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The hidden health costs of eviction

Millions of Americans are forced from their homes every year. Evictions are usually considered in economic terms -- an outcome of housing supply and income levels -- but what about their physical and emotional impact? Research increasingly shows housing insecurity takes an enormous toll on people’s health. William Brangham reports from Richmond, which has the nation’s second-highest eviction rate.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Across the U.S. every year, millions of people are forced out of their homes.

    While these evictions are usually thought of in economic terms, a problem of housing supply and income, a growing body of research is showing that evictions also take an enormous toll on people's health.

    William Brangham recently traveled to Richmond, Virginia, a city with the second highest eviction rate in the nation.

  • William Brangham:

    For Sergeant Larry Trotter and Deputy Juan Survellon of the Richmond Sheriff's Office…

  • Man:

    Hello? Sheriff's Office.

  • William Brangham:

    … this is what a typical morning looks like.

  • Larry Trotter:

    The average for us would be anywhere from 40 to 50 evictions a day.

  • Man:

    Go ahead, put your shoes on. I'm going to need the dog be taken out as well.

  • William Brangham:

    They crisscross the city serving evictions.

  • Larry Trotter:

    I get there, and people want to curse me out. But I understand that. So, you have got to give them their chance to vent, because they're losing their house, their home.

  • William Brangham:

    It's a scene that unfolds in Richmond more often than almost anywhere else in the country. And those evictions can stay on a renter's record for at least a decade.

  • Martin Wegbreit:

    In the city of Richmond, there are roughly 18,000 eviction lawsuits filed every year.

  • William Brangham:

    Martin Wegbreit is an attorney at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, a nonprofit that represents and advocates for low-income tenants. He says Richmond's eviction rate spiked for many reasons

  • Martin Wegbreit:

    We have a shortage of affordable housing. We have a poverty rate of 25 percent in the city. We have gentrification. We have a history of racial segregation, state-sponsored racial segregation. So it's all of those factors combined.

  • William Brangham:

    Virginia has long been considered a friendly state for landlords, with a host of laws that make it cheap, quick and relatively easy to evict tenants.

  • Martin Wegbreit:

    The filing fee to file an eviction lawsuit in Virginia is $58. By comparison, in Alabama, it's $250.

  • William Brangham:

    But that ease also exacts a real toll on the people being evicted.

    Latisha Lee is a single mother who lives in public housing in Richmond.

    When you get that knock on the door, what is that like?

  • Latisha Lee:

    It's scary. Like, your heart will drop, and you don't know what to do. And, like, in my case, in most — a lot of other people's cases, they don't have nowhere else to go. Like, where they're at is where they depend on to lay their head every day.

  • William Brangham:

    Lee works seven days a week as a home health aide, feeding, bathing and caring for elderly clients, but, even so, she says she's constantly afraid she won't have enough to pay her rent.

  • Latisha Lee:

    They will put it on your door and just walk away. And, sometimes…

  • William Brangham:

    That's the notification on the door that says, you're being evicted. Get out.

  • Latisha Lee:

    Mm-hmm. They will give you a certain — like, they will let you know, like, if you still haven't paid this by this day, then you have to be gone within a matter of this time, that the sheriff would be there.

    And that happened to me like three or four times.

  • William Brangham:

    Lee says she's always been able to come up with enough money to avoid eviction. But she says her family is still living right on the edge.

    They had to recently move for a more pressing issue. Her last place made her son Nyshawn's asthma much worse.

  • Latisha Lee:

    He do the inhalers, he do treatments. He do a Flonase, and then he has actual medicine he takes.

  • William Brangham:

    That's a lot for a 4-year-old.

  • Latisha Lee:

    Yes. But he done got used to it. He know how to do it all by himself.

  • William Brangham:

    She says their old apartment had rats in the walls, and air vents were covered in mold.

  • Latisha Lee:

    My doctors even said we can't be in the apartment. We got to leave, because it's a health hazard.

  • William Brangham:

    The majority of low-income renting families in the U.S. spend over 50 percent of their income on housing. That's according to Princeton's Eviction Lab.

    And according to Kathryn Howell and Ben Theresa of Virginia Commonwealth University. That often forces families to accept substandard housing after they have been evicted.

  • Benjamin Teresa:

    This is a problem that is disproportionately felt by black people, and in particular black women.

  • William Brangham:

    The pair has spent the last few years mapping exactly where evictions are happening in Richmond.

  • Kathryn Howell:

    When you look at the preponderance of unsafe and unfit structures, you see a lot of overlap. In the neighborhoods where we have high eviction rates, we also have high numbers of code violations in these buildings.

  • Megan Sandel:

    It really is where you live that actually may be the most important part of your health.

  • William Brangham:

    Dr. Megan Sandel is a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center who has written extensively on the links between housing and health. She led a team of researchers who interviewed more than 20,000 families in five cities.

  • Megan Sandel:

    We found that those families that were homeless and the families that were behind on rent had very similar adverse health outcomes, which signaled to us that homelessness is bad, but behind on rent is just as bad for kids' health and their parents.

  • William Brangham:

    A 2018 report out of Seattle found that mental health was the most commonly cited complaint of those facing eviction, including varying levels of depression, anxiety and insomnia.

    And even for families not facing eviction, housing instability can be just as detrimental.

  • Carmen Candelario:

    I have to continue to make believe that everything is OK.

  • William Brangham:

    Back in Richmond, Carmen Candelario has been living paycheck to paycheck for years. She now works two jobs, a translator for a local hospital and a hotel banquet server.

  • Carmen Candelario:

    And my pictures had the dots everywhere.

  • William Brangham:

    The mold growing on your pictures?

  • Carmen Candelario:

    Yes.

  • William Brangham:

    She and her daughter have moved four times in the last eight years because she says the homes were all unsafe to live in.

    A little over a year ago, she moved into this rent-subsidized apartment. But, almost immediately, her 12-year-old daughter, Amidah (ph), started having health problems.

  • Carmen Candelario:

    She had a lot of breathing problems. She had a lot of hives. She had a lot of fever, shortness, out of breath, which I thought was due because of asthma, but we were allergic to the apartment.

  • William Brangham:

    Candelario complained about what she said was frequent mold and dampness in the apartment. But she claims the landlord ignored her. She believes it's still making her daughter sick and says it's caused a new problem for her.

  • Carmen Candelario:

    So, last year, she missed out on 27 days of school. Within that 27 times of her being absent, I also called out 27 times.

  • William Brangham:

    So that you could be home with her when she was sick?

  • Carmen Candelario:

    And taking her to her doctor's appointments and picking her up from school. I'm on my last lifeline, because if I continue to call out due to health issues, I am fired.

  • William Brangham:

    Last fall, Richmond's Mayor Levar Stoney unveiled a pilot program to help about 500 families avoid eviction over the next year. The program set aside nearly half-a-million dollars to help tenants pay overdue rent.

  • Levar Stoney:

    Housing is foundational. It's the vaccine to poverty.

    And so if you are able to have a safe, quality roof over your head, and then that gives you the ability to put food on the table, that's going to help you rise up that economic ladder.

  • William Brangham:

    Meanwhile, Latisha Lee says she's tired of having to live in places that she says make her son sick, but she can't afford anything better right now.

    Does he understand any of this stuff that's going on?

  • Latisha Lee:

    I don't think he does. He just know he tired of being sick. That's all he could tell me is, "Mommy, I don't want to be sick no more."

  • William Brangham:

    Really?

    For the "PBS NewsHour" I'm William Brangham in Richmond, Virginia.

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