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One landlord in Milwaukee filed 850 evictions against tenants over a two-week period. It accounted for 80% of all the evictions filed in Milwaukee County over that period. Peter Hepburn, from Eviction Lab an organization founded by Evicted author Matthew Desmond, and tracks evictions across the country, tweeted that when this landlord only filed two evictions the following week it meant that eviction filings in Milwaukee fell from 970 (week of 1/30) to 292 (2/6).

This is an incredibly disturbing occurrence. For those of us in Waukesha County, please do not think of this as only being a Milwaukee problem. Once evicted, these individuals and families will be desperately seeking housing for themselves and their children wherever they can find it. An overburdened shelter system in Southeastern Wisconsin, during a time of an inadequate supply of housing, (and even fewer affordable housing units) is a potentially disastrous combination.

Here are some things to think about:

  • Evictions are handled in small claims court. The article states that this one landlord filing this many evictions is overwhelming the Milwaukee County court system.

  • According to Matthew Desmond's book Evicted, statistics have shown that in eviction court over 90% of landlords have lawyers while 10% of tenants do. Imagine going to eviction court, a foreign land for most of us, with the stress of losing your home and no one advocating for you.

  • 1 out of 19 children under the age of six will experience homelessness.

Some may want to say, well these people deserve it. If they paid the rent, then they would not face eviction. OK, they should have. What we do not know is why they fell behind. Our experience providing shelter and helping with rent and utility assistance we know that most cases are complicated. It often begins because families are paying 40-50% of their income on housing. This is untenable. A lack of affordable housing puts many families on the precipice of disaster. Even if they are able to juggle their bills and hold things together for a while there is usually another complicating issue that exacerbates their already challenging financial situation. This could be a health issue like Covid-19 or a cancer diagnosis. Perhaps they have fallen behind because they are going through a divorce, or because they cannot afford child care and are faced with the choice of: Do I go to work and leave my kids alone or stay home and not pay the rent? There are families who fall behind because their car broke down and with a budget already stretched, they "borrow" their rent money to cover the cost of their car repair.

It is too easy to dismiss those who are being evicted as the natural consequence of not paying rent. We categorize them as people who got what was coming to them. Perhaps we do that to absolve ourselves from getting involved in this complicated problem. Yet, poverty is a complicated issue that should not be oversimplified and eventually impacts the entire community.

Even if we all agreed that it was their fault and as society we should feel no discomfort when a family is evicted? What then? Quite frankly it is short-sighted. Our experience tells us that once one has an eviction on their record it is difficult to get rehoused. Do we think a family that was evicted once or twice should be punished with a lifetime of homelessness? Is this what we want for the children? What do we think the long-term consequences of that policy will be on the children? Where will our community be in 15 years when those children are adults who have a higher likelihood of dropping out of school, have seen violence or been a victim of violence, experience anxiety at a higher rate than other children, bounced from hotel to shelter to a relatives house to shelter (again) to a relative (again) to their car to wherever; without ever being able to become self-sufficient or independent again.

Of course, landlords need to be paid and receive the money that is owed them. At the same time the current eviction policies are playing a role in creating generational poverty, and chronic homelessness. We all know how difficult it is to make changes in our lives. Once a client has fallen into homelessness as a lifestyle their task to remove themselves from homelessness is much more difficult. When say the Future Begins at Home it is true. A stable and hope-filled future for the family, the child and our community begins with families having a home.

One of my mentors used to say when an organization experienced a significant break down it never fell to one person or one decision. It was a serious of missteps and problems that no one caught. 850 evictions in two weeks means there is plenty of issues that need to be addressed on everyone's part. Here are some ideas that could help minimize the havoc that our current eviction policies are creating:

  • Consensus, that we value housing for all and a recognition that an investment in housing, or preventing homelessness, is an investment in our entire community.

  • Legal representation for both parties in an eviction proceeding.

  • An eviction process that includes mediation before eviction.

  • A social service system that provides rent assistance in a timely manner and effective case management.

  • Communities with an adequate amount of affordable housing units

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