Eviction rates alarming in Gateway Cities

Should be part of neighborhood stabilization discussion

THE HOUSING MARKETS in Gateway Cities are characterized by blighted properties, an increased vacancy rate, and tepid long-term growth in home values, according to a recent report by MassINC and the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations.  The conversation on neighborhood stabilization in these communities has centered on homeownership; however, ensuring stabilization also requires limiting involuntary housing displacement, namely eviction.

In response to the report, the Gateways Cities Caucus proposed legislation to foster neighborhood stabilization. According to Sen. Eric Lesser, a chairman of the caucus, the bill aims to address “housing prices, boost our communities’ home values, and open more vacant homes to development.” The legislation does so by incentivizing new development, establishing a commission to study how to improve existing housing stock, and addressing blighted properties.

But the problem of eviction remains largely ignored. Recently published data from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University quantifies the problem low-income renters face in the original 11 Gateway Cities.

For context, the 2016 eviction rate, measured as the number of evictions per 100 renting households, was 1.3 in Boston. Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell deemed the situation “a crisis” and US Rep. Ayanna Pressley, then a city councilor, added that displacement in Boston constitutes a “public health crisis.”

Yet the eviction rates in Brockton, Fitchburg, and Haverhill are more than double that of Boston. In recent years, the eviction rates in Brockton, Fitchburg, Holyoke, New Bedford, Springfield, and Worcester have been more than triple the Boston rate. Importantly, in hot markets like Boston, displacement often occurs due to rent hikes and refusal to renew leases rather than legal eviction. Nevertheless, the high eviction rates in Gateway Cities are troubling.

Even though the data indicate that eviction rates have fallen in some cities since 2008, that should not be reason for complacency. Without access to earlier data, one cannot rule out that the Great Recession caused a spike in evictions and that eviction rates today are the norm rather than a convergence towards Boston’s eviction rate. In fact, the post-2008 spike in some cities is intuitive given that nonpayment of rent proves to be the lead cause of eviction.

Another reason to dispel complacency is the current economic situation of many low-income renters. Despite the weak housing market, low-income renters are struggling with housing costs today.

A data comparison from the Census American Community Survey 5-year estimates of 2005-2009 and of 2012-2017 elucidates the increasingly precarious situation for renters. Across these Gateway Cities, the median gross rent has climbed by, on average, 17.6 percent. In nearly each of these cities, the average renter is rent-burdened, paying over 30 percent of her income in rent. In the two exceptions, Fall River and New Bedford, the average renter still pays over 29 percent of her income in rent. The poverty rate has also ticked up in each of these cities except for Fitchburg, Holyoke, and Lawrence.

As noted in the MassINC and MACDC report, the number of Gateway City residents living in census tracts with poverty rates over 40 percent has increased. Concentrated poverty is not only associated with low home values and foreclosure, it is also tied to eviction.

Notes: These data exclude the 1.6% of Census tracts with under 10 renting households. Census tract observations are collapsed into 20 quantiles.
Sources: Eviction Lab, Census ACS 2011-2015 5-Year Estimates

Legislators and cities should be concerned with the eviction given its impact on both individuals and on neighborhoods. The experience of an eviction is associated with an increased likelihood of depression, potentially even for years after the eviction, and with an increased likelihood of adult suicide. Eviction also can lead to a downward financial spiral. An eviction record can prevent families from receiving public housing assistance and damage their credit rating. Moreover, displacement can move one further from their job, increasing the barriers to stable employment. The consequences can quickly snowball into a poverty trap.

Children also rely on stable housing in their early development. Without it, poor children struggle more to stay in school and develop academically. Children who are without a home or who have moved multiple times perform worse on standardized tests, have worse attendance, are more likely to drop out, and have delayed literary skills. Increased moves also have been linked to increased levels of adolescent violence and health risks.

Beyond individuals, neighborhoods themselves suffer when eviction is prevalent. As with foreclosure and blight, eviction can lead to lower home values in a neighborhood. In addition, when evicted tenants cannot afford to move out of poor neighborhoods but remain in the same city, community instability increases. Residential mobility within the same neighborhoods is associated with an increase in neighborhood violence. Such instability can lead to fewer social ties, less outside investment, and decreased economic opportunity.

One could argue that eviction is a necessary tool for landlords to receive rent or increase rent in order to prevent a downward spiral in housing conditions. In short, if a landlord fails to receive rent, she may be unable to repair housing stock. In the MassINC and MACDC report, the authors write that “low rents and declining values make it difficult to maintain an aging housing stock.” However, in Gateway Cities, eviction cannot be a panacea for repairing housing stock, especially given its impact on individuals, families, and neighborhoods.

After all, even with increasing rents and rent burdens, the housing stock remains neglected. Rather than rent prices, the condition of the housing stock is rooted in the lack of investment in housing. Since 2000, Massachusetts has received 37 percent less in federal Community Development Block Grant funding, which the state has relied on for neighborhood stabilization. State and local investment has failed to offset the drop in federal dollars.

The proposed legislation, which aims to build more homes, decrease vacancy rates, and fix blighted properties, will counter the weak housing market, but there is no guarantee that it will provide necessary aid to renters. An increase in livable housing stock will surely provide more housing units. In the short term, this may enable struggling renters to make a transition toward homeownership. Yet as home values rise and the housing market heats up, low-income renters may be further outpriced.

Meet the Author
As the Legislature and cities consider neighborhood stabilization, curbing eviction needs to be at the forefront of the discussion. The construction of affordable housing, added tenant protections, and economic revitalization must be part of the conversation.

Samarth Gupta grew up in Acton and graduated last year from Harvard. He is currently a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. Graphics by Nick Usoff