Address Evictions to Address Poverty, Author Tells Law School Audience

When he was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Matthew Desmond searched for research on the impact of evictions on low-income people. He found close to nothing written by academics, policy makers, or journalists.

No more. Almost a decade later, Desmond has written a book that is already attracting major attention nationwide and changing the conversation about evictions and related housing issues for low-income people.

The book, which was officially released on Tuesday, is set in Milwaukee and is based on Desmond’s emersion in the lives of renters and landlords in 2008 and 2009 and on his research into tens of thousands of records on evictions.

And he chose an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program at Marquette Law School on Tuesday as the first event on a national book tour.

“Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” has already been called “astonishing” in one New York Times book review. A second review in the Times said called it “an exhaustively researched, vividly realized and, above all, unignorable book.” With publication of the book, the second review said, ”it will no longer be possible to have a serious discussion about poverty without having a serious discussion about housing.”

Desmond, who was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius”grant for his work and who is now a professor at Harvard, told Gousha and a full-house audience in the Appellate Courtroom of Eckstein Hall that eviction is far more sweeping and has far more impact than almost anyone had realized. He found that one in eight renters in Milwaukee were evicted or forced to move out of apartments every two years. And the instability of their housing and the large portion of their income (often up to 80%) that goes to pay rent when they do have a place have negative effects on their likelihood of keeping jobs, maintaining family health, feeding their children adequately, and providing a stable education to their children.

“I’m convinced that we can’t fix poverty in this country if we don’t address housing,” Desmond said. “Without stable shelter everything else falls apart.” The freedoms of being an American are “massively compromised” without stable housing.

That is especially true among low-income African American women, he said, who have even higher evictions rates. Desmond said he found that the problems related to incarceration among African American men are paralleled by the problems related to eviction and housing instability among African American women.

Desmond’s book is not written in a policy-oriented, academic style. It is centered around the lives of both tenants and landlords he got to know closely by spending many months living in low-income neighborhoods in Milwaukee, including a trailer park on College Avenue on the south side and a boarding house on the north side.

The book does not paint either the tenants or landlords in simple terms. There are good and bad things occurring on both sides of the issue. Desmond told Gousha that he was exposed to people who were dealing with huge problems in their lives and living in horrible conditions. But, he added, “I was exposed to hospitality. I was exposed to generosity.” He said many of  the people “refused to be reduced to their hardship.” He said he has stayed in touch with some of the people he wrote about because they became his friends.

But Desmond came away from experiencing the impact evictions had on people saying, “This is outrageous. This is unnecessary.” He said he was left depressed and heart-broken.

He was also left as a strong advocate of steps to change things, especially by offering more publicly-funded housing vouchers to people who needed decent, but not fancy housing to stabilize their lives. Housing vouchers have worked generally well where they have been used, he said, and the spending can be shown to be effective. He said the first thing people do when they are given relief from burdensome housing costs is to buy food and the effect on jobs and education has been shown. He said housing vouchers could “massively change the face of poverty in America.”

“We already have a universal housing program in this country,” Desmond said. “It’s just not for poor people. It’s for middle class and rich homeowners,” and it comes in forms such as the tax deductions for interest on mortgages.

Desmond said the fundamental question for him is, “Do we think that decent, affordable housing is part of what it means to live in this country?” He said, “We have to answer yes to that question.”

How people, especially policy makers, will answer the question remains to be seen. But Desmond has already having a big impact on pressing the question.

To watch the one-hour conversation with Desmond click here.

“Evicted” has already attracted extensive media coverage and laudatory book reviews. To see a few pieces, click here for one New York Times review. Click here for a second Times review. Click here for an excerpt from the book from the New Yorker. Click here for a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel news story about the book and click here for a Journal Sentinel review.

To find out more about the book, click here. 

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