Matthew Desmond describes eviction as both a cause and a condition of poverty. What does that mean, and how should Missouri respond?

First, it is important to understand that there are different forms of legal eviction in our state. If a tenant damages the property, breaks the law, or violates the lease (say, by having another family move in with them), the tenant can face a legal eviction. However, the overwhelming majority of evictions in Missouri happen because the tenant is behind on rent. These evictions are called ‘Rent and Possession’ actions or R&P evictions, and in Missouri there really is no defense. People with adequate or high incomes are really unlikely to not pay their rent on time. Renters understand eviction is devastating and life-altering. Households with options almost always opt to spend less on housing, providing the ability to save for an emergency cushion. Households with low wages are much more likely to be rent burdened, paying more than 30% of their income on housing alone, and are more likely to fall behind. This means in the majority of cases, eviction and displacement happens as a result of poverty. 

However, eviction can cause poverty as well. When low income households experience a decrease in wages, they often find themselves prioritizing their household needs. Households report taking less medicine than prescribed to make their healthcare dollars stretch, reducing grocery bills, or avoiding turning on their heat or air conditioning. Living expenses are obviously high on the priority list, but if there just isn’t enough money there- folks get stuck. Research from the Eviction Lab and the Kansas City Eviction Project has shown that most R&P evictions happen for back owed rent less than a month’s rent, often even less than $500. This indicates that households pay what they can, even when it’s not enough.

When a household faces eviction, they are sometimes immediately homeless with nowhere to go. They lose household possessions, important documents, medications, and more. Heads of these households often experience lost wages or even lose their employment entirely. Children miss school and have to start over with new peer groups and teachers. The entire family experiences grief, depression, anxiety, and other serious mental health consequences. Evictions can move quickly, and in a matter of days an entire family can be turned upside down. This is why eviction is also a cause of poverty. Households barely scraping by can quickly find themselves in a dire situation. These families will struggle to secure new appropriate housing and will often experience a significant decrease in housing quality and safety.

Now imagine a public health crisis, like COVID-19. The consequences of eviction are even higher! We’ve been told for years now that the best thing we can do is stay home. Social distance, get vaccinated, and mask when around new people. Evicted households are unable to follow most of these recommendations. Especially early in the pandemic- hundreds of thousands of Missouri households saw a decrease in their wages overnight. Even now, weeks-long illnesses and hospitalizations are imposing financial devastation on our neighbors all around the state. Even households which have been able to avoid job loss or illness are feeling the strain of increased costs of goods, including groceries. 

Missouri never issued a statewide eviction moratorium. Some municipalities did, but most Missouri renters were protected only by a federal level eviction moratorium imposed by the Center for Disease control. For months, this CDC moratorium was partnered with historic investments in rental assistance designed to keep both renters and landlords financially afloat as we weathered a global pandemic. This now expired moratorium undoubtedly saved thousands of our neighbors’ lives, decreased transmission of COVID-19, and helped keep households on the bubble from diving into poverty in our state. 

Lawmakers are now trying to limit the ability of municipalities and governments from issuing life-saving eviction moratoriums again. We are not at the end of this pandemic; hospitalizations across Missouri keep hitting record highs. Even with vaccines and more knowledge, this virus has not been defeated. The CDC’s unprecedented public health order was necessary, effective, and was issued in such a way to avoid negatively impacting landlords. Why would we want to prevent such policies if they become necessary again in the future? 

Tenants in Missouri need more protection in the face of eviction. When we understand eviction to be an issue of poverty, we can understand how preventing evictions or supporting tenants in securing safe and affordable housing is an anti-poverty measure. At the very least, we shouldn’t place a limit on life saving public policy that can be implemented in Missouri. Our Friday Forum later today will focus on this subject. Our speakers will inform and engage our network on eviction reforms and best practices Missouri can implement to support all of our neighbors and neighborhoods to thrive. Join us if you can, or sign up to receive a recording after the presentation. 

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