By Isaac Monks
One day in March 2016, V arrived home to see an eviction notice on the doorstep of her
apartment in New Jersey. She frantically threw her personal belongings in bags to take with her. While collecting her belongings, she heard a faint police siren on its way to lock her out of the home she’d centered her life around.
This was not the first time V had been evicted. In 2011, V lived with her now-husband and friends in New York during her sophomore year in college. She came home from long school days and worked to make ends meet. V felt successful. But her suitemates struggled to pay rent and fell behind. Months later, V’s suitemates told her they had to move out that night. Feeling distraught, V and her boyfriend quickly packed up their items.
V saw this as a minor setback, but her second encounter with eviction in 2016 would make it much harder for her to find shelter. She was living in an apartment with her
husband and child. “I was working in a temp job, and I wound up losing the job,” she said.
This time, unlike in 2011, her name was on the lease, and she was liable for late payments. V quickly threw her family’s belongings on the street, losing all her furniture, most of her family’s clothes, and countless irreplaceable photos.
With V’s new tarnished housing record, her family house-jumped between friends and family for months, because they were unable to find stable housing as a result of her bad record. V was blacklisted by landlords in the Trenton suburbs, making her family move to inner-city Trenton. “The apartments kept getting worse and worse,” V recalls, describing how the spaces her family lived in got smaller as they were pushed into less safe neighborhoods.
After almost a year, V was able to secure an office job with the county welfare agency. Having a regular paycheck allowed her to rent an apartment in inner-city Trenton. Still, she says the two evictions shaped her in permanent ways. “It made me more motivated to find gainful employment,” she says. “Before, we could stay on a friend’s pullout couch … I have children now, and where would we go, if I don’t have a home?”
Not every eviction has to be a punishing cycle like V’s. Princeton’s Eviction Lab team has been collecting data on eviction and its causes to better understand what policies can prevent evictions and help people escape the trap of homelessness and poverty. They have found that an increase in filing fees for landlords would decrease the number of evictions they set in motion.
The researchers also suggest that tenants should have a right to counsel. “In zip codes where this policy was enacted, we saw a dramatic decline in evictions,” said Joe Fish, a research specialist for the Eviction Lab. “A right to counsel levels the playing field and gives tenants a fighting chance.” Rent control and housing vouchers can also help, Fish added.
The Eviction Lab reports that the majority of poor renting families in America spend over half of their income on housing, and more Americans are being evicted than ever before, trapping people like V in an endless cycle. But while V may have been a victim of eviction, she remains hopeful for her family’s future in their new Trenton apartment.