Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare enough to draw crowds. Eviction riots erupted during the Depression, even though the number of poor families who faced eviction each year was a fraction of what it is today. A New York Times account of community resistance to the eviction of three Bronx families in February 1932 observed: “Probably because of the cold, the crowd numbered only 1,000.” Sometimes neighbors confronted the marshals directly, sitting on the evicted family’s furniture to prevent its removal or moving the family back in despite the judge’s orders. The marshals themselves were ambivalent about carrying out evictions. It wasn’t why they carried a badge and a gun.
These days, there are sheriff squads whose full-time job is to carry out eviction and foreclosure orders. There are moving companies specialising in evictions, their crews working all day, every weekday. There are hundreds of data-mining companies that sell landlords tenant-screening reports listing past evictions and court filings. These days, housing courts swell, forcing commissioners to settle cases in hallways or makeshift offices crammed with old desks and broken file cabinets – and most tenants don’t even show up. Low-income families have grown used to the rumble of moving trucks, the early morning knocks at the door, the belongings lining the kerb. Eviction Lawyers find themselves to be busier than ever, with hundreds of tenant law cases being fought every year in the United States.
In America, families have watched their incomes stagnate, or even fall, while their housing costs have soared. Median rent has increased by more than 70% since 1995. Meanwhile, only one in four families who qualify for housing assistance receive it, and in the nation’s biggest cities the waiting list for public housing is not counted in years but decades.