Evictions on the rise in the Midwest put public health at risk

Rolland Carroll’s trouble began last fall.

At the time, the 61-year-old said his apartment complex in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, had informed him that his state housing assistance for his one-bedroom apartment had been cut months ago.

He owed more than $2,000 in rent arrears.

“I was in shock,” Carroll said. “How the hell could I owe that amount of money without you guys saying anything months ago?”

Carroll doesn’t own a car and works odd jobs through a local temp agency. He struggled to pay the arrears in rent and ended up with $339 for his share of the monthly rent.

“November and December – there was hardly any work. So I was in a real bind,” he said.

A few days after Christmas, his apartment complex filed an eviction lawsuit against him.

Carroll said he was concerned because local shelters were full and he had many chronic health issues that cost money.

“I’m diabetic. I have osteoarthritis. I have asthma. I’m just a total mess,” he said.

With the help of nonprofits Legal Aid in IowaCarroll successfully dismissed the case at his hearing in mid-January because his home failed to give him adequate notice.

Now he said he is still struggling to pay the rent and his apartment continues to send him notices threatening him with another eviction.

It takes a toll on his health.

“I was so damn stressed,” Carroll said. “My mental health is really bad right now.”

Evictions as a health problem

With the end of pandemic-era housing subsidies like eviction moratoriums and federal rent subsidies, many Midwesterners are facing housing insecurity.

Eviction requests in Iowa have increased over the past decade. After a brief dip in 2020 and 2021, they hit a record high of more than 18,000 in 2022, according to data from Iowa Legal Aid.

The moratorium on evictions issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ended in mid-2021.

And Iowa — like most states — ended its federally funded emergency rent and utilities program last year.

“Rent is a big part of household expenses,” said Nick Graetz, a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University clearance lab. “And it has just increased at unprecedented rates during the pandemic. But rents have exceeded wages for decades.”

Since March 2020, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment has increased 13% in Iowa, nearly 18% in Missouri, and more than 26% in Indiana, according to US News and World Report.

Eviction requests are also increasing in Indiana and Missouri.

Being faced with an eviction can take a huge toll on a person’s health, Graetz said.

“The result is that people go from 60% of their income paying for rent to 70% of their income for rent and they just have to offset those costs by forgoing things like health care and facing higher levels of food insecurity, you know, things like these,” he said.

According to a literature review published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, studies have linked evictions to depression, anxiety, high blood pressure and child abuse.

A 2021 study published in the journal Pediatrics found that Georgia women who were at risk of eviction during pregnancy were more likely to have children with a lower birth weight.

Chronic health issues or a health emergency can also put a tenant at a higher risk of eviction.

“It’s difficult to navigate something like that,” said Graetz. “Perhaps [you] fall behind on the rent and then you can quickly get into this space where it becomes really difficult to avoid an eviction.”

Possible legal help

Federal and state lawmakers have proposed a variety of policy solutions to combat evictions, including new tenant protection measures and expanding emergency rental assistance programs.

The Iowa legislature has allocated more than $300 million in tax credits to incentivize developers to build affordable housing.

Minnesota lawmakers are considering a rental voucher program that could help 220,000 homes.

However, it is often unclear which measures are most effective, he said Katie Moran McCabesenior legal and policy analyst at Temple University’s Center for Public Health Law Research.

“We often don’t see these laws being evaluated,” she said. “So the law works? Does it do what it’s supposed to do? Are there unintended consequences?”

Non-profit programs are strengthening

A growing solution is eviction diversion programs, such as the Evictions Helpdesk program operated by Iowa Legal Aid.

The nonprofit organization launched the program in spring 2020, which saw the establishment of an eviction helpdesk at the courthouse in Polk County, Iowa’s most populous county.

Similar programs exist in Illinois and Missouri.

titled pamphlets "Free Legal Aid" in English and Spanish sit at a desk offering eviction and rental assistance.

Natalie Krebs


Side Effects Public Media

Iowa Legal Assistance launched its first eviction helpdesk in spring 2020 in Polk County, Iowa. She has since opened counters in five other courthouses across the state.

The rapid rise in requests for eviction assistance has forced Iowa’s legal aid to realign its priorities, Executive Director Nick Smithberg said.

“Basically, it has structurally changed our organization,” he said. “Where apartment work used to account for about a quarter of our case numbers, it has risen to half.”

Since 2020, the program has been expanded to five additional district courts. Smithberg said he would like to see it more often.

“I think we’re going to see a very, very troubling time in the history of this state,” he said. “It’s just an all-time record. I don’t think people have seen the impact of something like this over a long period of time. And I think that when you start seeing people on the street, it’s going to be very enlightening for a lot of people.”

The eviction is a civil proceeding, meaning the defendants are not constitutionally guaranteed the right to an attorney as they are with criminal charges.

In the Midwest, only a handful of cities in Ohio, Missouri and Minnesota guarantee tenants facing eviction a right to an attorney.

Most tenants fighting evictions — who are disproportionately women, people of color, and people with disabilities — rely on programs like Iowa Legal Aid when they’re available.

Jon Biderman, an attorney with Iowa Legal Aid who helps run the eviction helpdesk at the Linn County Courthouse in eastern Iowa, said his job is often to work out a deal with landlords so renters have more time to come up with a plan to work out.

He wants to help tenants avoid evictions, which can make finding a home much more difficult.

“Homelessness – being kicked out – is such a crisis for a person that being able to prevent it or even buy them a week can really make a difference in a person’s life,” he said.

A white man with a bear in a blue suit, white shirt and blue tie sits at a desk.

Natalie Krebs


Side Effects Public Media

Iowa Legal Assistance Attorney Jon Biderman works at the Linn County eviction diversion help desk, where he, along with another attorney, represents clients in about a dozen eviction cases a day.

Other programs, such as the Health and Human Rights Clinic at Indiana University’s Robert H. McKinney School of Law, have also shifted their priorities from other health care-related cases, such as access to insurance and affordable prescription drugs, to more housing to concentrate.

“Originally, we mainly did work in the area of ​​access to healthcare,” he said Fran Quigley, a clinical professor at IU who heads the clinic. “But during the pandemic, the most urgent need we saw in our community was the housing response.”

Quigley said it will take much more than clean-up programs like his to address this growing public health crisis.

He said he would like major policy changes, like tougher tenant protection laws and much more funding for federal housing vouchers, to keep people in their homes.

“We as a nation make the mistake of treating housing as a commodity and not a right,” he said.

This story comes from a collaboration between Side Effects Public Media, based on WFYIand the Midwest Newsroom — an investigative journalistic collaboration that includes IPR, KCUR 89.3, Nebraska Public Media News, St. Louis Public Radio and NPR.

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