No place to call home: The eviction crisis

Davenport has one of the highest rates in the country
TV6 investigates the eviction crisis in Scott County.
Updated: Mar. 16, 2023 at 10:00 PM CDT
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DAVENPORT, Iowa (KWQC) - Jeanne Souza was thinking about taking her own life.

Facing a notice to vacate her senior-living apartment, Jeanne was desperate. She and her barking therapy dog, Lily, were the focus of several complaints in the building -- enough for the managers to demand Jeanne leave. The 73-year-old can hear only very loud sounds, so Jeanne relied on Lily to alert her to phone calls, doorknocks and emergencies like a fire alarm.

“What are they gonna do? Pick me up and throw me in the street? I can barely walk,” Jeanne said. “I thought about ending it, but I don’t want to do that.”

Just days away from the date her landlords set for her to vacate, Jeanne found a new senior-living apartment in Rock Island -- one that will let her keep the dog.

Jeanne is one of the lucky ones.

On Tuesday afternoons in the Scott County Courthouse, dozens of people nervously await their fates. It’s eviction court, and most are about to lose their homes.

The city of Davenport has the highest eviction rate in Iowa. It’s the 44th highest in the nation, according to EvictionLab, a database of thousands of eviction figures from cities across the nation.

And it’s only getting worse. There’s been a steady increase in Scott County eviction cases since 2011.

In Davenport, rates in the past 10 years have hovered between 8% and 13% – more than double that of Rock Island and Moline, according to Iowa Legal Aid, a nonprofit law firm that offers free legal representation. (The rate is the ratio of the number of evictions filed in an area over the number of renter-occupied homes.)

Why so high?

Wages are low, rent is rising and there are fewer places to find housing.

The median rent in Scott County is $812, but the hourly wage of a median tenant is just $12. To avoid paying more than 30% income on rent, a tenant needs to make $15 an hour.

Nick Smithberg is the executive director of Iowa Legal Aid, a nonprofit whose clients include those facing eviction.

“It becomes a dynamic where the poverty causes people to experience evictions, but then evictions also cause poverty,” he said. “So it’s a very dangerous cycle. Because once people do get evicted, their chances of you know, continuing with stable income, or getting suitable housing go way down.”

Tough choices

That leaves thousands of Quad-Citians with hopeless choices about what to forgo – rent, or essentials like food, medicine and winter heat bills.

Many are choosing the rent.

Last year, 1,462 eviction cases were filed in Scott County, almost another record. In January this year, the county set a record with 256 evictions. That puts the county on pace to double last year’s number.

The process is lightning fast: Renters can be kicked out in as little as three weeks.

“You’re seeing more people fall into housing instability. You’re seeing more Quad-Citians who can’t afford a $500 emergency bill,” said Leslie Kilgannon, the executive director of the Quad-Cities Housing Cluster. “It’s the difference between paying rent, fixing the car or getting groceries.”

Housing advocates say the court process isn’t helping assuage the rate. Two magistrate judges hear cases at the same time, cattle-calling each one-by-one from the gallery. The process is sometimes chaotic – with people crowded at the bench – and doesn’t leave much time for delinquents to obtain an attorney or negotiate a last-minute payment arrangement with a landlord.

“There are two diases where people are speaking and so you know, it can be a pretty busy environment, sometimes sort of hard to hear, Smithberg said. “They go through a pretty high volume of cases in a relatively short period of time.”

Scott County’s court is the only large court in Iowa that hears evictions this way, according to Legal Aid.

Once the court appearance is over and the tenant moves out, they often struggle to find new housing, especially with an eviction on their record. That pushes them into substandard housing – if they can even find a home.

The Quad-Cities has lost nearly a third of its housing stock since 2010 as more homes and apartments become dilapidated and too expensive to fix, according to the Quad Cities Housing Cluster.

The effects are dire. A paper published last year in the American Journal of Public Health found that evictions increase homelessness and are tied to higher rates of diseases, assaults and deaths. People of color are disproportionally affected.

While Scott County’s eviction system presents challenges, the county also has a history of inequity when it comes to certain neighborhoods. A look at economic labeling that dates back to the 30s, but is still evident today, in our next report.