When James Shelby, a Black St. Louis native who goes by the name Qadhafi, finally took off the shoes he had been wearing since he walked out of prison, his feet were bleeding. It was August of 2019, and he’d been walking from bus stop to bus stop for five days, through Kansas City’s summer rainstorms and muggy heat, trying to find a place to sleep without drawing the attention of the police or anyone else who might send him back to jail. He was 58 years old, and after over two decades of incarceration he was homeless—a condition he was beginning to think his arrest record might keep him in forever.
“Once you get in poverty, you reach a certain status at the bottom of the totem pole and you never get back up again,” he said. ”It’s designed this way.”
Shelby had a small amount of money saved to resettle, but when he started looking for apartments—no easy task while learning to use the Internet for the first time—he was repeatedly rejected. He was a convicted felon, and “that was the end of the conversation.” Shelby reckons he could have found a place in a “drug-ridden, crime-infested” part of town, but worried that being in a poor and heavily policed neighborhood would be the fastest way to lose his newfound freedom.
It’s been a year, and Shelby now calls a 2007 Honda Odyssey home. The car has been a lifeline, especially because a host of medical issues he developed in prison make it hard to walk. But it’s a far cry from having an actual roof over his head, especially because he estimates he’s been stopped by the police over 10 times in the past year.
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“Every day of my life it’s about how ends are gonna meet,” he said. “Housing should be a human right, everybody deserves a place to live to lay their head, that sense of security.”
Shelby is now organizing with Kansas City Tenants, which he hopes, as eviction moratoriums put in place at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic begin to lift across the country, can help others from landing in his position. With record rates of joblessness, housing experts warn of an “avalanche” of evictions and as many as 40 million people losing their homes by the end of the year.
The eviction crisis in the United States is not new: In 2016, long before the pandemic, an average of four evictions were filed every minute. But today, as those numbers threaten to escalate to epidemic proportions, it’s important to understand how they’re linked to another large-scale national reckoning: the one playing out on streets nationwide over policing.
Shelby’s experience dramatizes a much larger trend: Behind the moving trucks, changed locks, and dreams deferred lies a complex system of financial regulations and shadowy corporate entities all aided and abetted by the police. As eviction courts gear up across the country, protests in response to police violence are still raging, putting America’s policing and housing crises on a collision course.
For years, Evon Hill has watched the mold crawl up the walls of her Los Angeles apartment, knowing that her landlord won’t do anything about it. More recently, she’s added a bedbug infestation to her list of unaddressed complaints. Hill suspects this isn’t a benign oversight: She says her landlord has even offered her money to move out. Hill describes a pattern of neglect and pressure that’s often used to push low-income tenants out so that landlords can raise the rent and find new tenants.
“I think they’re trying to make it uncomfortable for me so I’ll move,” said Hill. “But I can’t go anywhere, I can’t afford anything else right now.”
Many renters are in situations like Hill’s: trapped in low-quality housing. Hill is on Section 8, a federal program that provides housing vouchers for very low-income, disabled, and elderly Americans. Only one in four people who qualify for rental assistance receive it, and many spend years on the Section 8 waiting list. If they do receive it, landlords routinely discriminate against Section 8 applicants and the voucher has a rent ceiling that often relegates tenants to poor neighborhoods.
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In Los Angeles County, where Hill lives, the availability of affordable housing, in the form of one-bedroom apartments under $1,000, was cut by more than half from 2010 to 2018. She’s also been in her apartment for more than 15 years, which means rents have skyrocketed—today, the median rent in Los Angeles is nearly half the county’s median income. Hill is Black, and she worries about the safety of her 15-year-old son in the neighborhoods they could afford if they had to move. She is also disabled, multiplying the difficulties of finding a suitable apartment.
Hill’s situation is shared by many families across the nation: Between 1990 and 2017, while nearly 11 million housing units were added to the national renting stock, affordable housing declined by nearly 4 million units. The gains in housing net growth have been entirely limited to higher-income renters or renters with higher rent burdens.
The extra financial pressures of the pandemic—mainly unexpected medical bills and buying food in bulk—means Hill has missed rent payments, escalating her financial burden.
Hill’s case exemplifies why the term “housing market” is misleading. In many markets, sellers are largely indifferent to who buys their product and profit is determined by costs, price, and quantity sold. It makes sense to think that who rents which apartments is largely explained by what different people can afford. But the housing market for renters works differently. Sociologists Matthew Desmond (the author of Evicted) and Nathan Wilmers find that poor and affluent renters pay similar amounts of rent. Landlords renting to working-class renters face more financial risks because they’re more likely to have unstable incomes and social lives, presenting landlords with the risk of nonpayment or unexpected vacancies. Yet, surprisingly, landlords renting to working-class tenants make more profit—nearly twice as much, adjusted for risk and additional costs—as those renting to the affluent.
American social systems work to protect the investments of landlords by shifting the financial and social risks of housing toward its most vulnerable people: low income, Black, brown, and Indigenous peoples. A central enforcement mechanism of these social systems is the police.
While working-class and affluent renters pay similar amounts of rent, they do not both get what they pay for. When tenants apply for housing, landlords perform background checks which makes the most overpoliced—particularly Black and brown working-class people—vulnerable to discrimination and housing insecurity.
Hundreds of US-based companies profit from a web of nefarious private surveillance. Tenant-screening companies comb through people’s credit records, criminal background information, and civil court filings involving disputes between tenants and their previous landlords. They often use algorithms to generate reports on prospective tenants without any human review at all, a chancy process that can confuse the history of different people with the same names, producing errors that have led to many denied rental applications and hundreds of lawsuits. These “professional risk management” companies then sell this information to landlords, who use it to screen potential applicants—applicants like James Shelby.
Sociologist Gretchen Purser argues that being listed on a database as having appeared in housing court functions much like a criminal record. This kind of designation pushes prospective tenants out of the formal housing market and into more informal and less secure living situations. Landlords avoid these “listed” tenants, trapping them in an expanding “circle of dispossession.” With each new piece of legal data gathered, whether a criminal record, poor credit, or an eviction, it becomes more likely that a renter will experience housing insecurity in the future.
Tiana Caldwell, 42, learned this the hard way during the six months of last year she spent homeless, bouncing from hotel to hotel in the Kansas City area with her husband and son. Caldwell was in the middle of her second bout of cancer and desperate for stability. She estimates they were applying for two or three apartments a week—racking up $30–60 application fees per person—during that period. Every time, they were rejected.
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“They don’t even give you the opportunity to explain or hold a conversation. Your whole being is what they see on that application, that piece of paper,” she said.
The cost of cancer treatment meant they had fallen behind on rent payments at their previous apartment. According to Caldwell, they had a nonprofit lined up to help them with rent, but their landlord wasn’t willing to wait. The eviction that followed has stuck to them like a scarlet letter.
“We got to the point where we didn’t even worry about what area it was in or how it looked, we would have taken it,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what condition the housing is in. The law is in place that tells them they don’t have to [rent to us] and they don’t. They don’t think about the humanity of it on the other side.”
Working-class renters with a history of incarceration, credit problems, or previous evictions are overwhelmingly more likely to be consigned to dilapidated and poorly maintained housing, when they can find it at all. Even well-maintained housing may be affordable precisely because it “prices in” neighborhood-level problems. For example, the only homes some prospective tenants can afford may be in environmentally polluted, aggressively policed, or otherwise dangerous communities—as Evon Hill worried about with her son. Both of these possibilities contribute to landlords’ profit margins: Rather than charging significantly less rent, landlords can simply relegate the vulnerable to housing with a lower property value and use the tenants’ lack of housing options as leverage to delay or deny needed repairs.
Once housing is granted, open communication between police departments and property owners continues to shift risks from landlords to renters. This trend in policy has been linked to the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act signed under the Reagan Administration, which mandated that public housing authorities make any criminal activity (including drug use, trafficking, or possession) grounds for eviction of entire families, regardless of whether the activity was done by a family member or a guest. Since then, a trend of “crime-free housing” proliferated across the country affecting public and private housing alike. This trend functionally deputized landlords to use their ability to evict in the service of the broader apparatus of policing. In one case, the Portland Police Bureau held a workshop teaching landlords to use the screening process. John Campbell, the local businessman and “anti-crime activist” who led the workshop, went on to give such training to 12,000 people in Portland alone and held “special sessions” in 29 states.
Some laws allow or even require police departments to report 911 calls to the owners of the property. In many cases, these “nuisance ordinances” confront victims of domestic violence with the threat of eviction if they call police for help during a violent interaction—either directly (as a result of the landlord’s response) or indirectly (if the call leads to incarceration and lost income). Nuisance ordinances typically apply whether or not the resident was a victim of the nuisance activity. Desmond reports in Evicted that the Milwaukee Police Department issued a nuisance property citation to residential property owners every 33 hours in 2008 and 2009.
Caldwell, like Shelby, is now working with the Kansas City tenants union in the hopes of helping people like her own family. She says that since eviction courts have reopened in the state, their hotline has received multiple calls from women experiencing domestic violence who are unwilling to call the police for fear of eviction.
Geographer and prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore defines racism as “the state-sanctioned and/or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” The housing market is an especially visceral example of the phenomenon Gilmore describes: Black women had evictions filed at twice the rate of white renters in 17 states. Families are also especially vulnerable. Among renting households, nearly half of Black children and 44 percent of Hispanic children are either living in a house that is behind on rent or where there isn’t enough to eat, alongside 35 percent of white children who face these conditions. A team of researchers (including Desmond) found that the presence of children makes a household more likely to receive an eviction judgement in Milwaukee’s court system.
Further, the racism of policing itself results in a vicious policing-housing insecurity cycle. The housing system relegates families like Evon and her son to poor neighborhoods, which often have a higher police presence and levels of violence, linked to disinvestment, intergenerational trauma, and the structure of policing itself. As a result, residents are more likely to get arrested or otherwise involved in activity that attracts the attention of police—exactly what Shelby feared if he selected the housing that allowed convicted felons. This police presence may result in arrest or notification of their landlord, given nuisance property ordinances, and thus in evictions, or giving the landlord leverage to prevent tenants from negotiating for maintenance or upkeep.
From surveillance to substandard housing to eviction, every stage and level of the housing market converts the social precarity of the racially targeted, overpoliced working class into security and profit for landlords.
Across the country, systems are gearing up for mass evictions: In Kansas City, they are already being conducted in person and by conference call. Columbus, Ohio, has converted a convention center into a makeshift housing court in anticipation of continuing eviction proceedings. In Wisconsin, the eviction ban expired on May 26, and in June the city of Milwaukee’s eviction rate spiked 26 percent higher than the same month the previous year. Alieza Durana of Princeton’s Eviction Lab called this “the canary in the coal mine” of the coming onslaught. Of the 1,447 evictions recorded that month, 978 were in predominantly Black neighborhoods.
This is setting the stage for perhaps the most direct—and dangerous—way that housing and policing intersect. Depending on the state, sheriffs, constables, marshals, or police departments will be charged with executing legal writs of eviction: that is, with removing people and their belongings from their homes by force of law. As tenants begin to organize in their own defense, the police are likely to be called in to defend landlords and private property. We’re already seeing early evidence of this: In Washington, D.C., management at one apartment called the police on organizers with the D.C. Tenants Union who were canvassing the building as part of a campaign to cancel rent. The police officers demanded that the organizers leave the building, enforcing building management’s internal policy on “soliciting,” in violation of the D.C. Tenants’ Bill of Rights, which expressly grants tenants the right to “distribute literature, post information, and provide building access to an outside tenant organizer” (one of the organizers even lived in the building).
“In the middle of a pandemic, we’re going to be sending the police into black communities to extract them from their houses,” says Erica Smiley, the executive director of Jobs With Justice. “That’s basically the situation that we’re setting up, where people are facing the triple crisis of being black, being targeted by the police, and potentially being out on the street.”
The housing and policing crises are set to meet this year’s compound crisis of Covid-19 and climate change: Scientists forecast wildfires, hurricanes, and floods. All of this, combined with the social unrest from their socioeconomic fallout, will further test our political systems and will disproportionately affect the same marginalized people. The fate of the world will depend on what our political systems work to protect. The future of policing is at the heart of this question, since law enforcement institutions are those that at least nominally serve to protect public safety and security.
“It’s dehumanizing not to be able to have your own place, it takes away your dignity,” Shelby said. “Having a safe place to live and to lay your head, that’s a base for everything being all right, to healing, to being able to develop a sense of self-worth.”
As Shelby explains, a person’s security is often reliant on one factor: a decent place to live. But for too many people, the police are an obstacle to the security that law enforcement is ostensibly meant to provide.
Abigail HigginsAbigail Higgins is a journalist in Washington, D.C., covering inequality, health, and gender.
Olúfẹ́mi O. TáíwòOlúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò is an assistant professor of philosophy at Georgetown University, where he teaches social/political thought and ethics.