For the past several years I’ve worked with a tenants’ rights organization in Austin, Texas, focusing on the intersection of housing and health. Mold and pests are among the most common reasons tenants organize to improve their housing conditions. These both have the potential to cause illnesses, including asthma, allergies and rashes. Tenants also organize for fair housing practices, which include preventing evictions.
But as I’ve discovered in my work, unstable housing can negatively impact the mental health of everyone living in the home. Though the symptoms are not as visible, eviction and the threat of eviction also sit at the intersection of housing and health.
Mayors in several Texas cities recently requested more funds from the Senate Finance Committee to address mental and behavioral health at the local level.
Texas needs more mental health care providers and services, as do many other states, including New York, where the Good Cause Eviction bill aims to prohibit evictions without justification; Philadelphia, where the Eviction Diversion Program aims for resolution; and Claremont, California, where students partner with local residents to stave off evictions.
One of the most common consequences of eviction is worsening mental health. People facing eviction are more likely to need mental health services, and preventing evictions can improve mental health. Research shows stress leads to illness, and the inability to maintain stable housing is a stressful situation. People facing eviction report poorer health than people who aren’t facing eviction.
Eviction, and the threat of eviction, can further worsen anxiety and depression, and also correlates with new onset of these conditions. This can happen for anyone living in the home, and can significantly impact pregnant people and children.
Anxiety and depression can manifest in many ways, including fatigue, sleep disturbances, isolation, excessive worry and difficulty concentrating. These symptoms can make it more difficult to function normally. For someone facing eviction, anxiety and depression can impede responding to written notices, advocating for themselves and their families, or seeking out solutions with social service and tenants’ rights organizations.
Like many traumatic events, these illnesses have the potential to last for years beyond the eviction, according to a 2015 report.
The threat of losing a home can result in shame, stigma and isolation, causing further strain on mental health. Suicidal ideation, attempts, and death by suicide occur at higher rates among those facing eviction than those who have stable housing.
Mental health-related hospitalizations are also more frequent for people with unstable housing. Anyone facing eviction has the potential to face multiple stigmas simultaneously: eviction, poverty, homelessness, and even being perceived as inept or not working hard enough to pay rent or bills.
Securing housing can be a huge endeavor, particularly if someone has an eviction on their record. Lack of housing makes it difficult to prioritize health care, and lack of treatment can worsen mental health issues.
When there is an opportunity to access health services, it can often be more difficult to find a mental health care provider than a physical health care provider, and it can be more expensive.
A recent survey showed that more than 40 percent of adults needing mental health care services were unable to access care based on availability and cost (compared to only 20 percent having issues accessing primary health care services). Survey respondents also highlighted cultural competency as an issue — there simply aren’t enough providers who can relate to or have been trained to deal with complex issues like race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.
So what can be done to tackle the U.S. eviction crisis and its corresponding mental health crisis?
The Biden-Harris administration recently announced the Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights, which aims to help keep people in their homes by preventing evictions. The Blueprint also calls for improving renters’ quality of life, recognizing the importance of housing to overall well being, as well as the importance of safe and affordable housing. The Blueprint also has the potential to impact tenants’ health. Housing is a social determinant of health, one of many factors outside hospitals and clinics that determine health outcomes. Without safe and stable housing, it is difficult to be healthy.
To be sure, another eviction moratorium, like the unprecedented move to halt evictions by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during COVID-19, will not be a panacea: Even during the moratorium, people were still evicted from their homes. And while this Blueprint is lacking (tenant organizers point out it does not address the core issues of our affordability crisis, nor does it have measures to regulate rent prices), it is a step in the right direction.
Many growing cities like Austin are experiencing exponential growth and a simultaneous affordability crisis. The high costs of rent and homes in Austin coincided with higher rates of evictions in 2022. Nationwide, there needs to be more affordable housing options, programs to help people remain in their homes as neighborhoods gentrify, and supportive housing services for those in need.
Legal assistance helps tenants know their rights, and emergency financial assistance can prevent evictions in times of great need. These strategies are essentially preventative medicine, addressing an issue before it develops into an illness.
Preventing evictions is not a mechanism to punish landlords, nor is it intended for people to live rent-free. Preventing evictions can create opportunities for economic stability for both tenants and landlords. Solving this problem also means addressing its impact on health, and the U.S. must also invest in more mental health resources.
Those facing eviction may not only face the burden of securing housing, they may be facing the burden of poor mental health as well. Given the impact that eviction and the threat of eviction can have on individual and family health, it is imperative to treat evictions as a public health issue. Government, on all levels, needs to take bold action to protect housing rights, and ultimately, health.
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