Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Lessons from America - Evicted

"Three generations of Hinkstons, eight people all up, lived in a two bedroom, one bathroom apartment in Milwaukee. It was cramped and mouldy, there were roaches everywhere and no repairs got done. They were there because they had been evicted from their five bedroom house, home for 7 years, and had nowhere else to go. Now sharing couches and the floor, the children couldn't get a proper night's sleep and fell asleep during the day, even through classes. The adults had to find a way to scrape together enough money to find somewhere better."

But the rent has to be paid in the meantime - so will they get to move in their own time, or will they be evicted first?

Evicted should be required reading for all. The holistic nature of the issues raised mean there is no one with a passing effect on our housing system who should not feel some responsibility for that effect.
Evicted is written by Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond, who lived in the communities he writes about and has previously experienced homelessness first hand. His work excoriates any lingering doubt that society does have an ongoing responsibility to make sure its people not only have a roof above their head at any one time, but a home in which they can plant roots.

Desmond followed the eviction experiences of 8 families in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. These stories demonstrate some part of the range of issues preventing poorer people in the United States from housing themselves and their families. There are single mothers, recovering addicts, crowded multi-generation families. Evicted also pulls back the curtain on the thinking of landlords by following both sides of an eviction. Empathy, understanding and flexibility are all demonstrated - but so is the ultimate divergence of interests. If the rent isn't paid, or the repairs aren't worth the hassle, there is only one response: eviction.

Milwaukee is not Sydney or Dubbo or Albury. Australia is not the United States. What lessons can we take from Evicted? There is a temptation to take the US as a warning, a guide of how not to house people. It can be comforting to feel that things are not as bad here, but that is dangerous thinking which allows things to get exactly as bad here as they are shown to be there.

For instance, Desmond cites the American Housing Survey 2013 that between 50-70% of low-income renters in America are paying 50% of their income on housing (including rent, utilities, and other charges required to house yourself). Our figures look better at first blush - somewhere between 20-40% of low income renters are paying more than 50% income on rent. However, our measures are generally limited to rent. Housing costs properly includes all the things needed to make a dwelling habitable - no one should live in a home without running water or electricity. When utilities are thrown back into the mix, we start to look very similar to the US. An examination of the 2011 Census suggests that at least 50% of low income renting households report paying more than 50% of their household income on housing costs under the same definition as the US.

In part our better position is because of the Commonwealth Rent Assistance. Of Australian renters receiving CRA, which includes renters who are in moderate, or even high, ranges of incomes, more than 25% of CRA recipients would pay more than 50% of their income just on their rent. Include the CRA payment and the number is halved to just 13%.

Evicted also brings to light the structural nature of continuing impoverishment. In the United States structural housing insecurity comes down most strongly on people of colour, and especially black men and women:

There are no figures on similar rates of eviction for Aboriginal people in NSW. In fact, there are no figures on rates of eviction for anyone in NSW, or Australia. We simply do not know how many people are booted every year, nor the cost of those forced moves both to the families being evicted, and to the economy in lost wages, increased support services, and motivated workers. Desmond knows these figures because he previously designed and carried out the Milwaukee Area Renters Survey, a truly impressive piece of work that Sydney and Australia sorely needs to replicate.

The final element of interest to us here in Australia is the impact of tenancy legislation. In Milwaukee, no grounds notices are permitted - and are explicitly used to cover the same multitude of sins we see here in New South Wales. Repairs do have strict codes but enforcing the standards often means becoming vulnerable to eviction in response.

Tenant representation in eviction proceedings in Milwaukee is rare and expensive - only generally available to well-off tenants. In New South Wales we are better off - though our Tenant Advocacy services are severely underfunded and unable to offer assistance to all who need it. The bread and butter work of the Civil and Administrative Tribunal (and its predecessor the CTTT) is tenancy evictions, making up approximately 60% of its entire workload.

If we want renters to have stable, affordable and liveable homes, we need to make a conscious effort to create that environment. It will require significant changes to the way renting is viewed by lawmakers and landlords. Separating the interests of those two groups may be the biggest change of all.

An excerpt from Evicted was published in the New Yorker and is available here:

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