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No one knows for sure how many people in the U.S. are evicted each year. There are estimates that it's close to a million. Many are low-income renters living paycheck to paycheck often in poor quality housing. NPR's Pam Fessler has spent the past three months following families and landlords who end up in rent court. It's there that the struggle over the lack of affordable housing plays out every day.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: LaToya Fowlkes is standing outside rent court in Baltimore, Md. A judge has just ruled that Fowlkes has to pay her landlord $4,900 in back rent and fees despite her complaints that the house has leaky water pipes, chipped paint, rodents and a huge hole in the living room wall. But Fowlkes didn't notify her landlord of the problem by certified mail - something the judge said she should've done to avoid eviction.
LATOYA FOWLKES: It's hard for tenants because tenants don't know the law. And then you have these landlords that just go and buy agents, and agents just sit there and study it. So they know a lot of stuff, they know how to get around, they know how to work the judge over, and that's not fair.
FESSLER: She's complaining about a system that's pretty common around the country where most tenants taken to court for failing to pay their rent have no legal representation while most landlords do. Fowlkes has just consulted a pro bono attorney outside the courtroom and is planning to appeal, but those attorneys can handle only a small portion of the 150,000 cases that come before Baltimore's rent court every year.
ZAFAR SHAH: The burden is really placed on tenants to have to ensure that justice happens, and they just don't have the tools to do it.
FESSLER: Zafar Shah is an attorney with the Public Justice Center in Baltimore. His group recently did a year-long study of just who ends up in the city's rent court. They found that most of the tenants are extremely poor.
SHAH: Making $2,000 or less per month.
FESSLER: And only 15 percent get housing aid such as vouchers to help cover their rent. Most are also African-American women with children who have a high school diploma or less, and usually they lose their cases. One in 17 of the city's renters is evicted each year.
MATTHEW DESMOND: Mothers with children are really the face of America's eviction epidemic.
FESSLER: Matthew Desmond is a Harvard sociologist who spent more than a year with tenants and landlords in two of Milwaukee's poorest neighborhoods. In his new book, "Evicted," he details the precarious living conditions of low-income tenants who are routinely overwhelmed by their monthly rent.
DESMOND: What we're seeing in Milwaukee is something we're seeing in Cleveland, in Indianapolis, in St. Louis, in cities all around the country.
FESSLER: He notes that most poor, renting families pay more than 50 percent of their income on housing. One in 11 expects to be evicted within the next two months. And in Milwaukee, most of those evicted have children with an average age of 7.
DESMOND: I'll never forget this one eviction I saw when I was with the sheriffs. And we went into a home, and we just saw children, just children. And what had happened was the mom had died a couple months earlier, and the kids had just gone on living in the house. And it was raining, it was like a cold winter rain, and we evicted the home and piled the children's stuff outside.
FESSLER: Desmond doesn't know what happened to those children, but many people who are evicted end up homeless, crashing with family members or moving into cheaper, less adequate housing, which only worsens the poverty that got them evicted in the first place. Desmond thinks one solution is free legal aid for low-income tenants. Studies show that those with lawyers are far more likely to avoid eviction. He says a bigger help would be...
DESMOND: To make housing vouchers universal. And the idea is very simple - everyone below a certain income level would receive a voucher and would only pay about 30 percent of their income to housing. The voucher would cover the rest.
FESSLER: Which is how housing vouchers work now, but there aren't enough of them to go around. Cities have waiting lists that are years, even decades long. Landlords also complain about too much bureaucracy which makes some of them reluctant to accept vouchers. They say the government needs to do more to encourage developers to build affordable housing.
MIKE CLARK: Then we can be successful, at least make progress. There's a long road to hoe here.
FESSLER: Mike Clark is on the board for the National Apartment Association and owns the Alpha-Barnes Real Estate Services which manages 14,000 affordable units in Texas. Clark says landlords don't want to evict tenants if they don't have to; it costs a lot of money to move a tenant out and get a new one in. He says what's needed are more incentives to increase the stock of low-income housing.
CLARK: Tax credits, property tax breaks, reduced utility rates, reduced hookups, zoning alternatives, all kinds of things like that. That's what produces housing.
FESSLER: And there are efforts across the country to do just that, but not enough to keep up with demand. So in cities like Milwaukee and Baltimore and Washington, D.C., tens of thousands of tenants and their landlords continue to meet in court. Tenants like Pamula Glover of Washington, D.C., who stopped paying her rent out of frustration that she has to live with leaks, mildew and nightly gunfire outside her apartment. She'd like to move, but says it's hard to find a better place that she can afford.
PAMULA GLOVER: The apartment may be nice, but it's just the area. It's like a give-and-take. You're going to get a good apartment, but the area's going to be unsafe. You're going to get a safe one, but the apartment's going to be high.
FESSLER: A constant trade-off for many low-income renters in a high-rent world. Pam Fessler, NPR News.
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