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No room for the urban poor? 'Evicted' author Matthew Desmond explains

Matthew Desmond explores the intense hardship connected with evictions, which have now become a regular occurrence in American cities.

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    'The eviction story is a longer-term story,' says 'Eviction' author Matthew Desmond. 'It’s about a lack of affordable housing in some of our poorest neighborhoods.'
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Rich in immersive detail and finely etched characters, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City is a sobering account of inner-city penury. Its author, Matthew Desmond, now a Harvard sociologist, did his doctorate research in deprived areas of Milwaukee where tenants struggle to pay the rent and face the constant threat of eviction. His book introduces us to parents who must chose between paying the rent and buying groceries or keeping the lights on. It also takes us inside the world of the landlords for whom a formal eviction is just one of many tools for extracting a return on their investment.

Desmond argues that the private housing market in cities has become unaffordable for the poor. The majority of poor renting families in America spend over half of their income on housing, and at least one in four dedicates over 70 percent to paying the rent and keeping the lights on. Any setbacks mean they are quickly in arrears and could lose their homes, which in turn triggers additional hardships – job losses, missed schooling. This upheaval is magnified by racial inequities: In Milwaukee, more than one in five black women report being evicted at least once as an adult, much higher than for whites or hispanics. What was once an uncommon event that would draw a crowd has become an everyday facet of urban destitution.

Desmond recently spoke to the Monitor at Harvard’s Schlesinger Library. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Why is eviction so intrinsic to any comprehensive anti-poverty conversation?

I think when I started this work I thought of eviction as a narrative device, a window that would allow me to understand the role that housing was playing in perpetuating poverty in the US. But when I finished it became very clear to me that eviction was a cause of poverty, not just a condition.

If you just catalog the effects eviction has on people’s live and neighborhoods it’s pretty troubling. Eviction causes loss. You lose not only your home but also your possessions, which are thrown onto the curb or taken by movers, and often you can’t keep up payments. The biggest moving company in Milwaukee that does eviction moves told me that 70 percent of the stuff that gets taken from evictions just gets dumped, thrown out. Kids lose their schools. Families lose their community.

Eviction comes with a record. Just like a criminal record can hurt you in the jobs market, eviction can hurt you in the housing market. A lot of landlords turn folks away who have an eviction, and a lot of public housing authorities do the same. So we’re systematically denying help to families most in need of it. We have really good evidence that eviction causes job loss, and it’s such a consuming, stressful event that it causes you to make mistakes at work and you eventually lose your footing in the labor market.

We have really good evidence that eviction impacts your soul, your mental health. So moms who are evicted express higher depressive symptoms two years later, and we know that suicides attributed to evictions doubled between 2005 and 2010. So you add all that up and I think that you’re left with this picture that eviction isn’t just a really bad day. It’s casting people on a much more difficult path. I don’t think that you can address poverty unless you address the lack of affordable housing in the cities.

Q: You document not only the people at the receiving end of evictions but also the landlords, who appear to be profiting from this system. Why did you chose to document their perspectives?

I knew that if I wanted a shot at understanding the relationship between housing and poverty, landlords were really important actors in the story. These are the people who literally own poor neighborhoods. They decide that you get evicted – and I don’t. They can stabilize communities – or destabilize them. And we know hardly anything about them. I thought that their perspectives were really important.

This gets to the larger picture of how we research poverty. We usually focus on the poor and the poorest neighborhoods. We tell ourselves a story about poverty as if it exists in isolation. As if there aren’t folks who are profiting from the poor and as if the lives of the middle class and the poor aren’t tightly bound up. They are. For me it was a huge learning experience. Learning from the landlords was just as important as spending time with the families.

Q: In some cases they seem to have legitimate complaints about their tenants. It’s not always the classic Dickensian slumlords.

This came up a lot in London [while promoting the book] where people were using that word slumlord. I never used that word in the book, except when someone else said it. I think that’s important because we give ourselves an “out” to the harder conversation if we say that, oh these landlords are just greedy, or these tenants are just irresponsible. I think if you look the problem hard in the face it’s a lot more complicated than that. You see people like Sherrena in the book who buys [her tenant] Arleen groceries and then evicts her at Christmas. It’s a complicated story.

Q: When we talk about evictions there are legal evictions when you’re served a notice and the sheriff comes. But as you show in the book that’s only part of the eviction story.

A lot of tenants don’t know. They will under-report evictions is you just ask them straight out. If you look at formal and informal evictions together, and you look at landlord foreclosures and building condemnations when they’re deemed unfit for human habitation, one in eight residents in Milwaukee are evicted or moved out every two years. Most are those are informal evictions. Most of those never see the inside of a court. I met a landlord who will pay you to move at the end of the week and let you use his van. That’s a really nice kind of eviction. I met a landlord who will take your door off. There are 101 ways to move a family out.

Q: How representative is Milwaukee of other US cities in terms of this problem?

In New York [City] there are hundreds of people evicted in all five boroughs every day. I think Wisconsin’s biggest city [Milwaukee] isn’t every city but it’s a lot more representative than these cities that some consider our best successes like New York or failures like Detroit. The data bears this out. If you look at the American Household Survey the last time we did that in 2013, renters in over 2.8 million homes thought they would be evicted soon. The book is set in Milwaukee. I do think it tells an American story, though.

Q: Your research was done at the time of the housing crash when the national conversation was about the massive numbers of homeowners in danger of losing their homes.

It was an amazing moment, an acute shock to the system. It affected a lot of people, including renters. The media story has basically been about homeowners. But in some cities landlords took a huge hit. In LA at the height of the crash, one out of two foreclosures was a rental property. That causes massive destabilization as tenants had to move out.

Rents stabilized during the crash; they didn’t go down that much. But the cost of housing went down a lot. So you have an opportunity to buy property below market price and to rent it at market price [but] ... you have to have the capital. You have moms and pops losing property and larger landlords picking them up, then you have a consolidation in rental housing. That might matter for poor families decades from now.

People were getting evicted before the housing crisis and after the housing crisis. If you look at the data in Milwaukee it goes down a little bit during 2008-10 and now it’s going back up. The eviction story is a longer-term story. It’s about a lack of affordable housing in some of our poorest neighborhoods. It’s about folks that are so far away from owning that they can’t even imagine it. That’s a stickier problem. It’s not a moment.

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