On a recent morning in downtown Salt Lake City, Adriana Carreon stood in front of a judge and begged him not to evict her family from the home they rented in nearby West Valley City.
Seated behind Carreon were her nine children, ranging in age from 2 weeks to 15 years. Although the Carreon children are typically full of unrestrained energy, that morning they were stone silent.
"We hate to rule in these situations," Carreon recalls the judge saying before adding, "but my hands are tied." She was two months behind on her rent. He gave Carreon five days to vacate.
"What does it mean, Mama?" her 6-year-old daughter asked as Carreon turned away from the judge to her children. "What is happening to us?"
Carreon put on a brave face. "Baby we are going to be moving," she said. "But where?" her daughter asked, a note of panic in her voice.
"We'll find something," she said. The truth was she had no idea where they would go or what they would do.
Eviction is a problem that disproportionately affects America's poor, especially poor women with children. It is so common in urban poor neighborhoods that in some ways it has become part of the texture of life. In an analysis of eviction in Milwaukee, Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond found that minority women with low incomes are disproportionately impacted: Black women account for 13 percent of Milwaukee's population but make up 40 percent of those evicted. Housing lawyers in Salt Lake City, New York, Cincinnati and Los Angeles describe a similar phenomenon in eviction records.
The solution to the problem, experts say, might come as a surprise.
Trouble paying rent
The root of the problem, according to Desmond, is that "poor people can't afford to live in America anymore." Over the past 10 years, the cost of housing has increased at historic rates, explained Desmond. For example, in Milwaukee where Desmond conducted his research, the average monthly rent for a one bedroom apartment was $466 in 1997. By 2008, that same apartment cost $665.
While rent has gone up, wages have not. Minimum wage increases over the years have been "outpaced by the climbing cost of living," said Desmond. Families living on welfare have not received cost of living increases to their stipends in 10 years, he added. "The result is that the average cost of rent, even in high poverty neighborhoods, is quickly approaching the total compensation of low income families," said Desmond.
"Because such large portions of poor tenants' incomes are devoted to rent, a relatively small unexpected expense can cause them to fall behind," said Desmond. A sick child, a cab ride to see a doctor or a prescription for antibiotics can all derail a family financially.
In Carreon's case, the unanticipated event was the incarceration of her husband in April 2012. Together, Carreon and her husband, who both worked as janitors, brought in close to $4,000 dollars a month. It was just enough to cover their expenses, which included: $1,100 for rent, $500 for utilities, a $185 car payment as well as food and incidentals for their large family. Things were tight, but the couple who always wanted a large family, were making things work.
When her husband went to prison, Carreon who was one month pregnant with her ninth child, found herself trying to keep the family afloat on a much reduced income. Carreon looked for ways to reduce expenses. But there wasn't much fat to cut. She couldn't get rid of her car because public transportation doesn't operate during the early morning and late night hours she works as a janitor. Carreon freed up $150 per month by suspending orthodontic work for her older children. She took on more work and was able to bring in about $2,200 a month.
During the day, Carreon stayed at home with her young children. Every day at 5 p.m. she left for work. She wouldn't typically get home until four of five in the morning. "I might sleep for an hour or two before my kids were up and needed help getting ready for school," she said.
Around this time, she started experiencing complications related to her pregnancy, including bleeding and cramping. She went to the doctor. "The doctor told me that he didn't know how, but my baby was hanging on and that she must really want to live," said Carreon. "He told me that if I wanted to give my baby a chance at life, I needed to stop doing what I was doing," she added. In other words, she would have to quit her job and go on bed rest.
Tears well up in her eyes as she recounts the conversation. "How could I stop working when eight kids are depending on me? How could I ignore the life that was growing inside me?" she asked. "No mother should ever have to make that decision."
Carreon felt she didn't have much choice but continue to work, but she didn't forget about the child she was carrying. "I prayed every night that God would protect my baby and help her live," she said.
As the months passed, the baby managed to hang on, but Carreon struggled to make ends meet. Paying more than 50 percent of her monthly income for housing expenses was untenable. She worried how the financial stress they were in was traumatizing her children, already struggling with the fact that their father had been sent away.
By December, when Carreon's ninth child was born, the situation had gotten away from her. Two months behind on her rent and owing $1,800 to the gas company, Carreon received an eviction notice from her landlord.
Women get the brunt
In Milwaukee, where Desmond conducted his research, women made up about 60 percent of evicted tenants. He also found that while white men and women were evicted at about the same rate, black and Hispanic women were evicted significantly more often than men. Evictions among black women outranked those among men 2.5-to-1. Among Hispanics, the eviction rate for women compared to men was 1.78:1. Desmond suggests that structural factors explain these discrepancies.
"Women from these neighborhoods are overrepresented in eviction records because men from these neighborhoods are overrepresented in the criminal justice system," he said. Many landlords use the phrase 'no evictions or convictions' to determine who they will rent to. Women's names typically go on lease agreements, Desmond said, because they are less likely to have a criminal record.
Another factor is that men in high poverty neighborhoods have high unemployment rates. Women are more likely to work and so are more likely to have verifiable income, a prerequisite for getting a lease. For example, in 2011 black men had an unemployment rate of nearly 18 percent nationally while women's unemployment hovered just above 14 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The wage gap between men and women is also a factor, Desmond said. White women, for example, earn 78.1 percent of what white men earn, according to a report from the Center for American Progress. Part of the discrepancy comes from the fact that the jobs women tend to have pay less than men, but even when doing the same work, women make less than their male colleagues, and wages for people of color tend to be lower overall. African Americans earn 58.7 percent of what whites earn, while Hispanics earn 69.1 percent of what whites earn, according to 2010 Census data.
Compounding the problem is the fact that women, while earning less on average, are also more likely than men to be the custodial parents. The cost of feeding and dressing children increases monthly expenses, often putting them in a position of greater financial hardship than men. Desmond also notes that landlords tend to discriminate against mothers with children because kids can be hard on apartments and create noise. "Far from acting as a mitigating factor in the eviction decision, then, children often are an aggravating one," Desmond noted.
A downward spiral
Carreon and her family landed on their feet. With assistance from their church and a local community action program, Carreon found an apartment in Taylorsville that accepted her without questions. A portion of her monthly rent is subsidized by the Salt Lake Community Action Program. Carreon knows how fortunate she is. Things don't normally turn out this well for women in her situation.
Sindee Fell, 38, is representative of the numerous and cruel consequences of eviction in the lives of low income women and their children. Since August, Fell and her two children, a son age 5 and daughter age 17, have been living in a downtown Salt Lake City homeless shelter.
For the past five years Fell, who is unable to work because of health problems, has supported her family with a $356 per month welfare stipend and $360 in child support from her son's father. Things went sideways for the single mother when she unexpectedly stopped receiving child support.
Fell managed to pay her rent, but she fell behind on her utilities. She was ultimately evicted after seven years in her home for not paying a $290 gas bill. During the eviction proceedings, Fell was told by her landlord's lawyer, "If you would just pay your bills, you wouldn't be such a spot on society." Fell said she wanted to pay the bill — but with a weekly budget of about $90, she was making choices like paying to keep the heat on or buying groceries to feed her kids.
Caseworkers at the homeless shelter are doing what they can to help Fell and her children find a new home, but the blemish of an eviction is hard to overcome. "Evictions are a civil offense, so they go on your permanent record," said Ken Bresin, deputy director of Utah Legal Services, a federally funded nonprofit law office that provides counsel for low income families in non-criminal legal matters. If a landlord does a background check, and most do, they'll know if someone has ever been evicted, even if it was 15 years ago, Bresin said.
Fell, who graduated with honors from Taylorsville High School, has already been rejected from at least one place she applied to live. "I just keep hoping someone will look past the eviction," she said. But as the days pass, Fell admits it is hard to stay optimistic. She's been struggling with depression. "I used to want things, like my own house," she said. "I used to be a person with goals. I've given up on a lot."
Fell's children have also been deeply affected by their family situation. Tiara, Fell's 17-year-old daughter, dropped out of high school a few months ago after being taunted by classmates for living in a homeless shelter. "She is so insecure about herself," Fell said. The ridicule of her peers was too much to take. Fell hoped her daughter, who has always earned good grades, would go to college. She acknowledges that the longer they stay where they are, the less likely it is that those dreams will come true.
A public solution
While numerous private programs exist to help low income families deal with skyrocketing rents, Desmond believes the most powerful solution to the problem is publicly funded housing programs. "The solution is there," he said. "We just need to fund it."
Wait times for public housing range from a couple years in Utah to 10 years in New York City, according to Desmond. Only 25 percent of families who qualify receive public housing. "The rest are just struggling along in the private market," he said. In this way, evictions "propagate economic disadvantage and social suffering in America's urban centers," he said.
Getting public housing is life-changing for these families, Desmond said. "It's like all of a sudden they can breathe again," he said. When a person only has to pay 30 percent of their income for housing costs, they can afford to go to community college at night, give their kids stability and ultimately get out of poverty.
Another powerful and effective way to fight this problem is providing legal counsel to families served with eviction notices. In New York City courts, just 12 percent of tenants facing eviction have legal representation compared to 97 percent of the landlords, according to Chester Hartman of the Poverty and Race Research Council. In New York City, only 22 percent of represented tenants had final judgements against them compared with 51 percent of tenants without legal representation, according to Hartman.
Free legal assistance is available to low income families in most states through funding from the Legal Services Corporation, a federally funded government agency. Bresin works for the Utah affiliate of this program. Bresin and the team of lawyers who work in his office can help low income people who need legal representation.
"The problem is, most people don't find out about us until it is too late," he said.