"My son remembers our home being taken."
By Justin Feist
For millions of low-income Americans, the threat and fear of eviction can be constant. Low-income renters are extremely vulnerable, to the threat of being just a day late or a dollar short. In 2016, there were 1,183 evictions in Knoxville— more than three a day, according to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.
According to East Tennessee Legal Aid attorney George Shields, financial distress is the leading cause of eviction.
“[Eviction] is a problem that affects so many,” he says. “Economic distress is the main factor.”
Knoxville native Stephen Yang was evicted from his apartment in Fountain City, a Knoxville suburb, in September of 2015, along with his wife and two children. Court documents show that they were evicted for non-payment of rent.
Although the landlord had a legal right to repossess Yang’s apartment, someone else also sought to gain off of the Yang family’s situation.
“The maintenance man took my high school class ring to Atomic Pawn and tried to pawn it,” Yang said, “The guys at the pawn shop knew me and didn’t take it.”
An employee at Atomic Pawn confirmed the incident, which underscores the vulnerability of tenants under eviction duress.
Holly Henry was Yang’s neighbor at the time, and a friend. She wanted to do what she could to help the Yang family.
“They were left homeless…with two little kids,” Henry said in an interview. “I wanted to keep the children with me because [their parents] were out on the street.”
Unfortunately, her kind gesture was short-lived. Henry was evicted in November, also for non-payment of rent, though she says it was because she took in the children, who were not on the lease.
According to the court documents, both Yang and Henry were granted an extension by the landlord to settle their debts. It’s common, says Lincoln Memorial University law professor Akram Faizer. He says that often landlords will work out a payment plan to avoid evicting a tenant, but in many cases, low-income tenants still can’t make the payments and end up getting evicted anyways.
The stress is financial, but the psychological effects are profound, explained sociologist and housing expert Matthew Desmond in a recent interview with NPR.
“It’s such a consuming, stressful event, it causes you to make mistakes at work, lose your footing there, and then there’s just the trauma of it — the effect that eviction has on your dignity and your mental health and your physical health.”
For Yang, his family, and Henry, the evictions took a long-term toll.
“We just got into a new place,” Yang said, “and my son can’t bring himself to put anything on the walls. He told me, ‘What’s the point, we’re just going to have to take it back down’ because he remembers our home being taken.”
When Henry was evicted, she was forced to go back to an abusive ex-partner, and lost her job at an insurance company shortly thereafter.
Almost three years later, free of that situation and on her way back to financial independence, Henry says she hopes more people will come to understand the complexity of the issue.
“I’m not gonna say all of my problems are a direct result of that eviction, but it got the ball rolling real good.”