On the Doorstep

One Little Box

Grace Luysterborghs lives on the fourth floor of the Robert T. Wolfe Apartments, in a studio apartment with big windows overlooking Union Station. But she likes to keep her curtains closed. It’s “one little box,” she says. There’s a bathroom right by the entrance, a tiny closet, a small kitchen, then her bed and dresser.

Luysterborghs was thankful when she secured her apartment in the Wolfe complex at 49 Union Avenue, a New Haven Housing Authority–owned property for the elderly and disabled, in early 2015. Before moving into the building, she’d lived for over fifteen years in a spacious apartment in West Haven. In late 2014, she had to stop work as a nurse’s aide to prepare for a knee replacement, and her landlord simultaneously tried to evict her, she says. She was forced out of her apartment—although it was never formalized—and was briefly homeless. Then she landed a spot in the Robert T. Wolfe Apartments.

Years after the surgery, the swelling in her knee has never really gone down, Luysterborghs says. She still has trouble walking. Sometimes the cramps in her legs are so bad that she can’t get out of bed in the morning.

When Luysterborghs moved into the Robert T. Wolfe Apartments, her rent was $59 a month. She prioritized it, and paid it on time. At the end of last year, though, her disability assistance went up, increasing her rent to $202. Her case manager at a local behavioral therapy program informed the Housing Authority of the change. But the paperwork confused Luysterborghs, and she accidentally submitted her old Social Security information. The Housing Authority discovered the error after she’d paid the original rent, Luysterborghs says. And suddenly it was too late.

In January, she found an eviction notice affixed to her front door, informing her that she hadn’t paid her $202 rent for that month. She had three weeks to leave.

Over the next few months, Luysterborghs met with her property manager to resolve the issue and paid her outstanding rent. But her case continued to advance through the court system, and the eviction loomed. Eventually, a hearing at housing court was set for the end of April.

“It’s been hectic because I’ve been dealing with a lot of depression, a lot of stuff,” Luysterborghs says the day before her hearing, sitting at China King, a takeout restaurant on Chapel Street.

Sixty years old, Luysterborghs has a wide face and blue eyes that quickly lift with an easy smile and, just as quickly, collapse into sadness. She grew up on the eastern edge of New Haven and attended Wilbur Cross High School. When she was a child, her mother balanced three jobs.  Luysterborghs has worked all her life, too. She raised three sons, one of whom just got out of rehab. The youngest drowned in 2011 at the age of twenty-one. And even as she faces eviction proceedings, she’s been taking care of her two-month-old grandson every day. If she is evicted, she will lose her spot in public housing. And there’s no other place waiting for her.

“I’m upset about what I’m going through,” Luysterborghs says. Through the plate glass windows of China King, she can almost make out the white gleam of the New Haven County Courthouse, where she’s scheduled to appear the next morning. “I’m going through stress, I’m going through back pain. I cry.”

For Luysterborghs, the prospect of an eviction is frightening, overwhelming, and isolating. But eviction has become commonplace for the city’s poorest renters. The Eviction Lab, a nationwide database of over eighty-three million eviction records, estimates that four evictions occur in New Haven every day, reflecting the pervasiveness of housing instability and poverty on the municipal and national levels. And comprehensive solutions may be a long way off.

Forced Out

The eviction process begins with a Notice to Quit Possession, like the one Luysterborghs found on her door. Every week, New Haven County State Marshal Brian Mezick serves dozens of notices to tenants across the city. Eviction papers—most of which stem from nonpayment of rent—launch tenants into a legal process that most navigate without an attorney.

Mezick is in his thirties, a clean-shaven man with short blonde hair and slight sideburns. He’s been a state marshal for the past two years, handling evictions for private landlords and the New Haven Housing Authority. If a defendant fails to appear in housing court, or loses her case, she can be evicted in about four weeks. Other times, cases can drag on for many months. If a judge upholds an eviction, Mezick oversees the removal process.

There’s a certain boyishness about Mezick, who often shows up to evictions wearing a brown bomber jacket with a sheepskin collar and dark boots. But the state marshal ID hanging around his neck betrays the reason for his presence on tenants’ doorsteps. “I’m not there to be a cowboy, an enforcer, overly hostile. I try to speak in calm, low tones,” he says. “I make sure the landlord is not on the premises—there’s no need to agitate the situation.”

One April morning, at an eviction at a Housing Authority apartment near West Rock, Mezick watches as the movers work quickly, carrying armfuls of a woman’s possessions out the door.

Even as she faces eviction proceedings, Grace has been taking care of her two-month-old grandson every day. If she is evicted, she will lose her spot in public housing. And there’s no other place waiting for her.

The movers have an easy rapport with him, laughing and trading stories about eviction work as they dismantle the woman’s home. There was the one with roaches. The hoarder. Mezick tells them about a case a few days earlier, where a tenant in West Haven barricaded his door and threatened to shoot anyone who came in.

“That’s the scary thing. You never know what people are going through,” one of the movers says. “We had this guy, we’re five minutes from his house, and the road’s all blocked off. House is going up in flames. The guy had set it on fire and then shot himself.” He pushes a few boxes onto a hand truck and wheels it out the door.

During an eviction in New Haven, tenants who can’t afford private storage have their possessions packed onto a truck that is unloaded at the Department of Public Works’ Eviction Warehouse, located in a corner of the old Goffe Street Armory. Unlike some other cities, New Haven does not charge storage fees, but items that haven’t been retrieved within a month are auctioned off wholesale to the public.

Only about a tenth of tenants pick up their possessions, according to warehouse manager Shawn Brown. Often, elderly people who have been evicted don’t want to tell their families what’s happening, or cannot coordinate the pickup. “Sometimes it’s pride, shame, or they’ve been sick,” Brown says. She doesn’t like to sell people’s items because “some things can’t be replaced.” But anything that isn’t claimed goes up for auction.

At an auction one morning in April, two men show up to bid. Brown leads them through the warehouse, where pallets of shrink-wrapped possessions sit in plywood bays. The two bidders pass their flashlight beams over a pallet piled high with chairs—a translucent iceberg of things left behind.

Nothing can be opened before purchase, so bidders make their best guesses about the value of the items within the boxes and pallets. Anything that doesn’t sell at the auction is taken to the Transfer Station in Quinnipiac Meadows, New Haven’s landfill.

New Haven is particularly vulnerable to what is increasingly seen as a nationwide eviction crisis. The city has a 4.05 percent eviction rate, according to the Eviction Lab, meaning that roughly four in every one hundred renter households are evicted.

“Yeah, I’ll take this for ten bucks,” says one of the bidders as he inspects a pallet. He has attended auctions at the warehouse every month for a decade. He sells other people’s former possessions at local flea markets. “I just buy,” he says. “It’s all about the gamble.” By the end of the auction, he’s spent $360 on thirty-five pallets, and will bring a 26-foot U-Haul to take it all away.

For the bidders, the auction is a chance to hit the jackpot on an unassuming pallet: a well-made piece of furniture, a box of high-quality electronics, sometimes even a stash of money forgotten in the chaos of an eviction. But for tenants, it’s the end of a fast-moving process that threatens to strip them of their home and possessions.

A City in Crisis

New Haven is particularly vulnerable to what is increasingly seen as a nationwide eviction crisis. The city has a 4.05 percent eviction rate, according to the Eviction Lab, meaning that roughly four in every one hundred renter households are evicted. In 2016, with 1,823 cases filed and 1,481 evictions carried out, New Haven had the 69th highest rate of eviction for American cities. Of nearby Connecticut cities with similar populations, Waterbury had a 6.1 percent eviction rate—the twenty-second highest in the country—with 1,437 evictions in 2016. Stamford, with 453 evictions, did not make the top 100.

In New Haven, the scars of 1960s-era urban renewal remain unhealed. A dilapidated housing stock, high housing costs, and entrenched poverty keeps home ownership out of reach for most city residents. According to the Partnership for Strong Communities, a Hartford-based affordable housing nonprofit, the median income for a New Haven renter household is $28,380, and more than half of renters spend 30 percent or more of their income on housing. State budget cuts, which have depleted resources for eviction-prevention programs, have further exacerbated the crisis.

New Haven evictions are concentrated in Edgewood, Newhallville, Fair Haven, and the Hill, some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, according to Billy Huang, a researcher for the New Haven Legal Assistance Association (LAA). The eviction crisis in those neighborhoods has its roots in their own fraught histories. Beginning in the nineteen-thirties, in those predominantly nonwhite neighborhoods, families were denied home loans and other vital resources through redlining practices. In the midcentury era of urban renewal, those areas underwent further upheaval through the city’s decision to demolish working class neighborhoods designated “slums.”

Evictions are on the public record, so it’s not uncommon for landlords to hold a potential tenant’s history against them. A past eviction can be disastrous for low-income tenants attempting to navigate the private housing market. And for someone living in public or subsidized housing, an eviction can permanently terminate their ability to benefit from government housing assistance.

Renee Dineen, a paralegal at LAA, says that landlords in New Haven often raise rents to the highest level that the Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8) or the Rental Assistance Program—both federally-subsidized housing support for low-income families—will allow, which further disadvantages residents who don’t receive housing benefits.

As the eviction crisis in New Haven has grown, so too have the obstacles to fighting it. One of the most pressing problems is the lack of housing attorneys. Downsizing in Connecticut legal services and state budget cuts have severely restricted the pool of available lawyers. Most tenants enter housing court self-represented.

Since the nineteen-nineties, and likely earlier, the ratio of landlord-tenant legal representation has been roughly eighty to twenty, according to a 1995 Yale Law & Policy Review article by Steve Gunn. Today, on average, 81 percent of landlords in New Haven eviction cases have legal representation, compared to 10 percent of tenants, according to Billy Huang, the LAA researcher, indicating a slight decrease in recent years.

Dineen says that LAA had a seventy-person staff in its heyday in the nineteen-seventies. It’s closer to thirty today. They used to take walk-in clients, she says, but now have to be far more selective about the cases they take on. Their housing unit team is just four people.

Many tenants do not even make their Housing Session court date, resulting in eviction by default. Amy Eppler-Epstein, an attorney at LAA, says that educational and language barriers often prevent tenants from appearing in court. Some tenants also worry about jeopardizing their employment or think that nothing can be done to fight the eviction.

But Connecticut does have a well-established system for resolving housing cases: a housing mediation program designed to give the landlord and tenant an opportunity to reach an agreement without going to trial. During meetings ranging from ten minutes to an hour, mediation specialists resolve over 90 percent of cases, according to Alexandra Gillett, who has worked as a mediation specialist since 2012.

“Oftentimes, the situation that arose to bring you to housing court wasn’t catastrophic—it was temporary,” Gillett explains. “All we need to do is make a plan to help them manage the payments.” Sometimes, however, the best solution for both parties is a “graceful exit strategy.” The rare case not resolved in mediation goes to trial, usually the same day.

Housing mediation specialists, legal aid attorneys and social service providers have seen the adverse effects of Connecticut’s budget crisis on their ability to help low-income renters. According to Erin Kemple, of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, security deposit guarantee programs—which help low-income people find housing by giving landlords a guarantee of the first month’s rent—have been largely eliminated statewide. Gillett says she’s seen “a further limiting of already incredibly limited resources.” She adds that there used to be agencies to which she could refer tenants for back-rent assistance, or landlords for energy assistance. “Those programs have all but dried up, unfortunately,” she says.

Collateral Damage

Eviction strips a tenant of housing stability and jeopardizes their ability to find a new home, but its effects can be much farther-reaching. The stress and logistical difficulties of experiencing an eviction can make it hard to hold down a job. And eviction can leave psychological scars, often leading to increased rates of depression.

“When you get evicted you lose not only your home but your neighborhood and your school. You also lose your stuff, which is taken by movers or put on a sidewalk,” says Matthew Desmond, a professor of sociology at Princeton University and author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning book Evicted. “Eviction comes with a mark which can prevent you from moving into a good neighborhood and decent housing because landlords turn you away.”

The Eviction Lab estimates that 2.3 million people were evicted in America in 2016, which, Desmond notes, is thirty-six times the number of people who died from opioid overdoses.  The scale of the problem is enormous, he says—and it’s “absolutely underestimated” due to the lack of transparency and significant gaps in eviction record data from municipal governments.

“I think that when we add all that up, we are forced to the conclusion that eviction isn’t just a condition of poverty, it’s a cause of poverty,” Desmond says.

Last spring, Dr. Jack Tsai, an associate professor of psychology at Yale and staff psychologist at the Veterans Affairs Connecticut Healthcare System, was in the midst of running a nine-month observational study of tenants who appear in New Haven Housing Court for eviction cases. Every few months, he and his team checked in with about fifty participants to track their mental health. In his study, Dr. Tsai says, there were several instances in which participants reported suicidal thoughts.

“Evictions are a lose-lose situation,” he says. “They’re stressful for the tenants, but they’re stressful for the landlords, too. And it’s a loss for society because people aren’t invested in their communities anymore.”

On average, New Haven landlords lose about $3,000 during an eviction, a combination of the tenants’ unpaid rent, fees paid to the state marshal for eviction paperwork, and moving costs, according to a 2007 Yale Law School student paper by Michael Gottesman.

For Mezick, evictions are merely part of the job. He doesn’t usually ask tenants if they have another place lined up. “Everything’s going good, and I ask that question, and they’re triggered. My goal is to do this as quickly, legally, and peaceably as possible.”

At an eviction one cold April morning on Gorham Avenue in Hamden, the landlord, a petite woman, paces anxiously on the front lawn while movers load up her tenant’s U-Haul. State Marshal Mezick tells the landlord to leave while the movers work, careful to keep her and the tenant apart.

As the tenant packs up her second-floor apartment, she complains that she was just two days late with her rent when the landlord began eviction proceedings. Her young son, the hood of his sweatshirt pulled up over his head, watches expressionlessly as his mother and older brother carry bags of possessions out of the apartment. The U-Haul is loaded up in forty-five minutes, and the evicted tenant, cigarette dangling from her mouth, asks one of the movers for a light.

“I made a mistake renting to her,” the landlord says bitterly as the tenant drives off. The tenant owes her almost $2,000 in unpaid rent, and she’s paying $460 for the eviction fees, she says. “She’s had evictions, and I paid the price.”

For Mezick, evictions are merely part of the job. He doesn’t usually ask tenants if they have another place lined up. “Everything’s going good, and I ask that question, and they’re triggered. My goal is to do this as quickly, legally, and peaceably as possible.”

“I have on occasion served the execution and the kid comes to the door. I hate that,” he says. “If the kid comes to the door, I fold it in half and say, ‘Give this to your mother.’”

Holding On

Grace Luysterborghs says that her unstable housing situation keeps her from living the life she most desires. She wants a bigger, cleaner apartment, with enough space for all her clothes, so she can stop wasting $200 every month on storage fees. She wants to budget her money better, maybe save up for a car. She wants to be healthier, to eat better and exercise more. But most of all, she says, she wants peace of mind.

Her eviction was scheduled for 8:30 a.m. on April 12. In the weeks leading up to that date, she tried to resolve the issue with her property manager at the Housing Authority, since she’d paid the outstanding rent, but to no avail.  She did not seek legal assistance until two days before her eviction, when she asked New Haven Legal Assistance for help filing paperwork for a temporary injunction.

On the injunction form, she marked an “x” next to a line stating, “The defendant has no other safe, adequate, and affordable place to live, and/or cannot move before the date set for eviction.” She put “x”s down next to “The defendant suffers from a disability making it difficult to find replacement housing,” “The defendant lives in subsidized housing and may lose the subsidy if evicted,” and “The defendant in fact paid all rent, use and occupancy, and/or arrearage owed.” She attached photocopies of her rent receipts for January and February, in addition to the back pay she owed, and the full $202 rent for March and April.

That same day, a judge at Housing Court granted her a temporary injunction on the grounds that “irreparable harm would result to the defendant/tenant unless the requested relief is granted.” Her formal hearing was set for April 24.

Housing Session

The morning of her court date, Luysterborghs wakes up at 7 a.m, in pain. She skips breakfast to soak in the bathtub, hoping to relieve her aching body. Her caseworker picks her up and drives her the mile from her apartment to the New Haven County Court.

Just before 9:30 a.m., she climbs the white steps of the courthouse and passes between the towering columns into the light-filled atrium. She takes the elevator up to the third floor, Courtroom D: Housing Session. She finds a seat in the row of chairs facing the judge. Across from her is a box filled with attorneys and mediators. She’s nervous, but she prayed about her case the night before: “I got to give this situation to God.”

Luysterborghs’ friend Shirley Little, who lives in West Haven, arrives to provide emotional support. They settle in for a long wait. But after only ten minutes, a representative from the Housing Authority calls Luysterborghs over and brings her outside the courtroom. Attorneys and clients confer in the hallway, leaning against marble walls and leafing through documents. The representative explains that the Housing Authority recognizes its error; Grace is up to date on her rent. Luysterborghs will have to file a motion to open the judgment again, which will allow the Housing Authority to withdraw their case against her.

Leaving the courthouse, Luysterborghs is excited, but worried about getting the rest of the paperwork filled out. She and Little decide to take the bus to Hamden and have lunch at St. Ann’s Soup Kitchen, two and a half miles down Dixwell Avenue.

In the basement of the church, Luysterborghs and Little listen to a volunteer say a blessing before lining up for lunch. Today, it’s kielbasa, roast vegetables, and mashed potatoes.

Luysterborghs puts her tray down at an empty table, takes a picture of her meal on her phone, and says a quick prayer. Her hair is pulled back. She looks at ease, buoyant after the morning’s events.

“The potatoes are banging!” she exclaims to Little.

She double-checks that the Motion to Open is still in her handbag. She’s going to file it as soon as she can, hoping the whole situation will be put to rest in a few days.

“The legal system sucks,” Little says. “Why can’t they just say, ‘We made an error?’”

“Yeah,” Luysterborghs says, “the woman from Housing Authority said, ‘Yes, Grace, you’re up to date,’ and everything.”

“That one little paper caused all those problems,” Little says, shaking her head.

Luysterborghs’ younger son, who just got out of rehab, lives in New Haven. Her eldest is also in the city, but she hasn’t seen him in a while. She didn’t tell them about the eviction proceedings, and doesn’t want to. They have their own problems, she says. “I just deal with it on my own.”

It was a traumatic process just to keep an apartment that often feels like it’s closing in on her. “I really don’t want to live at Union Avenue, but right now, it’s convenient, right by the train station,” she says. Her rent will be $202 going forward. She wishes it was a little less, maybe $150. But she will have to make do.

And of course, Luysterborghs is one of the lucky ones. For many renters in New Haven, a Notice to Quit Possession ends in eviction, and sometimes homelessness. As Luysterborghs and Little eat lunch at the soup kitchen, that reality seems to hover around them.

Luysterborghs nearly lost her home and hard-won stability to the complex, often unforgiving forces of the New Haven Housing Authority, the court system and city bureaucracy.  To her, the vast legal structure surrounding evictions seemed inescapable, all-consuming, and she was fortunate to escape unscathed. Although her court appearance ended favorably, four other tenants were likely put out on the street that same day.

Desmond, for one, is optimistic that solutions to America’s eviction crisis exist. That’s partly because the housing crisis has grown so severe that it has begun to spread without precedent to other sectors of the economy, dragging large swaths of the population into its destructive wake. The problem is too big to ignore, he says.

There’s no right to counsel in housing court, although studies have shown that tenants who have access to a lawyer are far less likely to be evicted. Expanding legal aid is part of the solution. And, for systemic change, Desmond has championed a universal housing voucher program, which would dramatically expand low-income people’s access to housing.

“Change is hard, and big change is even harder,” Desmond reflects. “But I do think that a lot of cities and a lot of folks in Washington are waking up to the fact that you can’t fix poverty without fixing housing.”

At the soup kitchen, Little motions to the dozen people eating at nearby tables. “If she didn’t show up [in court], she would have been homeless. That’s why a lot of people are homeless, a lot of people sitting here.”

Little, who is fifty-six and has a Section 8 voucher, wants to buy a house by the time she’s sixty-five, but it won’t be in New Haven. It will be in North Carolina, where she has some family, close to her children in Georgia. “The South is beautiful,” she says with a smile. “All my illnesses will go away. I know the country air makes me well. I just need to get back to it. I’m done here.”

After lunch, Luysterborghs and Little board a city bus that takes them back downtown. Luysterborghs sits at a window seat, Little one row behind, which is how they like it. Luysterborghs is friends with the driver, and greets nearly everyone who boards the bus by name. Little points out the street where she grew up. Luysterborghs waves at her church as they pass by.

The bus accelerates down Dixwell Avenue, past corner delis, storefront churches, and blocks upon blocks of clapboard houses, some with bare lawns, some with flowers out front. Luysterborghs smiles at each passenger who passes, grateful for this warm afternoon and this bus that will deliver her home.

– Eliza Fawcett is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College.

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