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Planting a Seed to Grow a Movement

A colleague recently got me thinking back to my days as a landlord-tenant counselor. Answering the phone, I never knew what problems or questions I’d find on the other end. Was it a landlord with a disruptive tenant? A tenant wanting to know if a rent increase was legal? A horrifying rat infestation story? Or my repeat caller who believed that her apartment was under siege due to voodoo? More often than not, it was a call about late rent or a pending eviction due to nonpayment of rent.

For some of the tenants who called us, life was a struggle to always stay just one step away from eviction. Many were so familiar with rent court notices appearing on their doors that they didn’t even read them anymore. They learned a pattern that prevented eviction and kept following it.

Here’s how the process worked when I was a counselor in Maryland more than ten years ago. (This is not intended to describe the current eviction practices there which may have changed.) The tenant doesn’t have the rent money on the due date. The landlord waits out the late fee period and then files in court. If the tenant doesn’t appear in court or hasn’t paid the rent by then, the court will rule in favor of the landlord who can then get an eviction warrant. The landlord calls the office responsible for carrying out these warrants (usually a sheriff or constable) and schedules an eviction date. If the tenant can pay the landlord in full before the eviction starts, they get to stay.

Usually, that is.

For tenants always skirting the edge of eviction, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of rent crises and then paying in front of the sheriff or at some earlier point in this process. (By the way, the rent crisis pattern sounds tough as a tenant, but think about it as a landlord, too. It sounds like a lot of effort to essentially give the tenant an extension on their due date. And then face it again one month or maybe two months later. Would you want to rent to someone you thought was going to be repeatedly behind on the rent? I sure wouldn’t.)

Tenants in perpetual financial crisis can get used to this pattern. And the emergency rent assistance process relies on this process to distribute funds to the people most likely to get evicted. (“Bring in a copy of the warrant when you apply for help.”) But the right of redemption, as it’s called, ends if a tenant has too many judgments over a 12 month period. Then the landlord (at long last, from their perspective) gets the apartment back.

And the tenant’s perpetual crisis gets worse.

This is what happens when wages and housing costs don’t match up. It hurts renters. It hurts property owners. It hurts their neighbors and neighborhoods. And it eats up time and money in the courts and related enforcement offices.

It’s imperative for the housing movement to grow and strengthen. Rent crises are not an isolated problem. More than one in four working renter households – approximately 6 million renter households in total – had severe housing cost burden in 2011. Federal rental assistance programs break the rent crisis cycle for the people they serve, but less than one in four eligible households receives assistance.

Federal funding for vouchers, public housing, project-based rental assistance, and homelessness prevention programs are well below the level needed to prevent rent crises for the working poor, unemployed, elderly, and disabled. In addition, moderate-income households, such as teachers, fire fighters, and even urban planners, face serious challenges with unaffordable housing in many parts of the country.

Fixing this cycle of crises is going to take the efforts of all of us in a strong and united housing movement. Be clear about why housing assistance matters. Join the conversation at NHC about housing solutions that can yield broad support. And, most importantly, spread the word outside of the housing community. The movement to end housing crises won’t grow unless each of us plants a seed.

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