Eviction is a way of life for poor renters according to Matthew Desmond, associate professor of sociology and social studies at Harvard. His newly released book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” introduces us to low-income renters in the city of Milwaukee, a typical mid-sized metropolitan area, as he follows their daily life experiences and documents the trauma of eviction from their homes. His findings shed light on a rarely-chronicled process that impacts the lives of millions of Americans who struggle each month to pay their rent.
Part of the national buzz this book has received is reflected in the unique way that Mr. Desmond chose to conduct his research. In 2008 he moved into a Milwaukee trailer park community to live among poor renters and document their stories over an extended period of time. As a result, Evicted captures the poignancy and devastation that an eviction and loss of stable, secure housing have on these families’ lives.
Extent of the Problem
We learn that 1 in 8 poor renter families nationwide are unable to pay all of their rent and expect eviction soon; and 1 in 4 renter families spend 70% of their earnings on rent and electricity. These statistics confirm the reality that millions of families are one paycheck away from losing their homes, giving greater urgency to the need for supportive services that can intervene early on and prevent an eviction to avoid homelessness.
‘Rich’ and ‘Poor’ in the Eviction Process
Examining the dynamics of the eviction process, and the relationship between ‘rich’ and ‘poor,’ the author states:
“Poverty is a relationship, involving poor and rich people alike. This sent me searching for a process that bound poor and rich people together in mutual dependence and struggle. Eviction is such a process.”
In this context, ‘rich people’ refers to private sector landlords who have discovered that there is money to be made off the plight of those who are poor. This has led tenants rights advocates in some cities to support increased funding for legal aid in the hope that informed representation can enforce legitimate tenant rights and stave off a percentage of evictions.
What happens in the aftermath of an eviction?
- The likelihood of being laid off from the job is 15 percent greater for workers who have been evicted;
- Families experience material hardships at a 20 percent greater rate than those who have not been evicted;
- One in two evicted mothers experience multiple symptoms of clinical depression.
Clearly, banning evictions or imposing permanent, mandatory rent caps are not viable policy solutions. But adopting policies that promote the production of affordable housing is doable. Both the creation of the National Housing Trust Fund, a more thoughtful and robust voucher program, and recent housing policy proposals by presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders point to the need for the return of a more active role by the federal government on this issue.
In the end, Mr. Desmond says:
“The problems endemic to poverty—residential instability, severe deprivation, concentrated neighborhood disadvantage, health disparities, even joblessness—stem from the lack of affordable housing. What else is a nation but a patchwork of cities and towns; cities and towns a patchwork of neighborhoods; and neighborhoods a patchwork of homes? America is supposed to be a place where you can better yourself, your family and your community. But this is only possible if you have a stable home.”
Webinar with the Author
If you would like to participate in an online discussion with Matthew Desmond, Policy Link is hosting a webinar with the author and housing advocates on May 18 to discuss his book and the national crisis of rising rents and evictions. You can register for the upcoming webinar here.