Just after 7 a.m., sheriff’s deputies knocked on the door of the duplex apartment, holding a fluorescent orange eviction notice. The process was quick and efficient. A moving crew began to carry out the family’s possessions and stack them neatly at the curb. Celeste Wilson, the tenant, appeared on the front step in pajama pants.
Wilson, 36, explained that the family had missed a month of rent when her husband fell ill, so the landlady filed for eviction. Knowing they would be thrown out, the Wilsons had already found a new home, paying a double security deposit and an extra $300 because of the open eviction case.
“It’s the stability I worry about,’’ Wilson said, watching her five children trickle out into the yard that had been their playground for five years. “They’ve got to start off fresh, get new friends, new neighbors. It might not show now, but maybe later on in life.’’
For tens of thousands of renters, life has become increasingly unstable in recent years, even as the economy has slowly improved. Middle-class wages have stagnated and rents have risen sharply in many places, fueled by growing interest in urban living and a shortage of rental housing.
The result is a surge in eviction cases that has abruptly disrupted lives, leaving families to search for not just new housing that fits their budgets but new schools, new bus routes and sometimes new jobs.
In Milwaukee County, for instance, the number of eviction cases filed against tenants leapt by 43 percent from 2010 to 2013, according to figures gathered by the Neighborhood Law Clinic at the University of Wisconsin Law School. Other parts of the country have seen similar, if less drastic spikes — and not only in high-cost cities like San Francisco.
Landlord-tenant laws and housing market conditions vary widely, and evictions are not surging everywhere. And a court filing does not necessarily result in eviction; some cases are resolved through payment plans or other agreements. But from 2010 to 2013, Maine experienced a 21 percent increase in eviction filings, Massachusetts 11 percent and Kentucky 8 percent.
In the fiscal year that ended in June, New Jersey, which has some of the strongest tenant protections in the country, had one eviction filing for every six renter households. In Georgia, where court statistics do not differentiate between tenants evicted by a landlord and homeowners evicted after foreclosure, filings soared to almost 270,000 last year, a 9 percent jump since 2010. During the same period, according to the research firm CoreLogic, the number of foreclosures dropped by half.
Perhaps the simplest explanation for the rise in evictions is a severe shortage of rental housing caused by a lack of new construction during the recession and the wave of foreclosures that turned homeowners into renters and occupied housing into abandoned blight.
A vast majority of renters live in cities, but evictions are not limited to urban settings. Rural areas like western Oklahoma, where an oil and gas boom has increased demand for housing, have also seen an increase in eviction filings.
The rising demand for, and tight supply of, apartments means landlords can now afford to be more exacting in their standards, if not outright aggressive in replacing renters with those who can pay more. In the second quarter of this year, the rental vacancy rate sunk to its lowest in almost 20 years, while rents, in inflation-adjusted dollars, remained close to their peak.
Some advocates for tenants said that court filings were just the tip of the iceberg — many renters have been displaced by rising rents, threatening letters, one-time payoffs and condo conversions, without ever going to court.
The rental shortage has made the most vulnerable tenants susceptible to eviction. “So many of our clients are people of color, people with disabilities, people who have suffered extreme health crises or a long-term chronic illness,’’ said Christine Donahoe, a staff attorney with Legal Action of Wisconsin.
Over two days in Milwaukee County, sheriff’s deputies evicted two renters with mental illnesses, one of whom responded only to the initials VG, for victim of government. The boss of the moving crew, Jim Brittain, said: “I’m seeing this more and more. One out of every five people we move, it seems like, have mental health issues.’’
Eviction can have a domino effect: People double up with relatives, placing their hosts at risk of eviction themselves for having unauthorized guests. Children miss school, parents find themselves far from their jobs or their normal means of transportation.
“You would think that eviction is caused by job loss, but we found evidence that eviction can actually cause you to lose your job,’’ said Matthew Desmond, a Harvard sociologist who studied evictions in Milwaukee.
He found that women in poor, minority neighborhoods were evicted at higher rates than men, and that in court cases, tenants living with children were almost three times more likely to be evicted than those without children.
“We also found evidence that people that are evicted, even years later, have higher rates of depression and higher rates of material hardship,’’ like hunger or lack of medical care, he said.
In some cases, economic realities have affected landlords as well as tenants, pushing them to act. In housing court in Madison, Wisconsin, Denise Carty, a nursing consultant who owns one rental unit, said she had reluctantly filed a case against her tenant, a single mother, after years of charging below-market rent and tolerating late or missed payments.
The debt had built up to more than $5,000. “I can’t sustain this anymore,’’ Carty said.
Even if an eviction case is ultimately dismissed or decided against the landlord, it can cause problems for a tenant who is looking for a new apartment.
In Madison, Jawana Echols, a 34-year-old mother of two, said her previous landlord filed an eviction after one late payment, and the filing has haunted her ever since, even though she settled the bill.
After seven rejections, she found a new apartment with the help of a social service agency, but car repairs left her $100 short on the rent one month, so she now has a second eviction filing. Again, she paid what she owed, but she believes that her record will make it impossible to move, even though it takes her an hour and a half by bus to get to work, since her car broke down once more.
In a few states, there have been efforts to strengthen laws protecting tenants. A new law in Rhode Island seeks to keep renters in place if their residence goes through foreclosure. Virginia recently extended landlord-tenant regulations to small landlords. In Oregon, it is now illegal for a landlord to count eviction filings against a prospective tenant unless the tenant lost the case and it is less than five years old.
But other efforts to slow evictions have been less successful. In California, a recent effort to narrow the Ellis Act, which allows rent-controlled apartments to be converted into condominiums, failed in the state Legislature. From early 2010 to early 2013, the number of Ellis Act evictions in San Francisco increased by 170 percent, while the number of evictions overall went up 38 percent, according to The San Francisco Chronicle.
And in Wisconsin, the Legislature has gutted local landlord-tenant regulations in a series of bills, barring cities from enforcing statutes that required landlords to give tenants a reason for declining to renew a lease or to assess an apartment applicant’s ability to pay based on history rather than income. Money that went to legal aid groups to help prevent homelessness, allocated beginning in 2009 as part of the federal stimulus program, has dried up. A 2012 study by the Boston Bar Association found that renters with lawyers were twice as likely to avoid eviction as those without.
Tenants living in subsidized housing or using a federal housing voucher can find that support jeopardized by an eviction filing. That is why Lynette Moore and her two school-age daughters were living in a Super 8 Motel in Madison about a month after being evicted from the three-bedroom house in a suburb of Milwaukee where they had lived for eight years.
The landlord had given her notice that he planned to sell the house, she said, but without a place to go, she had stayed on until he had filed against her in court. Now she is looking for work in Madison, where she hopes life will be easier, while commuting to her job as a health care aide in Milwaukee and hoping that a legal aid lawyer will be able to get her rental voucher restored. The disruption sidelined her plans to work more hours and go back to school, Moore said.
“We was just getting to the point where we could do life-changing things,’’ she said.
The move had come just as her daughter Aleisha, 17, was about to start her senior year in high school, and Ailyah, 10, had one year to go in elementary school. Now the two are biding their time until they start at new schools in the fall. During an interview Aleisha said little, but Ailyah chattered incessantly as she pretended to feed a toy dog, Sparky, some of her dinner.
“Abby’s going to be really mad,’’ Ailyah said. Abby is another stuffed animal, but unlike Sparky, she had been packed away in storage until the family finds a new home.