In 2016, a largely-overlooked crisis of American life was explored by a book that has forced us to rethink housing in our country. “Evicted,” by Matthew Desmond, shed light on the impact of the affordable housing crisis in the United States. Desmond, through extensive research and a compelling narrative chronicling the lives of both tenants and landlords in Milwaukee, uncovered some of the biggest challenges facing poor residents of urban America.
Desmond found that most poor renting families in the United States spend over half their income on rent, with some spending nearly three-quarters of their income on rent and housing-related bills. His book paints a realistic portrait of both renters and property owners, sometimes sympathetic and sometimes less than flattering. He makes clear that our country’s housing woes impact everyone involved, with tenants caught in a vicious cycle of poverty and eviction, and landlords struggling to keep properties filled with reliable tenants.
The problems featured in “Evicted” are much more acute in poorer areas of the United States, but they are problems that many Americans are facing. Over one-quarter of American renters say their rent is either unaffordable or just barely affordable, causing them to cut other important costs in their lives. The affordable housing crisis is likely to continue unless major changes come to our housing system. Here are a few of the challenges it poses to tenants and landlords.
From the Perspective of Tenants…
Housing is, by far, the biggest expense in their lives. They are forced to spend less on food, healthcare, education and other essential needs. Financial advisers suggest that renters spend no more than 30 percent of their income on rent so they can invest in savings and meet other basic needs, yet that percentage is little more than a pipe dream for many renters in the United States.
When you can’t make rent, you run the risk of being evicted, which goes on your record and makes finding another rental even more challenging. Evictions lead to homelessness, job loss and mental health problems.
From the Perspective of Landlords…
When tenants struggle to make rent, landlords struggle to pay their own bills. Many landlords have mortgages on their rental properties, and losing a steady stream of income can eat into savings and make mortgage payments difficult. If a tenant’s failure to pay rent prompts a landlord to replace that tenant with a new one, they also find that the never-ending carousel of new renters affects the quality and value of their property
If a landlord evicts a tenant, they also run the risk of a property’s being vacant for a month or more, which can further their financial setbacks. When landlords seek payment through the court, they often end up settling for less than they would have received through steady rent payments, and they also run the risk of not getting any of that money back.
Affordable Rent is Best for Everyone
Renters and landlords react to the demands of their market, even if they aren’t directly aware of how these macro-changes affect their decisions. Landlords set prices that make their property desirable and competitive, but also meet their own financial needs. Tenants find housing that they can afford with their income, preferably, in a location that is safe and close to their job. Both groups are parts of a larger mechanism over which they have little control.
Unaffordable rent has ripple effects that impact tenants and landlords alike. “Evicted” has led to a greater understanding of the problem, and is even being passed around to lawmakers who will play a significant role in finding answers to these problems. Let’s hope the message takes root and that we can find a path forward that benefits renters and landlords alike.
Rebekah Damen Lusk a partner at the Maryland law firm Thienel & Lusk, LLC Attorneys at Law. Her practice includes civil litigation, business, employment, landlord/tenant, real estate, family, equine and animal law.