Two Evictions Ago


I say it aloud whenever I find out. Motions to evict always feel like going to a higher defense condition – defcon four. In those cases, ‘shucks’ doesn’t really cut it, so I try to take evictions seriously and play my part.

I can’t do anything about hoarding or domestic violence, but back-rent is in my wheel house. There are basically three players: the resident, the owner, and the property manager. Each person has a specific goal.

Property management is seeking to pull us out of defcon four, whether that means a court agreement (defcon three) or a full eviction. They have an attorney in their back pocket to make either result legal. The owner wants to recover the arrears before it becomes losses. This is the dirty work of affordable housing.

The third and most important player is the resident. For one reason or another they didn’t pay rent. We’re not talking a month late, we’re talking three months or more. The biggest back-rent I’ve seen was over $16k. Most come out to $2,000 or so. Enter me.

If I catch it early, there’s a decent chance to resolve it. The owner has me do a diagnostic of the resident’s finances and talk with the property management. Naturally, there are always two sides:

“I stopped working in the fall and reported it. But they keep charging me the same rent!”

“The resident called us, but never signed the paperwork. We’ve been trying to get her to come in.”

“There was a problem with my residency papers and my rent went up!”

“HUD regulations say we can’t give housing subsidies to non-residents. We have to charge her market rates.”

My job can be less finance and more arbiter. It isn’t until we dive into their personal money that issues emerge and I replace the coaching hat on my head.

If growing up no one told you rent was the most important bill, would you always pay it? The answer seems intuitive, but the reality is not.

Between the lines of the resident’s budget it’s clear they have too many obligations. Phone bills, cable bills, and debt payments are usually most effecting. Advising them before they made the commitment would have been ideal, but now they’ve borrowed and they’re in it deep. The choice is either stop paying one bill and let it blow up, or face eviction.

These are the most common cases: people overloaded with monthly payments. The only way out is cutting off a limb and sabotaging your future chances of getting a car, an apartment, or an education. It’s funny how not paying Comcast’s $200 package can destroy your chance of borrowing for your child’s college. But you have to keep a roof over your head, so grab the hack saw and pay your rent.

“But I need to have my phone to call my daughter.”

“Rent first.”

“But if I don’t pay my car loan they’ll charge me fees!”

“Rent first.”

“I’m paying for my son’s funeral and that’s final. The rent can wait.”

“…rent second?”

Of course, if we can find a way to shave flexible spending (groceries, haircuts, eating out etc.) to help cover rent, that’s great. But discretionary spending is typically not where most of their money is tied up, and you need big chunks to avoid eviction.

I’ve only lost the battle twice and both of them were veterans.

A good-natured woman who served in the air-force saw her daughter move out, but they kept charging her for two people in the household. And a kind young man just leaving the marines, who didn’t know he had to report his income when he got a higher paying job.

In both cases they were referred to me late, and by the time the eviction letters arrived there wasn’t much I could do. They went to housing court with what little preparation I could provide, but neither succeeded in gaining the attorney’s favor. It was all I could do to see them off to a long journey of couch surfing.

Most affordable housing families are paying responsibly, but those cases don’t reach my desk. I dwell on the ones that do.

Last week I received two new evictions, this time for long-term clients of mine. The stakes are much higher – instead of couches they’ll be sleeping on the street. Instead of single families, there are children involved. The details of their situations are not for this blog, but both clients have had chronic financial issues since I’ve known them.

It’s a somber moment. We’ve seen financial ruin for low-income families and know what it looks like. The owner knows it. The property management knows it. The resident knows it. If the four of us can’t figure it out, the resident slips to defcon five. And all for the sake of money.





One comment

  1. Lynn Holbein · · Reply

    A great column as usual, Jeff. So consciousness raising.

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