Guest Columnist

An eviction epidemic in Linn County

Family units include beds for four people, and some units can be joined to accommodate larger families. Photographed during the ribbon cutting for the expansion and renovation of Willis Dady Homeless Services in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Aug. 12, 2019. The $3 million project added family units, ADA accessibility, improved housing for single men, and more. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Family units include beds for four people, and some units can be joined to accommodate larger families. Photographed during the ribbon cutting for the expansion and renovation of Willis Dady Homeless Services in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Aug. 12, 2019. The $3 million project added family units, ADA accessibility, improved housing for single men, and more. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

On October 7 the Cedar Rapids Public Library hosted the first Linn County Learning Series event, which reviewed the local costs associated with persistent homelessness. In addition to the solutions discussed at this event, we can also take a proactive approach by tackling one of the key drivers of homelessness: evictions.

Finding alternatives to current eviction practices is imperative, and there are options to create a win-win-win for our landlords, low-income tenants, and our local court system. As a starting point we have just published an in-depth report on the current status of evictions in Linn County, highlighting three model pilots from throughout the country. This summary column draws on only a handful of the data points that can be found in the full report.

Evictions are a pertinent, local crisis. Our most recent data from 2016 shows that landlords filed 1,627 separate eviction actions (over four per day) in Linn County, and 766 tenants (more than two each day) were evicted from their homes. More than three out of every 100 renter households are evicted each year. These evictions tend to cluster in specific neighborhoods; in Wellington Heights, landlords filed 134 evictions, 61 of which were completed, and Taylor landlords filed 57 evictions, 25 of which were completed. The majority of these evictions result from a full or partial non-payment of rent.

Today, evictions are common because income remains stagnant or is falling against the rising costs of rental housing, thus fewer individuals and families have access to housing they can afford. In 2017, the median gross rent in Linn County was $727, up from $510 in 2000. A minimum wage earner would earn $15,080 a year working full time, while paying $8,724 a year in rent, leaving less than $6,500 for a year’s worth of expenses. In 2017, Linn County renters had a median income of $32,109, leaving the household $23,385 a year for all other expenses.

The cost of living compared to income creates a narrow margin for error. With a budget this tight, seemingly small but unavoidable financial setbacks, such as a $200-$300 vehicle repair or medical bill, are enough to keep renters from paying on time. This leaves them at risk for eviction.

Actual or potential eviction impacts most aspects of a household’s life. Tenants facing evictions are 15 percent more likely to lose their jobs than the general population. Job loss coupled with eviction can spiral into homelessness, which carries significant consequences for both adults and their children. Cedar Rapids schools identified 641 students who experienced some level of homelessness within one academic year, over half of whom were elementary students. From 2011 to 2018, the proportion of students who are experiencing homelessness in the Cedar Rapids Community School District has increased by 35 percent.

Evictions impact landlords as well as tenants, though the consequences differ. Evictions pose significant financial losses for landlords — the cost of losing at least one month’s worth of rent (median $727), serving notices via certified mail ($10 each), and court fees ($85-plus) can add up quickly. It is rare that a single security deposit can completely offset the fees that the landlord incurs throughout the eviction process.

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The high per capita eviction rate in Linn County (which is among the top 100 eviction rates in the Country), and especially Cedar Rapids, makes it an abnormally high-risk area for renters. The risk of costly evictions is priced into rent, which increases prices, which leads to low income families struggling to pay rent, leading to more evictions, and so on. Diverting preventable evictions, especially those for non-payment of rent, is better for both the landlord, tenant, and our community.

Kasper Kittredge, of Willis Dady AmeriCorps VISTA, Ashley Balius of Linn County Community Services, and Phoebe Trepp, executive director of Willis Dady, are members of the Linn County Continuum of Care Public Awareness Committee. The full Linn County Eviction Report is at www.willisdady.org

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