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The violence of evictions goes beyond displacement

Evictions can perpetuate poverty, disrupt lives, destabilize families, and fracture communities

Lancaster Ave. and 41st St. Philadelphia, August 29, 2021.Camilo Vergara/Library of Congress

America’s eviction crisis does not affect everyone equally. While millions are falling behind on rent, Black women are getting evicted at the highest rates. And as recent eviction-prompted shootings in Philadelphia show, evictions don’t just put our livelihoods at risk — they’re also a direct threat to our safety.

The city of Philadelphia outsources evictions to what is known as a landlord-tenant office, which in turn hires private security firms to conduct lockouts for a fee, making it a for-profit system. Last month, court officials announced that evictions would resume in the city, ending a weekslong hiatus following a string of shootings by armed deputies as they removed tenants — two of whom were Black women — from their homes. This sparked protests by local housing advocates, and state lawmakers are now expected to introduce legislation that would overhaul the for-profit system in the fall.

These incidents, which are not exclusive to Philly, underscore a distressing connection between eviction and criminalization in our country’s housing system. This vicious practice of policing housing insecurity disproportionately impacts our most marginalized communities and mirrors the injustices we face within the criminal legal system. As the eviction crisis worsens — filings are now 50% higher than pre-pandemic levels — cities urgently need to change their approach to prioritize the dignity and well-being of all people, regardless of their background.

‘Evictions are not a one-time event, either. They are known as the “scarlet E” because having an eviction filed against renters, regardless of the outcome, severely limits their ability to access safe, affordable housing in the future.’

Across the U.S., policing tactics are used to respond to housing insecurity in predominantly Black communities. Depending on the state, marshals, sheriffs, police departments — or, as in Philly, private armed contractors — are sent to remove people from their homes by force. Families navigating housing court because they are living in substandard conditions or cannot make rent are often threatened with violence and intimidation, perpetuating a climate of fear and mistrust that further erodes the safety and security of marginalized communities. This practice jeopardizes peoples’ ability to achieve financial security and increases their chances of criminalization, deepening the racial inequities across our social systems.

Every year, 3.6 million people across the country, who are disproportionately lower-income Black and Latinx women, experience an eviction filing. But due to structural racism, their vulnerability to losing their homes begins long before that: Black women are often the sole providers for their children and families and are the most vulnerable to job loss. They are denied basic legal protections and have the highest probability of receiving nuisance citations from the police, which lead to evictions. Even before the pandemic began, Black women faced evictions at double the rate of White renters in at least 17 states.

Housing Activists rally in Philadelphia, PA on Aug. 20, 2020.Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Evictions are not a one-time event, either. They are known as the “scarlet E” because having an eviction filed against renters, regardless of the outcome, severely limits their ability to access safe, affordable housing in the future, lingering on credit scores and housing reports. Many landlords rely on screening tools that comb through credit records, criminal background information and civil court filings when reviewing prospective tenants. Being listed in these databases functions much like a criminal record in that it can trigger automatic denials for housing. So, the consequences of an eviction filing and a criminal record are the same: suboptimal living conditions, reduced job prospects, and poor health outcomes.

An eviction record in itself can also lead to a criminal record, and vice versa, potentially leading to an increased likelihood of entering the criminal legal system due to housing instability. And individuals with criminal records may struggle to maintain housing stability, which can indirectly lead to violations of probation or parole conditions that dictate a person’s location, further entangling them in the system.

To be clear, beyond the use of police force, evictions and displacement are inherently violent, and more must be done to prevent them from happening in the first place. They remove people from their homes and neighborhoods and put them into uncertain and unstable situations. The impact of this extends beyond physical harm — the trauma and stress ripples through communities and perpetuates poverty. Put simply, evictions disrupt lives, destabilize families and fracture the social fabric of communities. As Homes Guarantee Director Tara Raghuveer told The Nation, “Every eviction is an act of violence.”

That’s why we must explore alternative community-centered approaches, such as lockdown-era programs, to address housing challenges. By prioritizing mediation, social services and supportive housing models, we can move away from punitive measures and toward solutions that address the root causes of housing insecurity, such as racism, poverty, lack of health care and unequal educational opportunities. Renters’ futures should no longer be built on the interests of landlords at the expense of tenants. Housing policies and models must be transformed so they unapologetically prioritize Black women and other people vulnerable to evictions and housing instability.

This transformation will require a shift in societal values. The existing housing paradigm in the U.S. treats homes as commodities, subjecting them to market forces and speculative interests rather than a fundamental need that belongs to and is owed to everyone. By redefining housing as a basic need rather than a profit-generating commodity, a system that relies on violence to defend its existence can be left behind, instead achieving a future that upholds human rights and safety for all.

Rasheedah Phillips is director of housing at PolicyLink, a national research institute that works to advance racial and economic equity.