RACINE — For Anthony “Tony” Liddell Jr., being forced out of his home became a normal part of life.
The 48-year-old Racine resident remembers facing his first eviction as a teenager, when he lived with his mother. Liddell recalls his mom telling him they could no longer afford to stay at their apartment, where he had friends and access to a swimming pool.
She had separated from Liddell’s father, and her income was not enough to keep them in what Liddell described as a nice and comfortable apartment. They were forced to move away, eventually into a crowded complex.
Liddell said he was “a wreck” remembering what it was like to get evicted as a kid.
“It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “The memories make me tear up and cry, because it hurts.”
Liddell estimates he has been kicked out of rental residences more than 20 times. His belief that housing instability is how life goes may ring true for many people in the Racine area.
Hundreds of people in the City of Racine have been ousted from their homes each year in recent history. Figures compiled by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab show that in 2016, Racine County had the highest rate of evictions in the state of Wisconsin at 3.86 percent.
The city’s rate that year was 5.56 percent. Community leaders and others who have studied the issue describe evictions as cyclical and a downward spiral. Once people have an eviction on their record, the struggle to find stable housing can be difficult to escape.
Many experts point to poverty and employment history as the main reasons why people lose their rentals. Ed Miller, the executive director of the Racine Revitalization Partnership, said a first eviction can arise from various factors including health issues, disabilities, drug dependency or a lack of income. The partnership is a community development corporation that is working to improve neighborhoods in Racine.
“People have cars that need repairs, and they have to choose between having a car to get to their job or paying the rent,” Miller said. “They think they can put the rent off, but ultimately, that might not be the case. The choices are difficult.”
That was the trouble that sent Destiny Martin to eviction court in June for her first time. She said she took some time off work to deal with a family issue. Martin then broke her leg and was unable to return to work. Months later, Martin said, she was still waiting to receive short-term disability assistance.
“I worked all my life,” she said. “For me, I just fell behind.”
Martin said she tried to work something out with her landlord without success. After her court appearance, Martin said she planned on moving back in with her mother until she could get her finances stabilized.
Miller said that re-establishing steady living circumstances can be a challenge after that first eviction is on a person’s record. Under Wisconsin laws, evictions remain visible in the state’s online court records system for 20 years. The mark of an eviction can be like a “scarlet letter,” Miller said.
‘The downward spiral’
“The ultimate end result of the cycle is: The quality of housing continues to decline, and people continue to be evicted multiple times,” Miller said. “Eventually, the only available housing could be quite substandard.”
Adam Porton, a research specialist at the Eviction Lab, agreed, saying that the cycle forces people to seek shelter in worse neighborhoods that are more rundown or remote. Not only can those next rentals be unhealthy environments for families both physically and mentally, but they may also be far from public transportation, resources and job opportunities, Porton said.
“It just adds to the downward spiral and trajectory in many cases,” he said.
Liddell said his access to housing and employment have triggered evictions in his life. His family was evicted after his mom lost a job, Liddell said, and he was forced out of an apartment in Milwaukee after being downsized from his position.
He contrasts his experiences to people who’ve lived in a high-quality home that has passed through the generations of their family. Liddell admits some of his instability has been because of his own choices, such as partying and dealing drugs.
But, he said, he also didn’t get to see his mom retire from her job or earn retirement benefits. And as landlords kicked him and his family out of their home, Liddell said they wound up in a place he described as a “slum.”
“It’s a hard thing to see your family struggle from generation to generation to generation,” he said. “No stability. No stable income. I remember pushing grocery carts of clothes and furniture, having people help us move stuff or put stuff in their homes until we could get somewhere to say. It’s embarrassing.”
Kurt Paulsen, a researcher and consultant for the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, made an observation similar to Porton’s. He said experiences like Liddell’s can place people at a disadvantage. Paulsen said that persistent economic inequalities are correlated with eviction rates.
Job growth, Paulsen said, tends to take place in suburban areas, while most of the people who could take advantage of those jobs are effectively locked into urban housing markets because of a lack of multifamily and affordable housing near those jobs.
“You have a spatial mismatch,” he said. “The people are unable to get to the jobs that are available.”
Paulsen noted that people tend to look for jobs that are closer to home, which may mean lower wages or unstable hours. Without a steady cash flow, people are more likely to fall behind on rent.
“It’s a chicken-and-egg problem,” Paulsen said.
Rising rent, stagnant wages
Liddell is not alone in facing economic hardship. According to Kids Forward, a Madison-based organization focused on promoting access to opportunities for children and families, people are encouraged to spend no more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs. Those who do are considered burdened by their housing expenses.
Nearly 55 percent of renters in Racine fit that description, estimates Kids Forward, using U.S. Census Bureau data. Nearly 45 percent of renters, the organization states, spend at least 35 percent of their income on rent and utilities.
According to the Census Bureau, the median gross rent in the City of Racine increased by 15 percent between 2009 and 2016, from $673 to $775. In the same time frame, the median annual household income rose just 1 percent: $40,733 to $41,178 in inflation-adjusted dollars.
Kids Forward research finds that this problem is not unique to Racine.
“Because the rental housing supply hasn’t kept up with growth in demand, rents have been rising and the (percentage) of income going for rent and utilities has been increasing across the nation,” the organization stated. “Wage stagnation for lower-wage workers also contributes to the problem.”
Breaking the cycle
Miller said people may be able to overcome an eviction on their record if they can make changes such as improvements to their credit scores. But they also need empathy from property owners, he said.
“They’re going to have to find landlords that are willing to take the chance,” Miller said. “That’s the only way that you’re going to be able to break that cycle for people, is to give them a chance at the next level, instead of continually going to lower-quality units.”
Liddell said he has received that chance from a friend, with whom he was living as of late June after he served time in prison for a probation violation.
He obtained a job at Goodwill as a forklift driver and said he is now in his third year of sobriety. Liddell said he has taken classes to learn more about money management and to improve his chances at better job opportunities. He said his experiences have taught him to accept help and about the importance of preparing for the future. Liddell advised that people should consistently save money, even when they find their own place to live.
“Accidents happen; mistakes happen,” he said. “Someone could get hurt; somebody can get a divorce. Be independent. Ask for family support. Talk about it.”
Liddell said he is trying to impart the lessons he is learning to his own children so that they can break the cycle and achieve the stability he is after, like a home of his own. He encouraged people who are facing similar struggles to “weather the storm.”
“We all crawl before we walk,” he said. “Put one foot in front of the other and keep going.”