Eviction: Minnesota to Milwaukee


Photo by Jes, published under Creative Commons license

In the Lowry Grove mobile home park, families own their homes, but not the ground on which those homes sit. Many of the mobile homes jin the St. Anthony, MN park are too old to move. Aside from physical stress, the older homes wouldn’t be allowed in more modern mobile home parks. So if the residents lose their leases, they lose everything.

The owner of the land sold it to a new developer, who plans to close down the mobile home park. Residents banded together to fight the sale and got the nonprofit Aeon to submit a bid matching the $6 million sale price. That should have been enough, they thought, under Minnesota law giving residents the right of first refusal. Instead, the owner sold the The Village LLC. Residents are suing, but on September 21, a judge limited the outcomes of the lawsuit to money damages. As MPR reported:

“Monetary compensation — reimbursement or coverage for things such as moving costs — isn’t what the residents are seeking, though. What they want is the opportunity to buy the park themselves — and keep it open….”

The fight isn’t just about money.

“For many residents, it also means leaving St. Anthony, Minn. permanently. Affordable housing like what the park offers ‘just doesn’t exist,’ according to their city planner. Lowry Grove residents pay approximately $440 a month to rent what they view as an ideal location: The park is within walking distance of a grocery store and mass transit lines. It sits just six miles from downtown Minneapolis, and is situated in one of the best school districts in the state. Those conditions, at that price, are difficult to duplicate anywhere in the state.”

Instead of staying in the community they know, with long-time neighbors and friends, low-income residents will be forced into a housing market that offers few choices. As FiveThirtyEight explained this month, little housing assistance is available for low-income families.

“The government has established several housing assistance programs to help them, but the vast majority of poor Americans don’t receive any housing aid. And the problem is getting worse … The percentage of renters below the poverty line who spent more than 50 percent of their income on housing rose from 42 percent to 52 percent between 1991 and 2013.

In Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond introduces Milwaukee renters struggling and often failing to shelter themselves and their children. The book combines national data with up close and personal stories of renters in a mostly black, Northside neighborhood and a mostly white trailer park. Desmond spent two years living in the two neighborhoods, getting to know families and landlords. He also surveyed 1,100 renters in the city and found that a quarter of them had been forced out of their homes between 2009 and 2011.

Every move costs money. Even if families do not lose security deposits, they need to come up with first and last months’ rent, utility connection fees, application fees, and moving costs. For low-income renters, eviction is a cause as well as a consequence of poverty.

When more than half of your income goes for rent, any emergency can put you in the street. Maybe your mom dies and you have to help with funeral expenses. Maybe the winter is especially cold, and heat bills unexpectedly high. Maybe a child grows too fast, and needs new shoes. Desmond explained to Slate Magazine:

“When you ask people why they were evicted the big reason is nonpayment of rent. They can’t afford to keep a roof over their heads. Utilities are a big part of the story too, while the third leg on the table is the lack of government help with housing. Most Americans think that the typical low-income family lives in public housing or gets housing assistance. The opposite is true. In years where you’ve had a growing gap between incomes and housing costs, only 1 in 4 families that qualifies for housing assistance gets any.”

With little available housing, renters find themselves at the mercy of landlords like Stephen Frenz in Minneapolis. Tenants in one of his buildings sued, saying he didn’t make repairs, even after being ordered to do so by building inspectors, and because the building is overrun with rats, roaches and bedbugs.

Frenz, described by the Star Tribune as one of the city’s biggest landlords, also looks like one of the worst. In the latest development, the judge found that he lied to the court, produced phony leases, and “staged three empty apartments with furniture and children’s items to make it look like the building had more tenants who had not signed on to the lawsuit.”

The Strib reported further that:

“Besides the allegations of fraud and housing violations, they must weigh Frenz’s admission during the trial that Spiros Zorbalas still has a controlling interest in Frenz’s properties. The city ordered Zorbalas, described by officials as the city’s biggest slumlord, to sell all his rental properties in 2012.”

Nor are poverty and lack of housing limited to cities. YES Magazine reported recently on the terrible shortages of housing in rural areas:

“Nearly 30 percent of them reside in substandard housing with leaky roofs or inadequate plumbing. Rural families are more likely to be impoverished than the rest of the nation, and about half of them spend 50 percent of their monthly income on rent.”

Desmond writes that

“Residential stability begets a kind of psychological stability, which allows people to invest in their home and social relationships. It begets school stability, which increases the chances the children will excel and graduate. And it begets community stability, which encourages neighbors to form strong bonds and take care of their block.”

That’s the kind of stability that residents of Lowry Grove mobile home park want. It’s the kind of stability that residents of Glendale Townhomes in Minneapolis claim. It’s the stability that is put at risk when a landlord fails to maintain his buildings and when we as a nation fail to support housing for poor families.

We need to shift our national priorities for housing. As FiveThirtyEight reported:

“The government subsidizes housing to the tune of tens of billions of dollars each year. But most of that money goes to homeowners, not renters. Homeowners, for example, can deduct the interest they pay on their mortgages from their taxes; the deduction totaled about $70 billion in 2015,almost double the total budget of Section 8 programs, public housing and other housing tax credits for low-income people. A majority of the mortgage-interest deduction, in terms of dollars saved, goes to households earning at least $100,000.”

Every single homeowner can get this mortgage interest subsidy. Every year. That’s not true for government assistance for rental housing, whether in the form of rental assistance (Section 8 vouchers) or public housing. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says that, “Only about one in four low-income families eligible for rental assistance receives it, and waiting lists for assistance are long in most parts of the country.”

What do presidential candidates have to say about housing? Here’s a snippet, from Daily Kos:

“When Hillary Clinton noted during Monday’s debate that Donald Trump had rooted for the housing crisis so he could buy up a lot of cheap real estate, Trump had an answer: ‘That’s called business.'”

Besides condemning this cynical and inhumane approach, we need to demand that every Senator and Representative (and candidate) commits to supporting full funding for rental assistance programs. America, Desmond writes, “is supposed to be a place where you can better yourself, your family, and your community. But this is only possible if you have a stable home.”


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