In Dane County, where rent is high, vacancy rates are low, and affordable housing is scarce, tenants face significant risks to their housing stability and the need for wraparound services during eviction is vital.
On its face, the typical eviction is simple: a landlord wants unpaid rent or a resolution to other issues within the rental agreement. In truth, however, the typical eviction is anything but simple. It is a knotted intersection of social, political, and economic issues, all of which make housing less secure, safe, and affordable.
In Dane County, rents are high, vacancy rates are low, and affordable housing is scarce. Due to these factors, all tenants (especially those who are low-income and at the nexus of other forms of systemic oppression) face a “constant vulnerability to that roller coaster of housing insecurity,” Legal Action of Wisconsin attorney Heidi Wegleitner said.
The most common issues that EDDP clients reported as precipitating an eviction filing were employment-related. Forty-four percent of tenants in our program said they had fallen behind on rent after losing their job, having their hours cut, or while waiting for their first paycheck at a new job, according to data from EDDP intake surveys. 89% of EDDP clients had extremely low incomes at the time of their eviction filing. When rent eats up more than half of a tenant’s paycheck—as is the case with 22% of EDDP clients—even a slight reduction in hours or a few weeks off from work can be catastrophic.
Marilyn Feil, a housing specialist at Joining Forces for Families, works frequently with tenants “living on the edge economically” after losing a job or not getting enough hours. But she also sees the various other paths to eviction: a car breaking down, for instance, or an unexpected illness impacting a household or family member.
These unforeseen accidents of life are commonly reported by EDDP clients in the lead up to eviction. Nearly 20% of all tenants said health issues or medical costs caused them to fall behind on rent. This figure includes tenants who endured serious health impacts from COVID-19, underwent costly cancer treatments, or tended to a child’s illness. Additionally, tenants with behavioral health issues and those who lack access to mental health care are more likely to be evicted by their landlord.
Our weak and ineffectual social safety net makes falling into the red and into eviction court much more likely. Disability insurance, for example, has an initial denial rate of roughly 60% for first submissions and each step in the process takes 60 days, according to Peoples Law Center attorney Erica Lopez. When a client finally receives disability benefits, it is often not enough to pay rent.
Lopez uses her years-long experience as a disability lawyer in consultations with her eviction court-involved clients who are also disabled. “Very, very vulnerable people are not receiving disability benefits, which is leading to problems with income,” Lopez said. It’s an issue only exacerbated by the pandemic: “We’re seeing increasingly more and more vulnerable people,” Lopez added.
Lacking parental leave and affordable childcare options also make eviction more likely. Nearly 10% of EDDP clients reported childcare costs or being a single parent caused them to fall behind on rent. Single parents make up a shocking proportion of tenants facing eviction across the country and in Dane County. Currently, more than one-third of EDDP clients are single parents.
Enmeshed in all of these issues are entrenched racial, gender, and class inequities. Black women are more likely than any other group to be evicted in the U.S., for instance, and EDDP partners report an increasing number of clients experiencing domestic violence.
Simply put, without income-based rent subsidies (where a household pays no more than 30% of their income in rent), secure housing is “very hard to sustain,” Wegleitner said. “You’re always waiting for the next shoe to drop.”