A 16-year-old girl helps her mother load her family's belongings into a van. They were evicted from their home in Lisbon. (Maine Public photo by Susan Sharon)
In Maine and around the country, evictions are taking a heavy toll — on landlords, tenants and their communities. For landlords, there's the challenge of covering bills when rent isn't paid. For chronically poor tenants, getting evicted often leads to homelessness. And for neighborhoods, studies show, high eviction rates contribute to instability and, with it, increased crime.
This is the first in a series of reports about the fallout from eviction.
By Susan Sharon, Maine Public August 6, 2018
It's a crisis that hasn't been unpacked in a detailed way until this year. For the first time, a decade's worth of eviction data has been compiled by Princeton University's Eviction Lab, which found that about 900,000 families a year are evicted across the country — an estimated 2.3 million people.
"In the past 20 or 30 years the average rent has skyrocketed but the average wage has stagnated, and that's set up a situation where the poorest renters, people really feel the squeeze, and it creates a kind of perfect storm where we can see in eviction an explosion," says Adam Porton, one of the researchers at the lab.
Last year, 5,700 eviction cases were filed with Maine courts — including nearly 1,000 in Lewiston District Court, where the eviction rate is above the national average. But that statistic doesn't reflect the total number of people shown the door. It doesn't include "informal evictions," or cases that never make it to court because the tenants leave on their own. Nor does it capture the number of children affected.
Take the case of Tina, a single mom with four kids, ages 2-16, who for the past several years has been renting a small, three-bedroom house in Lisbon Falls.
"We are due to be evicted from our apartment on May 15, because I simply had asked last year for the landlord to repair our leaking roof and he refused," she says.
For privacy reasons, Tina asked that we not use her real name. She has a full-time job at a call center and says she spends most of her paycheck on rent: $1,000 a month. She also has to cover the cost of heat.
This is not unusual or sustainable. According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 21 million renter households pay more than half of their income on housing and 1 in 4 of the very poorest renters pays nearly 70 percent toward rent and basic utilities. Anything over 30 percent is considered "cost-burdened," meaning it puts families at risk of being unable to afford other basic necessities like food and medicine.
Tina receives no housing or other assistance. She gets a small amount of child support, but once her bills are paid she says she's left with about $200 to spend on food.
In October, when a heavy windstorm brought down torrents of rain, the ceiling leaked. Tina lined up buckets on the floor.
"I could not get the buckets emptied fast enough, and it's part of our living room and the living room is the main area, so I had to squish all the kids into a bedroom or the kitchen for them just to play because it was so wet, so gross in there," she says.
A report by the code enforcement officer who later visited the property described the problem as "failing shingles" covered with a "tarp (that) has rotted away." The report found other code violations: a lack of smoke detectors, electrical and safety hazards, including a lack of stair railings and a broken heating system.
For Tina, the leaking ceiling was the last straw. She'd grown tired of waiting for the landlord to fix problems around the house, so she paid a visit to Pine Tree Legal Assistance, which provides help to low-income clients with some civil matters free of charge.
"And I asked them, 'Is it legal for me to withhold a part of my rent until he fixes the problem?' They said yes, I have to mail him a letter first, certified mail letting him know what I'm doing, which I did," she says.
Tina says instead of paying $1,000, she paid $750 and set aside the rest in the bank. She told her landlord he would get all of the rent money once he fixed the roof.
"His response was, 'That is illegal, you cannot withhold rent and I want you out,'" she says.
The first eviction notice arrived a few days before Christmas. But the landlord didn't fill out the paperwork correctly, so the case was dismissed at eviction court. A few weeks later, the same thing happened.
Eviction Cases Filed in Maine, fiscal years 2013-2017
Tina went to eviction court three times. Each time she missed work. But despite what her attorney, David Morse of Pine Tree Legal, says was a strong defense, she declined to proceed to trial.
"As a lawyer, I would love to take all these cases where I see any merit to trial, because I feel good about the chances. But I can't make that decision for people, because I'm not the one who's going to be out on the street in a week if things don't go my way," Morse says.
Fearful that she might lose and be forced to move out in just a few days, Tina instead negotiated an agreement that called for vacating the property in about six weeks.
About a week before the deadline, she hasn't been able to find a new place and doesn't know what she'll do.
"I don't know," she says, crying. "I've been looking everywhere. It's very overwhelming."
Tina's agreement comes amid a statewide shortage of affordable rental housing. On average, the National Low Income Housing Coalition finds that "for every 100 extremely low-income households, only 35 affordable rental homes are available."
A recent report from that group finds that Maine's rental market is one of the least affordable in the country.
Frank D'Alessandro of Pine Tree Legal Assistance says the fact is that there's no affordable housing for a low-income person unless they are lucky enough to get housing assistance. And this is also true for the majority of his clients who work.
"If their car breaks down, if their child gets sick and they can't go to work, they don't get paid and they can't pay their rent. So none of the housing is affordable because all of our clients who work are barely one paycheck away from disaster," he says.
Adding to her anxiety is Tina's suspicion that her landlord is painting her as a bad tenant. Reached by telephone, the landlord insists that's not the case. No one has asked him for a reference, he says. In fact, no one has even called.
The landlord declined requests to be interviewed or to talk on tape for this story, but says he evicted Tina for failing to pay her rent and damaging his property.
By Mother's Day, the following week, Tina has packed up some possessions to take to a rented a storage unit, but she'll leave her furniture behind. She can't afford to hire a mover.
Tina is still not sure where she'll go. Her parents live in the next town, but Tina says they're in no position to help. They're on a fixed income and their house is small, with just two bedrooms.
Tina's oldest daughter has an idea.
"I'm honestly trying to see if I can ask one of my friends if I can stay over at her house so she can help me. But, I don't know," she says with a sigh.
She thinks this might be a way to ease the family's burden and meet the landlord's deadline.
"To be honest, I don't like this idea at all. I don't understand why he's doing this," Tina's daughter says.
The kids worry about their cat, who they can't bring to a shelter. And they're upset about possibly changing schools — they don't want to leave their friends and teachers so late in the year.
Tina considers staying put until the family is ordered to leave by the sheriff's office.
"I have a giant tent out in the garage. I'm thinking about just pitching that up on the lawn and just sleeping there. Camp out in the front yard. I don't know what else to do," she says.
Studies show that once low-income renters lose housing, they are more vulnerable than ever to being homeless. This is especially true for families. For Tina, going to a homeless shelter is a last resort. But she also recognizes that she may not have a choice.
The storage unit Tina has rented is in an old barn and runs $30 a month. She and her oldest daughter have taken the day off work and school to load their belongings into a van.
With help from Pine Tree Legal Assistance, Tina was able to negotiate for additional time to move out of her Lisbon house. But on her tight budget, the family still hasn't found another place to live.
"You gotta do what you gotta do for the kids," she says. "If it means you gotta put all their stuff in storage by yourself, then that's what you gotta do."
They carry boxes up two flights of stairs and down a long, ramshackle corridor. A large, thin piece of plywood bends slightly each time someone walks across the gaping hole it covers in the middle of the 2nd story floor.
Tina's daughter hesitates, afraid of falling through.
"You get what you pay for. This was the cheapest one, so, just go," Tina says. "The stuff that we're putting here is irreplaceable. Like the memories of the kids' childhoods and everything like that."
"Little kids toys will be fine," Tina's daughter says.
"If it can't fit in the locker then it's gonna be whatever the landlord decides to do with it, I guess," Tina says.
Tina is leaving the kids' beds and other furniture behind — without help, it's impossible for her to move it. Getting the stuff out of the house now becomes her landlord's problem.
Matt Mastrogiacomo, a Lewiston attorney who represents property owners, says this is yet another out-of-pocket expense for landlords. And by the time a tenant is evicted, he says, rent hasn't been coming in for awhile. It's money they typically don't get back.
"If the landlord is going to try to recoup those losses, they've gotta then do a separate action such as a small claims or civil lawsuit against the tenant. The reality of the situation is that the tenant's not able to afford their past due rent. The landlord's just not gonna ever be able to recover that money because it's not cost effective to sue every single tenant," he says.
That's one reason landlords and tenants often work out "informal evictions" — agreements outside of court to part ways on their own.
"An informal eviction is where a landlord will go to a tenant and say, 'Hey, it looks like you're behind, and if you're out by the first I won't file, but I need you out,'" says Porton, Eviction Lab research specialist. "The tenant may decide to cut their losses and leave. And so that's not recorded by a court, but it's still a kind of displacement. Certainly, our numbers on the website are undercounts of the true scope of rental displacement and eviction."
And that displacement has consequences. Porton says it's often hardest on children.
A little over a week since Tina was evicted from her house in Lisbon, she and the kids moved in with her parents for several days. And then she found a new place to rent in the country. They've only begun to get settled in.
Tina now has a 45-minute commute each way just to get the kids to and from school. Then she has to drive to work. This means a much earlier start in the morning.
"Instead of leaving at 6 a.m. we have to leave at 5:30 a.m., and then we don't get home until 6:30 or 7 p.m., so the kids have no time to wind down beside on the way here," she says.
Tina says she's exhausted. On top of that, she has come down with strep throat and missed additional work. But she likes this new place. It has only two bedrooms, but there are kitchen counters, new appliances and windows that work. That wasn't the case in the other house.
She's also paying $100 a month less in rent.
"I have to pay for all the utilities, but the landlord here gave me tips on calling Community Concepts before June to sign up for heating assistance, so they're already helping me, which is more than my last one," she says.
Tina is spending more on gas for travel then she ever has before. But that will come to an end this fall, when the kids start attending school in their new town which is causing Tina's oldest daughter some anxiety about leaving her teachers and her friends behind.
"I guess it may be a little harder to get the teachers to understand my problems," she says. "I'm really socially awkward and I don't really talk to people in the first place I don't know."
The eviction was stressful enough, she says. She didn't understand why they were being kicked out or how far away they would have to move. And now she's adjusting to the idea that in her new home, it may take awhile before she feels like she fits in.