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Beyond housing affordability: Attorneys can help break cycle of poverty and eviction

By Emma O’Neil and Michelle Potts

Montana is in the midst of a housing crisis, with both rent and housing costs skyrocketing.1  For families who are already struggling to get by, the lack of affordable housing in Montana puts them at greater risk for eviction, which in turn results in increased rates of poverty and homelessness. As Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond wrote, “Eviction is not just a condition of poverty; it is a cause of it.”

 Attorneys are in a unique position to address or even prevent many of these negative outcomes, but tenants are often unable to afford to hire a private attorney. If a civil legal aid or pro bono attorney isn’t available, many must struggle to navigate their eviction cases on their own, affecting both their future housing options and long-term financial stability.
Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA), in conjunction with sciGaia data analysts, recently released a report that confirms the often catastrophic consequences an eviction can have on a household. Based on surveys of 65 households who faced eviction in both rural and urban Montana, the “Montana Eviction Impact Report: Beyond Housing Affordability” found that these families are already at the tipping point before an eviction, with 82% of surveyed families spending more than 30% of their income on rent; 49% spent more than 50%.2

With so little wiggle room in their budgets to account for emergencies and unexpected expenses, all it took to push these families to the point of eviction was a string of bad luck, loss of income, or additional monthly costs. In the months and weeks leading up to the eviction, 100% of the survey respondents reported experiencing increased expenses, including medical emergencies, added childcare expenses, domestic violence/divorce, or added elderly dependents. When asked what factors led to the eviction, one respondent noted that “my son lives with me, and he has terminal cancer,” while another replied that the “landlord doubled the rent with 10 days’ notice from $1,200 to $2,400.”

The Montana families facing eviction tried their best for their families, but the lack of affordable housing options often made it difficult to secure new housing. 31% of respondents reported that they were living in unstable and at-risk housing after the eviction process, including 26% of households with children. 18% were homeless as a result of the eviction. Over half of the respondents spent more than 10% of their annual income on the cost of the eviction itself – a huge burden for families already struggling to meet basic expenses. 
The ripple effect of eviction on these households was significant. More than 63% of respondents reported that the eviction had long term impacts on their financial stability, while 44% reported permanent damage to their health and wellness. Many reported serious stress, anxiety, and depression as a result of their eviction, including one respondent who wrote, “I attempted suicide 6 months after I moved.”  

For the 48% of surveyed households who had children, the stakes often felt particularly high. As one parent of a newborn shared, “The only reason we had a child was because we thought our rental situation was going to be long-term, and now, the only “home” my child has known is a hotel room.” Another wrote of the larger consequences the eviction had on her child: “One of my children dropped out of school afterwards and did not finish high school.” 

Respondents also reported other up-stream social breakdowns: in addition to the eviction, 17% had a death in the family; 18% had violence or abuse in the household; 12% had alcohol abuse in the household; 14% had a divorce or separation; and 69% had mental illness in their household.  When these events occur in childhood, they are considered Adverse Childhood Experiences, which are linked to chronic health problems and mental illness in adolescence and adulthood, with at least 5 of the top 10 leading causes of death associated with ACEs as well as 44% of adult depression.3

However, there are steps that can be taken to reduce the likelihood that a family experiences an eviction resulting in significant, long-term consequences. Legal assistance, like the kind provided by MLSA, can help people avoid eviction by giving them the tools and knowledge they need to successfully navigate the eviction process, including by negotiating with their landlord to come up with a plan to pay back the missing rent or securing an agreement to move out without going through the formal eviction process, which can make it easier for a family to find new housing in the future. Attorneys can also help families access essential income support benefits, which can help extend a household’s limited income so that they can make ends meet each month. 

The reality is that the justice system isn’t set up for people to navigate on their own. Without the help of an attorney, many people struggle to engage with the legal process at all, and as a result are more likely to experience negative outcomes. Civil legal aid is essential to prevent or mitigate the impact of many of these adverse experiences, but we can’t do it alone. We need your help to ensure that more Montanans are able to access legal assistance when they face an eviction. 

If you are interested in helping with general housing services to clients, sign up to volunteer at For more information, contact Ellie Webster at If you are interested in providing representation to MLSA clients facing eviction, the Montana Eviction Intervention Project pays attorneys at a modest set rate to provide advice, limited scope and direct representation for individuals and families who are in the midst of an eviction. Contact Brenna Gradus at to apply to be a part of MEIP
To learn more about MLSA’s housing program or to read the “Montana Eviction Impact Report,” visit


1. Eggert, A. (2022, May 3) Poll finds three-quarters of Montanans worried about housing affordability. Montana Free Press.

2. Caldwell, A., Campbell, J., and O’Neil, E. (2023) Montana Eviction Impact Report: Beyond Housing Affordability and The Ripple Effect: A Sample of Personal Narratives (at and

 3. Centers for Disease Control, Adverse Childhood Experiences (August 2021) (available at