The Housing Crisis: What Cities Can Do

 The Housing Crisis in Cities, Featuring Matthew Desmond

Wednesday, November 18, 2020 – This event has already occurred.

View the recording

Over the last two decades, the US has experienced an unprecedented housing crisis. Housing costs have doubled, while income has remained stagnant. Most renting households who live below the poverty line spend at least half of their income on rent and utility costs. Seven evictions happen per minute in the US, regardless of a city’s size or average housing costs.

This problem has only been exacerbated by the health and financial crises brought on by the pandemic. While there have been some measures taken to mitigate this, estimates suggest that 30-40 million people could be at risk of eviction at the end of this month. This will lead to massive displacement and suffering, and also an avalanche of costs for local public health and social service systems.

To help mayors address this worsening crisis, we invited Dr. Matthew Desmond, author of the Pulitzer-winning Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City to join us for our virtual fall Keynote. (Are you with a member city? Contact us for exclusive access to the recording.)

The event was moderated by Mayor Lovely Warren (Rochester, NY) who has been a leader on this issue, from helping her residents participate in affordable housing to rehabilitating housing stock. This timely and important discussion raised several key takeaways for cities:

Eviction is a cause of poverty, not just a symptom

After being evicted, families typically move into worse housing and neighborhoods–ultimately affecting all future housing applications. Evictions lead to job instability, worse educational outcomes for children, and higher rates of mental illness. The crisis also destabilizes family, community and neighborhood ties. Understanding the impact of evictions on communities is critical to advancing policies that address this inequitable system.

Most evictions occur over very small amounts of money

According to Desmond, data shows that most evictions are actually for less than two months of rent, and over a third of families across the country are evicted for less than a month’s worth of owed rent.

Local leaders should track evictions from subsidized housing, as a first step, to understand the full picture in their communities, and to help best target expansions of available emergency assistance. While the Eviction Lab tracks overall data, there is more work to do. Additionally, eviction-prevention and mediation programs are significantly cheaper to implement than the many government processes needed to carry out evictions. For example, Homestart in Boston, MA provides mediation techniques, flexible funds and other resources to help households retain housing and avoid going to shelters, which in turn saves the state about $28,000/year.

Serial evictions are a critical problem

Nationally, more than 30% of filed evictions are serial cases, meaning that this isn’t a tenant’s first eviction. This increases people’s housing costs through fines and fees and lost time at their jobs, making it even harder to break the housing instability cycle.

To address this, local leaders can help make evictions the last, not first, resort. For example, according to Desmond, an increase in landlord filing fees over $200 leads to a 15% drop in evictions, and requiring landlords to serve eviction notices first leads to a 22% drop. Cities can also consider regulating late fees and rent deadlines. According to the Eviction Lab: “Serial eviction filings are often the result of mismatches between these pay schedules and strict monthly rent deadlines. These deadlines are institutional holdovers from a bygone era. They should be adjusted to reflect contemporary pay schedules.”

The poor pay more for housing

In many cities, data shows it is more lucrative for landlords to rent in poor neighborhoods. While it is true that landlords in poor neighborhoods assume a higher risk, these risks are overestimated, which often means larger profit margins. To address this and keep costs lower in poor neighborhoods, Desmond suggests local leaders identify opportunities to support home ownership for more renters and mitigate the risks for homeowners.

Data and Best Practices for Cities

We have compiled a list of the best resources available, starting with Desmond’s work through the Eviction Lab:

You can also find resources  here for working to help ensure safe, affordable housing in your community.