Ken Sumner stepped through the debris of another unexpected move. He weaved around the two men backing a truck through their friend’s barren yard, past a speaker system and stacks of framed photographs, moving toward the front door for his fifth eviction of the day. The evicted man waited alone.
“How’s it looking, Davian?” asked Sumner, 53. He checked his watch. A locksmith was on the way. “You going to be able to get it all out?”
“We’ve almost got all of it,” Davian Smith said, and he disappeared into the house to carry out what was left. Sumner followed him inside and hung an orange sticker in the front window: This property has been seized by the Maricopa County Constable’s Office.
Sidewalk scenes of moving boxes and brightly colored eviction notices have become the most visible traces of an affordable-housing crisis that has swept through every American county.
Rent prices have spiked. Cheap housing has been demolished. The national rental vacancy rate is at its lowest point in three decades. And Americans are being evicted in near-record numbers.
As the country fell into and climbed out of the Great Recession, eviction rates continued to rise, growing into the steady rhythm of American poverty. In 1996, Maricopa County’s Justice Courts ordered 5,542 evictions. Those same courts processed 22,231 evictions in 2016, pulling people from their homes and plunging them into a rental market with few options.
More than one-third of American rental households spend 30 percent or more of their income on housing, a mark widely considered the standard for affordability. A national shortfall of 7.4 million affordable rental units has forced the country’s lowest-income renters to live month to month, always one medical problem or layoff away from losing another home. Life becomes a string of low-budget apartments, and at the end of that string often stands Sumner.
He tries to introduce himself a few days before an eviction, to make at least one part of the process feel familiar. Usually people tell their stories: When Davian moved into the two-story house with a patched roof, he had a wife and a second income. Then his marriage cracked open, and one income wasn’t enough. He fell behind $1,994 in rent. The landlord filed for eviction.
Now Sumner had come to seize the property. The locksmith brought new house keys, and both men silently worked around the stranger piling his life on the front yard. Out came the Xbox, the dressers, the TV. Onto the truck went the washer, the dryer and the deep freezer that dripped a trail of icy water. Into unsteady stacks Davian piled his clothes and a water jug filled with loose change.
THE NEW HOUSING CRISIS | PART 1: Can’t afford the rent, can’t afford to move | PART 2: 60 days to find a home | PART 3: ‘Here for the eviction’
“That’s it, I guess,” Davian said. He spun in a slow circle, looking at his belongings splayed on the sidewalk. Everything would go into a friend’s garage until he could find an apartment.
Sumner lit a homemade cigarette and walked down the driveway, where one of Davian’s friends sat on the cracking concrete. “How many of these do you do a year?” the friend asked.
“About a thousand,” Sumner replied. One hundred nineteen each month. Thirty a week. Five or six every day.
“Yep,” Sumner said, blowing out a coil of smoke. “It’s too many.”
Bad things happen to good people
By now there had been so many evictions Sumner couldn’t remember the first, only that he was nervous as hell, with no gun and no backup.
It was 2013 and Sumner had just been elected constable of the Country Meadows Precinct in west Phoenix, tasked with carrying out whatever orders the Justice Courts handed down. There was the occasional restraining order and subpoena, but as the affordable-housing crisis worsened, that meant mostly evictions. Most days he served more evictions than fellow constables in rural counties did each year.
Four years and 7,000 emptied homes later, Sumner still reminded himself that there were no bad guys in evictions, just missed payments and broken contracts. But occasionally, he admitted, the guilt crept in. The finality of it all. The law in conflict with his conscience. Every front door had a bad day on the other side. He let them tell their stories and eased them out, leaving some tenants with a business card for 2-1-1 Arizona community services.
Each morning Sumner loaded that day’s eviction papers into a metal clipboard and drove his plain white Crown Victoria across his precinct. He stopped in the same complexes and neighborhoods. The comfort came in routine, and in knowing there were others who felt the same conflict.
So began his Wednesday morning breakfasts with a half-dozen other constables.
They met around the same table at the same Peoria diner, most of them wearing the same black polo shirt. They were former police officers, sheriff’s deputies and military men. They ran for constable to enforce the law, but as the housing shortage grew, every man recognized the job revolved around evictions.
The population of Maricopa County has risen 36 percent since the 2000 census. Over that same time, the county’s eviction rate spiked by 137 percent.
“Remember,” Sumner said one morning, tipping the sugar shaker and letting sugar pile high atop his glass of iced tea, “bad things happen to good people.”
“It would be nice to have somewhere to send those people,” said Phil Hazlett, a retired constable who still came to breakfast every week.
“The shelters are all full,” said Ron Myers, who worked the Arrowhead Precinct to the north of Sumner’s Country Meadows.
Sumner nodded along and let maple syrup pool over his pancakes. On the table, a radio spat comments from a dispatcher. They lowered the volume and told the eviction stories that stayed with them: The elderly woman who couldn’t remember why she had to leave, the woman who hid in the closet in hopes the constable wouldn’t find her, the house that was filled to the windowsills with cats. Every story somebody else’s worst day.
“You just put it out of your mind,” Myers said. The rest of the table went silent. A brief pause.
“Constables do not bring birthday cards,” Hazlett replied. “Or flowers.”
“We only bring bad news,” Myers said.
Hazlett looked him in the eye. “And we didn’t create the problem.”
The problem was worse in Phoenix than in other American cities. Rent prices have risen faster than the national average, and the metro area had just 21 available and affordable units for every 100 renters whose incomes fall below the poverty line, the National Low Income Housing Coalition reported in March. A rush of young professionals and affluent transplants had pushed poor renters further and further toward the edges.
RELATED: HUD cuts: Goodbye affordable housing in Arizona?
Sumner paid for breakfast and headed back to his office, navigating without a map. He grew up in his precinct, went to elementary and high school here, and stayed. When he was young, the area was flat and empty. Now he drove down the same streets and saw buildings that weren’t there a few months before.
Construction was rare in that part of Phoenix, but it seemed to Sumner that every new project ended in luxury apartments. He was helping his daughter search for an apartment in the area, and $700 didn’t buy as much as it used to.
He drove on, passing brand-new apartment complexes and their glossy signs.
“Now leasing!” one blared. “You CAN afford to live here!”
One after another after another
If he had the money, he would pay their rent. All of them, from the people Sumner saw lining up outside the title loan shops that littered his precinct to the families who recognized him from the last time he came to their door.
But one avoided eviction would still leave a thousand more.
“So what’s cooking today, Ken?” deputy constable Chris Mueller asked as they finished another Wednesday breakfast.
“A little bit,” Sumner said. Today he had eight writs in his clipboard. Eight families to pull out of their homes and into the 104-degree Arizona heat. “We’ve got some.”
So they drove separate cars to Siegel Suites, a low-budget apartment complex on Phoenix’s west side. Sumner knew the route by memory. The constables parked in spots marked “Future Residents Only” and walked into the lobby, where an elderly man stood pleading with the manager.
Maricopa County Constable Ken Sumner serves eviction notices as part of his job. Although necessary, he admits that sometimes he has to evict people whose unfortunate circumstances tug at his heartstrings. Tom Tingle/azcentral.com
“When are you going to pay?” asked the manager, Juan.
“Not today,” the old man said, and he leaned over the front desk to try to explain.
Juan cut him off. “When?” he demanded.
“Three days?” the man said, and Juan shook his head. No extensions. The old man shuffled away.
Juan tucked away a folder and turned to the constables waiting in his lobby. “Hey, guys.”
“Here for the eviction,” Sumner said.
A smile crept onto the edge of Juan’s mouth as he searched for the key. He found it and led the constables through the heat-shined parking lot. The tenants had taken their case to eviction court, and Juan spent two hours sitting in a hearing he was always going to win. This was his small revenge.
“I’m going to enjoy this,” he said.
They walked to Apartment No. 6106, at the far end of a complex that looked like an old motel. Sumner stepped forward and knocked on the door nine times, making sure he would be heard. He stepped back. No answer. He knocked eleven more times, then took the key and opened the door.
“County constable!” he yelled. “Anybody here?”
No answer. The three men stepped into an abandoned apartment, stepping over trash and dirty pillows. A leather couch, slashed open and turned over, stretched across one wall. The refrigerator had been unplugged and left open. Loose Skittles and empty gas station soda cups littered the floor.
“Jesus,” Juan said, taking pictures on his phone. He pulled a radio from his belt and called maintenance. “Bring brooms. And gloves. And masks.”
Sumner peeled the backing off an orange eviction notice and stuck it to the front window. “All right, we’ll see you next time,” he said, and the two constables left Juan in his empty apartment.
Seven evictions to go. A landlord drove from California and wanted him to come right away. The tenants were already gone. Six evictions left. A man named Javier called and asked to delay the eviction a few days. Sumner said he couldn’t. Five more. The next house was already empty. Four. He asked the landlord at the next complex about her son and her back problems, then evicted two of her worst tenants. Two. The most expensive apartment building in his precinct needed an eviction. When Sumner walked in, a pot of rice and dinner plates were left on the kitchen table, and now there was just one eviction left to serve.
Sumner had memorized the location, partly because Villa de la Paz Apartments averaged an eviction a month but mostly because the complex was a block west of the elementary school he once attended. Just across the street was a dirt lot scheduled to become a new affordable-housing development.
He parked near the front office, shook hands with the landlord and walked toward Apartment No. 123. But before Sumner stepped off the sidewalk, a man grabbed his arm and leaned in close.
‘We’re going to make ends meet’
“Let me talk to you for a minute,” Carlos Waddy, 40, told the constable, pulling him toward the front door.
Maybe Carlos could make this stranger understand how his family had fallen so quickly. How an old arrest had kept him from renewing his license to work in private security, and the family’s income slowed to a trickle, and $840 a month was more than they could afford. How he had promised his fiancée, Heather Webb, that he would take care of everything. How every rental assistance organization in the city was out of funds, and now the constable was here and Carlos didn’t know where they would sleep that night.
“Did you go to court?” Sumner asked.
“Yeah,” Carlos said. “I went to court.”
And still the eviction notice came on Heather’s birthday. Carlos bought her a bouquet of flowers and told her not to worry. “Whatever it takes,” he said, “we’re going to make ends meet.”
She trusted him. Such a good woman, he thought. Such great kids. A 6-year-old, a 1-year-old and a puppy, a small mutt they found whining outside their window. Carlos was certain they could make it work, because he’d always considered himself a self-made man. “Go to work every day, pay your bills on time, enjoy life later,” he liked to say.
Now the flowers started to wilt. Carlos had spent the entire week searching for an apartment they could afford, or an organization that would help pay a month’s rent, or at least a spot in an overnight shelter. Everything was full.
He could figure it out, Carlos told the constable. He just needed more time.
“How about we just do this tomorrow morning?” Sumner said, and everybody agreed. They had 18 more hours.
Nobody in Apartment 123 slept that night. They packed what they could and took turns calming each other, avoiding a stress attack that would spark the other’s panic.
When the kids awakened and the sun rose, they started moving what they could to her mother’s house, sorting through all their belongings to decide what was most important. They wondered how to tell the kids that they couldn’t afford to keep the dog. Carlos listed everything he could for sale online, but there were no offers. The rest would go into the car or in the trash.
RELATED: Valley renters need to earn $12 an hour to afford a decent place to live
Carlos had been evicted once before, from an apartment on the other side of the city. Back then he rode a Valley Metro bus to and from work, and when bus drivers went on strike last January, he lost his transportation and his job. An eviction notice came quickly. He spent the next six months in a homeless shelter.
He met Heather while they both worked in an Amazon warehouse. Around her, he could calm his mind. The PTSD that chased him home from a tour in the Navy felt controllable. He quit Amazon and started working security. He asked her to marry him, and in November they moved into the two-bedroom apartment, their two incomes more than enough to cover the rent. With the spare money they upgraded from an ’81 Buick to an ’07 Jeep Liberty.
Then Carlos applied to renew his security license with the state, and the background check flagged him for a felony charge. After his first eviction he had returned when a friend told him somebody was looting the apartment. When he arrived, police were waiting for the burglar. He was arrested and charged with trespassing, but the charge was dropped. Now it was back. The state wouldn’t renew his license. They were down to one income.
MORE: Funding cuts could leave 100-plus Phoenix-area families homeless – again
Soon the stress of picking orders in a warehouse frayed Heather’s spirits. Carlos told her to quit, confident his license would come soon enough. But it never did. They used their savings to pay rent, and by the time Heather found a new job at CVS, the constable had come to their door with an eviction notice.
Nobody was home when the constable returned to smooth the orange sticker on the front door and leave the paperwork jammed in the hinges. They were still miles away, driving back from dropping off another carload of belongings.
They couldn’t ask for more time or shake his hand or watch the constable light a cigarette and climb into a Crown Victoria, pulling away to another eviction.
Finding a way to survive
Carlos and Heather arrived a few minutes after the constable pulled away. She threw open the car door and hurried to the apartment. Ignoring the bright orange sticker, she jammed a key in the lock. It wouldn’t turn. She tried again. Nothing. She ripped the paperwork out of the hinge and turned to her fiancé.
“I swear,” Heather said, “I’m going to have a stress attack.”
“We have a dog in there,” Carlos said, voice rising.
“Your uniform is in there. My work uniform is in there.”
“And the medicines, too,” Carlos said, but what he thought of first were his guns and his medals and his Navy uniform. He had spent five years in the service, part of a five-man rescue boat crew. One tour abroad. A medical discharge, PTSD and personality disorder. No VA benefits, just a handshake and a tattoo of an alligator on his bicep. Even out of the service, everybody still called him “Gator.”
In the Navy he nurtured a belief that the government would eventually collapse, so he taught himself how to survive any situation, man-made or natural. After his discharge he joined a group called Zombie Safe Area, where “Commander Gator” taught people how to stockpile food, how to survive in the desert and build a life off the grid. He found safe zones in the wilderness and posted videos online. His personal safe area, he figured, could sustain a family for at least a year.
ZSA didn’t believe in science-fiction zombies, he told people. The group was about survival. The zombies were symbols, stand-ins for whatever problems swarmed into a member’s life. “What is your zombie?” he asked new members. And how were they going to survive it together?
“I don’t have time for this,” Heather said, storming toward the front office to demand they be allowed back in. At least for the dog.
Carlos dangled his legs from the passenger seat of their empty Jeep, flipping on his electronic cigarette. He listened to the dog yelp from inside the apartment and tried to soothe her. What else could he do? There were no apartments they could afford. Even a motel for the night was out of their budget, but the constable had given him a card with a number to call. Carlos searched his wallet and pulled it out. He dialed the number.
“Thank you for calling 2-1-1 for the State of Arizona,” a woman’s voice said from the other end. “If you are seeking shelter, please press 1.”
Carlos took a long drag from his e-cigarette and held it in. One bad month, and everything was gone. A neighbor walked past and said nothing before disappearing behind his own front door. Carlos exhaled. Smoke twisted in the breeze. He pressed 1 and waited for an answer.
THE NEW HOUSING CRISIS | PART 1: Can’t afford the rent, can’t afford to move | PART 2: 60 days to find a home | PART 3: ‘Here for the eviction’
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