I’m at the gas station, again counting quarters, hoping I have enough to make the low fuel light go off. I have $6 exactly, enough to take me a few more miles.
My son, almost 9 years old, stands next to me at the counter. He spots a package of cookies, points to them and says, “Mom?”
“No, honey,” I whisper. “They don’t take food stamps.”
“Oh,” he nods. He understands by now, without argument: If I can’t pay with food stamps, I can’t afford treats. I promise to get him cookies at the grocery, and he just says, “It’s OK.”
This is what life on minimum wage looks like. Although most of my money goes to my landlord, I’m still on the verge of eviction, which is a nightmare, especially with a child.
First there was only the threat, after I was two months behind on my rent. But on Tuesday I received a generic solicitation mailing from a lawyer’s office asking me if I wanted representation for a Forced Eviction and Detainer (FED) warrant that had been issued against me in Shelby County General Sessions Court. I have not been served or received notice that an attempt has been made, so I don’t even know when the warrant was issued or the court date.
Now begins the countdown. Once I get the eviction notice, I may only have 14 days to leave. My plan is to call this lawyer, who I’ve never heard of, to find out when this warrant was issued, why I wasn’t served, and any other information he has that I, the tenant, do not have.
Eviction could hinder my ability to rent for up to seven years, not to mention hurt my credit. My health would be at risk, since I’m an insulin-dependent diabetic and must keep my medicine refrigerated. And most important, I have nowhere to go.
I’m not lazy or uneducated. In 2004, when I graduated college with two bachelors’ degrees, swimming in tens of thousands of dollars in student loans that trash my credit score to this day, I believed those degrees would guarantee consistent employment. And for years, they did. In September, I suddenly lost my job in trade publications, after being lulled into a false sense of security with constant talks of annual raises and increasing year-end bonuses. Since then, I’ve only gotten minimum- or low-wage work. At one job, I’ve earned a single raise in 10 months to $8.50 an hour.
My small house, with a cranky toilet, collapsing refrigerator shelving and a stove with just two working burners, cost $2,250 to move into last March — first and last months’ rent plus a deposit. A worker at the realty company said, “It’s a lot of money, but at least you don’t have to pay rent next March.”
For a year, I believed March 2019 rent was paid. But on March 27 my landlord called wanting rent for that month. Apparently, “last months’ rent” means not for the duration of the lease, but the duration of my tenancy. Why they didn’t contact me until the end of the month, I don’t know.
Rosy Bloomberg jobs report, different reality
Although Bloomberg recently touted Memphis as one of the top large Metro areas in the country in job creation, there was no mention of the types of jobs or the pay. All I’ve gotten are part-time, high-stress food service jobs that pay minimum wage, or barely above that. It’s far from enough.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, a true living wage for one adult with one child in Memphis is $24.25 an hour, so even the Fight for $15 movement’s goal isn’t enough. Even working two jobs and picking up gig work (such as Uber Eats), I’m not making near a living wage.
Any work that leaves me only two nights a week with my son should pay enough to cover rent. When he is here, he spends too much time playing Legos, building Minecraft mansions or watching TV, because often, the money to take him out just isn’t there.
And now, we may join the hundreds of Memphians who are evicted each year. The Memphis metro area had the highest eviction rate in the country — 6.1 percent — among the largest metro areas in 2015–17, according to a study by Apartment List. And among all large metro areas, a study by Princeton’s Eviction Lab ranked Memphis first in the state and 41st in the nation for evictions. That study tallied 6,514 evictions here in 2016. That’s 17.85 households evicted a day, or 4.89 percent (the national eviction rate is 2.55 percent).
Evictions disproportionately affect minorities and women with children, and the constant moves and homelessness can have a lasting effect. In the South, black renters are the most frequent victims of eviction.
And in court, tenants often don’t have a chance to prevail because they don’t have money to hire a lawyer. Poor tenants must be entitled to legal representation to alleviate this crisis. People charged with crimes are offered public defenders; why aren’t people like me?
Law-abiding tenants, especially those who fall on hard times, deserve the same rights as anyone accused of a crime. A Pew Charitable Trust study from October 2017 revealed 85 to 90 percent of landlords have attorneys during evictions. Most tenants do not. (A local property manager told me of the 20 tenants her company has evicted this past year, none had legal counsel.)
Cities from New York to Durham, N.C. offer legal help to low-income renters, and in Philadelphia, a pilot program could save the city $45.2 million annually on evictions. But Memphis has not jumped on that bandwagon.
I have worked, drained my friends and gone without, but they can serve that eviction notice and count on my inability to afford a fair fight.
Local organizations, like MIFA, have emergency programs to help, but they are limited. I already received MIFA’s maximum annual rental assistance ($300). If all else fails, Memphis Area Legal Services may be able to help with impending eviction. Obtain your lease, addendums, ledger and all correspondence records before seeking legal advice — landlords must provide those documents.
I have no immediate solution and a ton of fear. I’ve started filling my carport with things I could junk quickly, which I find time to do since I don’t sleep well.
Renting is a nasty game: Since 2013, I’ve sued two of the five landlords I’ve had, both for invasion of privacy. I won, or settled in my favor, both cases. In one case, the landlord raised my rent $200 on a month-to-month tenancy, then gave me 30 days to leave, since I couldn’t afford it.
The impermanence of renting, coupled with financial, health and work woes, leave me wondering what — and where — is next.
Keeping the house I sit in as I write this, with my son’s ever-multiplying Lego creations covering the floors and rescue cats running about, is the toughest battle I’ve fought. But I will fight for our right to a home — that’s everyone’s right.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Southern Documentary Project and Community Change.