It was a busy morning in Cook County’s housing court yesterday. Local campaigners refer to it as ‘the eviction court’ and I could see why. Within the first half hour, I reckon twenty ex-parte possession orders were granted to landlords against tenants who weren’t there to defend themselves, or more to the point, had been unable to pay a lawyer to represent them. Tenants have no ‘right to counsel’ so the power imbalance is further shifted in favour of the landlord. There was a case listed where a tenant was facing eviction for swearing at her landlord!
One courageous woman represented her family so I heard a story that exposed the vile truth of housing in the US. A slumlord, represented by a sleazy attorney straight from a John Grisham novel, was claiming possession for rent arrears between $7,000 and $10,000. He wasn’t quite sure exactly how much, something an attorney would probably have seized on to discredit the case. When the tenant – a disabled Vietnam veteran – moved in the landlord considerately suggested they set up a joint bank account so that the tenant’s pension could be paid in directly to cover the $2,000 per month rent. Again, a lawyer would probably have questioned the legitimacy of this arrangement, but with an acute housing shortage, tenants are easily exploited by unscrupulous, profiteering landlords. The tenant and his partner were joined by their daughter (who defended them in court) and her four children, probably meaning the house was overcrowded. Unsurprisingly, the rent proved unaffordable, but the tenants were also complaining about the landlord’s failure to carry out repairs, including severe mould and sewage backing up into the bath. The landlord claimed that the tenant was dipping into the shared account which, the daughter pointed out, only contained his money, some of which he needed to pay for medicine. The family claimed that they also made cash rent payments, but there was no rent book or other accounting system, so this became their word against his. A lawyer may have asked if the landlord was also taking money out of the account, something he eventually admitted to doing, taking the $1,500 that would have enabled the family to pay for legal representation. The home the landlord was so desperate to repossess is in a gentrifying area, so it’s not hard to work out his motivation. He was even prepared to waive the thousands of dollars he was supposedly owed in order to get the tenants out. Despite the woman’s best efforts and the apparent sympathy of the judge, the family were given 30 days to leave.
Part of the motivation for my trip and the book that will follow is to offer a cautionary tale to the UK. There were about 30,000 evictions of private tenants in the UK last year, but there were that many in New York City alone. The combined effect of marginalised public housing, ideological and political obsession with home ownership and the revolving door of the property market casino produces the inhuman spectacle I witnessed yesterday.