A report released today finds that Buffalo has a “massive” eviction problem, with an eviction rate of 14.6% of renting households – much higher than that of comparable cities including Cincinnati (8.8%), Cleveland (8.2%), Milwaukee (8.6%), and Philadelphia (7.5%). This “involuntary mobility” has a damaging impact on individuals and communities, negatively effecting education, property values, health, employment, and the city’s economy overall. But there are solutions.
The report Evicted in Buffalo: the High Costs of Involuntary Mobility, authored by local policy think tank Partnership for the Public Good (PPG) and housing advocates People United for Sustainable Housing Buffalo (PUSH), describes Buffalo’s eviction crisis as the result of Buffalo’s rising poverty rate, higher local rents, and wage stagnation. Buffalo’s housing stock for low-income renters is exceptionally old, badly-maintained, and scarce.
In Erie County, an estimated 5,824 people experienced homelessness in 2017. Of tenants interviewed in Housing Court, 56 percent said they had no place to go.
Involuntary mobility causes children to perform poorly in school, while adults are more likely to lose their jobs, and services such as medical care are likely to suffer. Ultimately, the entire community’s safety and social fabric can be damaged. “High rates of mobility and vacancy contribute to neighborhood blight and disinvestment, resulting in lower property values for nearby owners and lower property tax income for municipalities and school districts.”
Evicted in Buffalo notes that the average evictee is a relatively modest $1,200, or around two months, behind on rent. And evictions account for only a quarter of involuntary moves; tenants may also move out before their landlord takes legal action, or if the property is foreclosed on or condemned.
One Buffalo-area tenant describes being hospitalized for a stroke: “I tried to pay [the landlord] the back rent once I got out of the hospital, but he refused, telling me he cannot be missing the rent every time somebody has a heart attack or something.”
The most economically disadvantaged tenants – Black and Latinx people, women, children, and the elderly and disabled – are in the most danger of losing their housing, and the least able to recover if they do. PUSH interviewed tenants in housing court and found that 72% were women, 67% were African-American, and 22% had a disability. Furthermore, “evictions are concentrated in the most economically and racially segregated parts of the East and West Sides.”
Black women, who make less money than any other demographic group in the U.S., are also at the most risk for eviction, and a study in Milwaukee found that “one in five black women there have been evicted – compared to one in twelve Latinx women and one in fifteen white women.” The author of that study compared “the phenomenon of mass eviction of black women to the phenomenon of mass incarceration of black men.”
One tenant we interviewed could not pay rent after she lost her job. Her violent ex-boyfriend came to her workplace and not only hit her, but cursed at her boss and threatened her co-workers. She was then fired.
“In fast-appreciating neighborhoods, landlords can make money through rising property values; in neighborhoods with stagnant or falling values, they can profit only through rents.”
And eviction is ultimately a problem for landlords, too. While landlords nationally make higher profits from poor neighborhoods – around $100 per rental unit per month, compared to $3 for middle-income neighborhoods, and $50 in affluent ones – the lack of stability among tenants means that landlords’ expenses and rental turnover are higher, while their properties don’t appreciate as much in value, and they have less to invest in maintenance and improvements.
PUBLIC & SUBSIDIZED HOUSING
While the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority (BMHA) is the city’s largest landlord, the BMHA as well as the system of subsidized private housing for low-income renters, are “chronically underfunded” by the federal government, and tend to also be poorly-maintained, unsafe, and racially segregated, with years’ long waiting lists.
So what are the possible solutions? The New York State Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act, passed in 2019, should make a difference: it slows down the eviction process, allowing the tenant more time to raise money and possibly mount a defense if the landlord has failed to maintain the property or is otherwise at fault. But larger problems need to be addressed.
PPG and PUSH recommendations include additional state financial assistance for poor households which are homeless or struggling to pay their rent. Erie County should create an additional housing allowance which reflects current housing costs – a measure already taken by eleven other counties in New York State – and broaden its criteria for emergency rent assistance. Further recommendations include the creation of a BMHA program to reduce evictions, similar to a pilot program adopted by the Syracuse Housing Authority. New York State should pass a “Just Cause Evictions” law, which would “ban an eviction based on no cause or based on an unconscionable rent increase.” A number of states, counties, and cities already have similar legislation, and New York State Bill 2892-A would protect renters from unjustified evictions or “unconscionable” rent increases, which would usually mean more than 1.5 times the increase in the Consumer Price Index in the region.