No Home for Justice: How Eviction Perpetuates Health Inequity Among Low-Income Tenants
30 Pages Posted: 27 Jun 2017 Last revised: 27 Sep 2017
Date Written: October 26, 2016
People spend more time in their homes than in any other location. As a result, the majority of allergen, irritant, and toxic substance exposure occurs in the home. Substandard housing conditions disproportionately impact low-income, minority tenants who are confined to areas where the housing stock is poorly maintained. For tenants with publicly-available eviction records, it is nearly impossible to obtain safe, decent, and affordable housing; this threatens not only the tenant, but also her family members’ ability to achieve their full potential.
Eviction proceedings are a routine occurrence in courtrooms across the country. The large volume of eviction filings threatens the due process rights of tenants, particularly those that are pro se. For example, in Chicago, the average duration of a hearing is under two minutes, and landlords are seldom required to establish the elements of a prima facie case entitling them to an order of possession. Additionally, whether to place an eviction court file under seal is discretionary in nearly all jurisdictions. In practice, because the due process rights of pro se tenants are commonly violated, eviction court files are rarely placed under seal. Consequently, nearly all tenants named in detainer actions have a publicly available record linking them to an eviction, regardless of fault and regardless of whether a judgment was entered. In a digital age in which personal information is easily accessed and aggregated, court records result in automatic damage to an individual’s renting prospects. These records are culled by tenant-screening companies and sold to prospective landlords, thereby creating a “tenant blacklist.” As a result, any tenant who has been named in an eviction proceeding is effectively barred from obtaining safe, decent, and healthy housing.
Following a court-ordered eviction, tenants struggle to find replacement housing that is both affordable and habitable. Consequently, eviction almost always results in a “downward move: a relocation to a disadvantaged neighborhood and/or substandard housing.” Because many landlords will not rent to tenants with a record of eviction proceedings, these individuals often must accept conditions worse than their previous housing. Compounding this issue, there is a well-documented, clear connection between housing quality and residents’ health outcomes. For example, research demonstrates the harmful relationship between health outcomes — such as asthma, malnutrition, accidents, lead poisoning, and injury — and household conditions — such as vermin and pest infestation, lead paint, aging appliances, and building code violations.
Overcrowding and substandard housing are also associated with poor mental health and developmental delays. Because tenants with records of eviction proceedings are typically relegated to the bottom of the housing market, they are particularly vulnerable to negative health outcomes that result from substandard housing conditions. Current remedies, such as sealing the record, permitting disclosure only in certain circumstances, and imposing time limits, do not provide adequate protection for vulnerable tenants, who are predominately low-income and minority individuals.
Health equity is concerned with the capability of an individual to achieve her full health potential. When health equity is achieved, no one is disadvantaged from reaching her full health potential by social determinants such as socioeconomic status, gender, nationality, race, or eviction history. Tenants with eviction records do not have this luxury. This is not the result of a personal decision, but rather, from forces outside of the tenants’ control, beginning with a dearth of attorneys to uphold the rights of tenants in eviction court and culminating in substandard housing stock. Evicted tenants and their families often do not have the opportunity to prioritize good health. These families largely have no choice but to live in unsafe, substandard housing and do not have additional resources to devote to preventative or corrective health. Using a health equity lens to evaluate eviction processes and policies will help eliminate barriers tenants face in obtaining habitable housing and positively affect residents’ opportunities.
This Article analyzes the relationship between the eviction court process, including unlawful detainer law and eviction court procedure, and health outcomes for tenants. Because eviction records are publicly accessible in nearly all jurisdictions, tenants named in those records are excluded from healthy housing. This Article proposes using a health equity approach to eviction court that protects tenants from dangerous health consequences. Part II examines the current state of eviction court proceedings. Part III discusses how records of eviction proceedings threaten the health and well-being of tenants. Part IV analyzes how current law fails to adequately protect tenants from the negative health consequences of eviction proceedings. Part V uses a health equity analysis to advocate for policies that contemplate the health of tenant-defendants.
Keywords: Housing, Landlord, Tenant, Eviction, Evicted, Property, Health, Health Equity, Health Justice, Racial Inequity, Racial Justice, Social Justice
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