, and advocacy services so that tenants throughout Minnesota can solve their own rental housing problems.

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