‘Eviction: Life Unpacked’ Series Looks At Crisis Facing Maine Renters

Aug 5, 2018

All this week we’ll be taking an in-depth look at the problem of eviction in Maine in a series called “Eviction: Life Unpacked.”

(Click here to read the first story in the series, "What Maine Families Face When They're Evicted.")

It’s a subject that has recently been highlighted by sociologist Matthew Desmond in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Evicted,” and by his Princeton University-based Eviction Lab.

This year, for the first time, researchers have compiled, examined and released a decade’s worth of court filings from across the country. They found nearly 1 million families are being evicted every year. In Maine the data show more than 4,000 evictions took place in 2016 — about 11 a day — but those are just official evictions handled through the courts. Hundreds of others take place informally between landlords and tenants.

Over the past few months Maine Public Deputy News Director Susan Sharon has been working on a series of reports about the fallout of eviction in Maine, particularly in the Lewiston area, where the rate is higher than the national average. She spoke with Morning Edition Host Irwin Gratz.

Gratz: Why are so many people being evicted?

Sharon: There are a lot of reasons, but typically it’s because they’ve fallen behind on the rent. Why they fall behind on the rent is another, more complicated question. In general what we know is there’s a very tight housing market, so rents are rising but wages aren’t keeping pace. And the problem is especially acute in a place like Lewiston, where there is a large population of renters and also a high poverty rate, so low-income people are winding up paying and spending a significant portion of their income on rent and utilities. But if one thing goes wrong in their life — like the car breaks down or they have to miss work to care for a sick child — it can throw the entire budget out of whack.

Who is most likely to be evicted?

What the Eviction Lab’s data show is that it’s most likely to be women, especially women of color and single women with children — but couples with children aren’t far behind. And of course it can also be people on fixed incomes, elderly people like Andy Tasker of Lewiston, who was evicted after the owner of his apartment building decided to renovate it and put some more units in so he could charge more rent. And this is how Andy described his challenges after that.

Andy Tasker
Credit Susan Sharon / Maine Public

‘I’m on a fixed income. I’m retired and there isn’t one $500 apartment. They’re all $750, $850. It’s insane,’ he says.

To be clear, Andy was paying $500 a month in rent before his eviction. His entire monthly budget is $800.

What about housing assistance such as Section 8?

Section 8 can be enormously helpful for people. If you qualify, it means you pay no more than 30 percent of your adjusted income for rent. But the problem is there’s a long wait to get it. For example, in Lewiston, it’s about a three-year wait. Other places it can be even longer. So there’s a shortage. And even after people make it off the list, only 1 in 4 qualified applicants gets the help.

What’s the fallout of eviction, not only for tenants but on landlords?

For tenants, it can mean a longer, deeper struggle in poverty. They may not be able to afford to come up with first and last month’s rent for another place. They may have to accept less desirable housing, housing in disrepair, maybe with fewer bedrooms. Or they may wind up doubling up with friends and relatives. And of course some families do become homeless. But for landlords it’s also a struggle to pay the bills, because by the time a tenant has been evicted they’ve also gone months without being paid rent. That means they may not be able to make improvements on their properties or address certain problems with the unit, and they can get stuck paying for furniture that’s left behind, for damage to the apartment and for cleanup.

Now that the eviction crisis has been put on the map, what kinds of proposals or policies are being floated to address it?

More funding for Section 8 vouchers, continued development of affordable housing, funding for landlords and property owners who want to make improvements to their properties. On the flip side, tougher code enforcement so that landlords are held accountable when a unit becomes uninhabitable. And then a more controversial proposal is rent control and other tenant protections, so that families can’t be evicted for no cause if they don’t have a lease.