By Rasheedah Phillips (click here for the PDF of the Jan-Sept 2022 Issue of Poverty & Race)
The relationship between Black people, clock time, and its embodiment of Western linear time has always been contentious. Linear time, as Carol Greenhouse notes, “provides a reservoir of symbols with which the legitimacy of hierarchies can be defended and reproduced.” The entanglement of clock time and labor is pronounced in the plight of victims of chattel slavery, where enslaved Africans’ bodies and their time, through labor, were commodified. This is a powerful demonstration of how “the rise of capitalism and the work-clock . . . went hand-in-hand: time became a quantifiable measure of exchange-value in the marketplace for trading in the commodity of human labour, the currency in which the workers’ lives—their time, reified—was bought and sold.” (Giordano Nanni, 2012). Regarded as no more human than a watch or clock, enslaved Africans, considered property, were denied full humanity under the law and thus were forbidden access to the temporal domain of their pasts. They were also forbidden access to the temporal domain of the Western progressive future, where, as Charles W. Mills observes, “[w]hites are self-positioned as the masters of their own time, as against those mastered by time.”
Practices of temporal oppression and uses of clocks, watches, and nature as instruments of surveillance, labor regulation, objectification, and punishment were perfected during slavery and persisted in different forms post- liberation. Under these circumstances, clock time was transformed into what Michael Hanchard calls “racial time . . . the inequalities of temporality that result from power relations between racially dominant and subordinate groups . . . produc[ing] unequal temporal access to institutions, goods, services, resources, power, and knowledge.” This racial time was very literal. On most plantations, “the masters ha[d] complete control over the distribution of the negro’s time.” (Slavery Meeting at Colchester, Essex County Standard, January 19, 1838). As Black people sought more control over their own time and labor after the Civil War, the tropes would later morph into “negro time” and an evolution of the phrase “colored people’s time,” co-associating Black time and Black people with lateness and laziness.
Racial time was also used to catalyze and perpetuate systemic oppression, denying Black communities’ access to and agency over the temporal domains of the past, present, and future. Evolving alongside the struggle for emancipation were legacies of de facto and legalized discrimination in public spaces, housing, and land in the United States, always keeping true freedom in check. Known as slave codes, Jim Crow laws, and Black Codes, and showing up in the form of redlining and racially restrictive covenants in the real estate, these laws were commonly thought of as spatial segregation that restricted Black people’s movements through space.
However, the laws that were designed to deny Black people the right to vote, restricting where they could live, learn, and work, were just as much a project of temporalized segregation. Charles W. Mills called such laws a “racial regime (racial slavery, colonial forced labor, Jim Crow, or apartheid polities) [that] imposes, inter alia, particular dispositions and allocations of time that are differentiated by race: working times, eating and sleeping times, free times, commuting times, waiting times, and ultimately, of course, living and dying times.” Defiance or challenge of these laws often resulted in arrest or imprisonment, hefty fines, or extreme punishments of death and violence against Black individuals or entire communities.
One particularly pernicious form of racialized temporal oppression and spatialized segregation are Sundown Towns (Loewen, 2005). Sundown towns are towns all over the United States where strict racial segregation and exclusion against Black people were practiced and reinforced by threats and physical violence. Black people traveling through a town had to be outside its limits by dusk and were not allowed to settle down or live in these areas. The towns also extended into entire “sundown counties” and “sundown suburbs.” These towns were often demarcated by signs: “Whites only within city limits;” advertised in newspapers: “Don’t let the sun set on you here, you understand?;” signified by actions such as blowing a loud whistle to indicate the time that Black people needed to leave; or through violent, physical attacks such as shootings, beatings, and lynchings of Black people. People who did not obey the signs were subject to state violence and death, while the average white citizen was allowed to enforce the law without consequence.
The temporal and legal legacies of sundown towns, redlining, and other forms of spatial-temporal control and displacement continue into the present. The timeline from the so-called ending of chattel slavery to the present reflects a society designed to systematically leave Black families and other marginalized people behind. Today, more than fifty years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968’s prohibition against housing discrimination, exploitative real estate practices, racial exclusion from housing opportunities, and the deep inequities flowing from them are not historical artifacts. They appear in the form of realtors and property managers showing Black renters and those seeking homeownership fewer options in neighborhoods cut off from adequate transportation, grocery stores, or green space. They appear in the form of policing practices and extralegal violence. They appear as exclusionary zoning practices and redevelopment that displace Black residents from their homes and communities in favor of neighborhoods that become whiter and/or wealthier. Housing, displacement, time, and the temporal domain of the future are inextricably linked.
Revisiting the Past, Reshaping the Future: Policy Advocacy on Access to Eviction Records
Time inequities show up at every step of the process leading to evictions and in its aftermath — from the short periods of time included in a notice to vacate, severely out of line with the time needed to secure new housing, to the eviction filing that can permanently blemish a tenant’s records. Eviction records are snapshots in time of an individual’s past that are often used to prevent people from accessing housing far into the future. These records remain easily accessible to the public and to tenant screening companies for indeterminate lengths of time, even when the filing does not lead to an eviction or when an eviction filing is resolved in a tenant’s favor.
Decision makers, such as landlords and judges, are positioned to determine the relationship of the past to the present, and the present to the future for a tenant. Landlords may refuse to rent to tenants who have even one eviction filing on their record, regardless of the outcome of the case or other details that may offer additional context on a prospective tenant’s past rental circumstances, and often irrespective of how remote in time that record occurred. Likewise, criminal records that may bear no relationship to a renter’s ability to be a good or responsible tenant are used as a means of denying people with remote or unrelated criminal histories access to housing. In addition, tenant screening companies’ scoring algorithms are opaque, leaving tenants with little recourse to contest a bad score. The tenant screening companies running background checks cannot always ensure that eviction records are completely accurate. These companies often use algorithms based on these incomplete records to make suggestions to landlords about whom to accept for housing. And even if the information on the record is accurate, a payment that is late by a few days becomes a record that lasts years into the future, punishing tenants by locking them out of decent housing for years to come.
It has been shown around the country that eviction records have a disparate impact on Black women and their families, causing dangerous cycles of generational poverty and instability. This grim reality is reflected in cities like Philadelphia, where over 71% of annual evictions are filed in Black and Brown communities. The COVID-19 pandemic significantly exacerbated disparities facing Black communities and other communities of color, seniors, disabled people, and LGBTQ+ people. These communities are the most likely to have lost income during the pandemic, putting them at greater risk of eviction filings, and therefore putting them at risk of homelessness and instability beyond the pandemic.
And yet, eviction records are often just a brief snapshot of a person going through a difficult period. These difficult times do not last forever – tenants may recover from an illness, job loss, family death, or domestic violence issues that lead to an eviction – but the eviction record will still follow them, trapping them in substandard housing or preventing access to better job opportunities that require them to relocate. Tenants are often punished for exercising their legal right to withhold rent for repairs, resulting in an eviction filing. The tenant ends up with a permanent blemish on their record because the landlord failed to uphold their end of the agreement by providing a safe and habitable home. As a result, renters are kept in dangerous cycles of poverty because of policies that make these records easy to incur and difficult, if not impossible, to get rid of.
Policymakers around the country are exploring options that will work to dismantle the significant barriers that eviction records place on accessing stable and healthy housing by regulating access to such records and how they can be used in rental decisions. For example, a protection that requires landlords to consider additional information about a tenant, instead of relying solely or primarily on eviction records to make rental decisions, allows the tenant to shift the relationship of the past to the present and the present to the future. Adding information and context to the record unlocks it and breaks the record’s temporal hold over the present and future.
In October 2020, Philadelphia City Council successfully passed Resolution #200531, introduced by Councilmember Isaiah Thomas, on the matter of eviction record sealing. The resolution, co-written by community organizers and housing advocates who are impacted by eviction records called, in part, on “the First Judicial District to institute administrative rules that allow the court to seal evictions and corresponding civil matter between a landlord and a tenant in the interest of justice, and without consent from the opposing party as well as invest in alternative processes of resolving landlord-tenant disputes.”
In November 2020, working with the tenant organizers who got the resolution passed, I co-authored a report called “Breaking the Record: Dismantling the Barriers Eviction Records Place on Housing Opportunities,” exploring the ways in which eviction records cause long-term harm for a tenant’s ability to access housing. The report became the catalyst for an eviction records coalition that has met monthly since it was released. The group is composed of over forty-five housing advocates, impacted tenants, organizers, and landlords advocating for laws and protections that diminish the negative impacts that eviction records disproportionately have on Black women and other marginalized communities. The coalition was formed with the mission to advocate for the enactment of eviction sealing legislation in the state of Pennsylvania and tenant screening legislation in the City of Philadelphia to equalize power between landlords and tenants, regardless of gender, race, disability, and income. As a coalition, we believe in centering the leadership of those most affected by eviction histories and rejecting the false dichotomy of deserving and undeserving tenants when it comes to housing protections. We are grounded in the work of resisting racism, gender-based violence, ableism, and economic oppression, and we believe in building life-affirming alternatives. We understand that eviction and the impact of having an eviction history is one of many housing-related injustices. This coalition engages in transformational systems-change work in a collective fashion.
Through our coalition work, we achieved several of our objectives in a very short period of time. In April 2021, Philadelphia City Councilmember Kendra Brooks introduced the Renter’s Access Act, and it was passed nearly unanimously in June 2021, going into effect 90 days later on October 13, 2021. The Renter’s Access Act (“RAA”) seeks to address the harm caused by eviction records, which make it harder for tenants to find safe and affordable housing. The RAA has several new protections: landlords must provide uniform written rental screening criteria to each tenant applying to their unit, and if a tenant is rejected, they must provide a written statement why, including any third-party information they used to make their decision, increasing transparency around what criteria is being used to evaluate applicants. In addition, landlords are required to go through an individualized review and to give weight to other circumstances besides just an eviction record. It also prohibits policies that reject applicants solely based upon their credit score or eviction record. The RAA gives applicants the right to dispute inaccurate information or to seek reconsideration in the case of mitigating circumstances, while requiring landlords to give time for consideration of new information.
Unlike with what we typically think of as linear time, the past is not dead or closed off in a liberatory housing future. Information and narrative can be added to the past that will have an impact on the present or future. Because eviction filings disproportionately affect Black communities and communities of color, the policy is an important race equity tool and solution for decreasing those racial impacts and increasing access to safe, healthy, and affordable housing futures. Such measures are the bare minimum for achieving housing equity; however, when we arrive at our liberated housing futures, records are no longer useful because all humans have access to housing, no matter what has happened in their past. When we envision equitable and liberatory housing futures that are accessible for all, and that are capable of reaching back to repair the past, there is no value placed on a past that would prevent one from having a roof over one’s head, and no one is denied access to housing stability. We must design our legal policies firmly believing that this is not only possible, but that it is already true.
Equitable and liberatory housing futures calls for dismantling or realigning systems that deprive people of temporal and spatial equity and that raise irreparable conflicts in timelines. The pandemic underscored the need for approaches to housing access, development, and infrastructure building that not only address the immediate crisis, but that accounts for the roots of systemic racial inequities and how they have operated over time.
Being conscious of time’s impact, challenging its ubiquity, and using Afrofuturist approaches to design legal policy, we can practically and actively address how future(s) are made inaccessible to Black communities and other marginalized communities. According to Charles W. Mills, such “chronopolitical contestation by its very nature is likely to encompass past, present, and future, since as we have seen from the beginning, group time will typically identify itself with historical narratives that also seek to explain the present and stake particular claims on the future.” Including Afrofuturist principles and time awareness into housing policy design can help disrupt time’s linear flow, recasting and opening up access to futures where Black and Brown people are housed, healthy, joyful, and thriving.
Rasheedah Phillips is Director of Housing at PolicyLink. This article was adapted from a law review article in a symposium issue on “Afrofuturism and the Law” in Critical Analysis of Law: An International & Interdisciplinary Law Review, Vol. 9 No. 1 (2022).
Carol J. Greenhouse, Just in Time: Temporality and the Cultural Legitimation of Law (1989).
Giordano Nanni, The Colonisation of Time: Ritual, Routine and Resistance in the British Empire 25, 41 (2012).
Charles W. Mills, White Time: The Chronic Injustice of Ideal Theory, 11 Du Bois Rev. 27, 31 (2014).
Michael Hanchard, Afro-Modernity, Temporality, Politics, and the African Diaspora, 11 Pub. Culture 245, 253 (1999).
Slavery Meeting at Colchester, Essex County Standard, January 19, 1838, at 3. An 1833 article in the Morning Standard discusses the issue of the most economical ways to divide up a “negro’s time,” should they be emancipated: “three-fourths of the negro’s time were to be given to former owner”; Rasheedah Phillips, Counter Clockwise: Unmapping Black Temporalities from Greenwich Mean Timelines, The Funambulist 36, June 21, 2021.
James W. Loewen, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism 4 (2005).
Rachelle Faroul, Abigail Brown, and Rashni Stanford, M.SW., COVID 19’s Impact on Race and Housing Insecurity Across Philadelphia: Philadelphia Renters Report (2021) https://www.phillytenant.org/covid-race-housing-report/
Resolution #200531 (Oct. 2020) (resolution co-written by members of the Black and Brown Workers Coalition, including Dominique London and Sterling Johnson).
Renters’ Access Act, Tenant Screening Guidelines, Pa. Code § 9.1108 (3 & 4) (2021).