Matthew Desmond Will Change the Way You Relate to America's Poverty Crisis
When Harvard sociology professor and 2015 MacArthur award-winner Matthew Desmond was growing up, money was tight. “Sometimes the gas got shut off and Mom cooked dinner on top of our wood-burning stove,” he writes in Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. “She knew how to make do.”
Still, when the family could no longer keep the creditors at bay, the bank foreclosed on Desmond’s childhood home. By that time, he was at Arizona State University on scholarship and recalls feeling simultaneously sad and embarrassed by his family’s predicament.
But Desmond did not wallow in grief for long. Shortly after the foreclosure, he began volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, building houses for people without them. He also began spending time with homeless people. “The people I met living on the street were young and old, funny, genuine, and troubled,” he writes in Evicted. “When I graduated I felt a need to understand poverty in America, which I saw as a wellspring of so many miseries.”
That was more than a decade ago. Since then, Desmond, 36, has not only obtained a PhD, but has written four books and countless articles about the intersection of poverty, race and gender in American life. Evicted, which came out earlier this month, has garnered positive reviews on blogs and in publications including the American Scholar, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Kirkus, and has been compared to Jacob Riis’ groundbreaking How the Other Half Lives, a late-19th-century expose about the desperate conditions in New York City's overcrowded slums.
In Evicted, the author focuses on Milwaukee, a racially segregated city of approximately 600,000 people, 29 percent of whom live below the poverty line. Desmond spent 10 months in Beer City and embedded himself in two impoverished areas, a mostly white trailer park and a rundown apartment house on the largely African-American side of town. This gave him a chance to befriend his neighbors, share meals, babysit their kids, and generally immerse himself in their lives and struggles. The result paid off and his intimate look at the lives of eight distinct households is revealing, intense and gripping. Although Desmond uses pseudonyms for everyone he profiles, his reporting offers a straightforward look at people who are doing the best they can, and all too often failing, to keep a roof over their heads.
There’s Arleen, a disabled African-American single mother of two sons living on $628 a month; Larraine, a 54-year-old white mother and grandmother who is grudgingly taken in by her brother after she loses her trailer for non-payment of rent; Vanetta, a black mom who became so panicked after being downsized at work that she participates in a botched robbery; and Scott, a white RN suffering from untreated anxiety and depression who loses his nursing license due to opioid addiction.
Desmond also spent time with two landlords, Sherrena Tarver, a former teacher-turned-realtor who makes a handsome living renting to low-income tenants in the city’s most ramshackle neighborhood, and Tobin Charney, owner of 131 dilapidated trailers whose annual profit is estimated to exceed $400,000 a year.
Some of what Desmond found is startling: “If incarceration has come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women,” he writes. “Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”
Sadly, Milwaukee is not anomalous. Visit any urban housing court, Desmond says, and the same reality will be evident, with low-income women of color and their children hoping for a little more time before the judge orders their removal. In Milwaukee, he continues, one in five adult black women has been evicted at least once. The same is true for one in 12 Latinas and one in 15 white women.
As he rattles off these statistics, Desmond speaks matter-of-factly. “My job is to portray poverty in the most complex way I can,” Desmond tells me, “to present facts so that we can use them for a wider conversation.”
We’re sitting in a small office at the Crown Publishing Group in midtown Manhattan a few hours before the soft-spoken scholar is scheduled to speak at a forum co-sponsored by the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University and Community Action for Safe Apartments, a Bronx-based tenant advocacy group.
“We’re bleeding out here,” he says. “We’re in a situation where more than half of all poor renting families are spending at least 50 percent of their income for rent. The ideal is that people should spend 30 percent of their wages or benefits on housing. But that’s not the reality anymore. In fact, one in four poor people are spending 70 percent of their income for shelter and light. Eviction in this scenario is almost inevitable since any emergency will throw their lives into chaos.”
Arleen, one of the people profiled in Evicted, is a case in point. She lost an apartment after helping to pay for the funeral of a beloved friend. “She would have been ashamed of herself if she did not chip in,” Desmond told me. “So she did what she had to do and subsequently lost her apartment.”
Arleen’s story is common. One in eight Milwaukee renters experiences eviction, Desmond says; nationally, 2.8 million Americans live in fear of losing their homes. Small wonder that he describes displacement and the lack of affordable housing as major drivers of inequality. “Eviction, whether carried out by a sheriff or marshal, or done informally with the tenant simply leaving the dwelling without going to court, destabilizes communities and is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty,” he says. “Politicians typically talk about the need for jobs and increased wages, but these solutions will fall flat if we do not address the housing crisis. We need a broad conversation on this that brings tenants, community groups, landlords, activists, and policy-makers to the table to discuss solutions.”
Not surprisingly, Desmond has a few policy recommendations up his sleeve, but he concedes he does not know how best to forestall evictions or provide affordable housing to everyone who needs it. Nonetheless, he is optimistic. “Look, a few generations back we had babies dying of tuberculosis and people living without running water or heat as a matter of course. We’ve made some giant leaps forward but obviously there’s a lot left to do.”
First and foremost, Desmond wants access to safe, affordable housing to be enshrined as a human right rather than something available only to those with means. “Giving government-supported vouchers to every poor person or family would be a game-changer,” he begins. Imagine if renters living at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines—$23,760 for a single person, $32,040 for a family of two and $48,600 for four-person household—could pay 30 percent of their income to their landlord. The difference between this sum and the “fair market rent”—an amount determined by local housing officials in every state—would then be paid by a federal housing agency.
While some critics have criticized this proposal because it keeps low-income housing in the public sector, Desmond believes it’s a quick and cost-effective solution, at least for the short term. “Shifting out of the private sector would be difficult but I’m pretty ecumenical about solutions,” he says. “What I don’t believe is that we can do a little of this and a little of that. We need to make housing a right in the same way that education is a right. In addition, we have to make it clear that public housing failed not because the idea was wrong but because we defunded the heck out of it. We stopped investing in it.”
He also addresses overt discrimination and the fact that landlords in some states can legally refuse to rent to families with children. Having kids increases the odds of eviction threefold, he explains. “The 1968 Fair Housing Act did not consider families with children a protected class,” and although this was changed in 1988, property owners still tend to favor childless adults or couples over those with offspring.
There are many other policy shifts that would benefit low-income tenants, Desmond says. For one, he and tenant activists throughout the U.S. advocate a right to counsel whereby every individual or family at risk of losing an apartment is provided with free legal representation if they cannot afford to hire an attorney. “We’re way behind the rest of the world on this,” Desmond says, noting that the entire European Union and countries as diverse as Azerbaijan, Brazil, Madagascar, and New Zealand provide free legal counsel to the indigent in eviction cases.
It’s a matter of equal justice, equity, and fairness, he concludes.
Lastly, he says, keeping people in their homes saves money since the cost of housing people in shelters is often exorbitant, estimated at between $35,000 and $40,000 per family per year. Furthermore, he says, homelessness and eviction have a ripple effect, with an adverse impact on public health, employment and educational achievement. “Children who are uprooted have higher drop-out rates than those whose homes and communities are stable. It’s also hard to keep a job, or find a job, if you don’t have a place to live.”
Being rent-poor is an additional concern, he adds. “When people have to pay 70 or 80 percent of their income on shelter, housing always eats first. This blunts human potential. In fact, without a safe, affordable home, everything else falls apart.”
The people Desmond depict in Evicted bear this out. But as fate would have it, their heartbreaking stories may soon have a happier than anticipated ending. Some of the proceeds from the sale of Evicted will be placed in a fund to help those whose lives are chronicled in the book. Additionally, Desmond has set up a website, Justshelter.org, to link those threatened with eviction to material and emotional support and provide them with a place to share stories and strategies.