In his recently released book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016, Penguin Random House, 432 pages, hardcover $28), sociologist and 2016 MacArthur Fellow Matthew Desmond explores life for low-income renters and their landlords in two high-poverty Milwaukee communities. How Housing Matters spoke with Desmond about his research and its implications for housing policy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How prevalent is eviction in the United States?
We need a lot more data on this. Right now, I’m working with a wonderful team here at Harvard to get that. And we’re trying to collect eviction records from every county in the United States, so we can really lock down the prevalence and location of eviction and start digging deeper into this problem on a national level. But we do have some data from, say, the American Housing Survey and other national surveys. In 2013, renters in over 2.8 million households in the United States reported that it was likely that they would be evicted within the next couple of months. That’s not a perfect measure by any means, but I think it sends a very concerning signal about how widespread housing insecurity is among renters in the United States.
Housing costs are typically considered unaffordable if they exceed 30 percent of income, and severely unaffordable if they exceed 50 percent of income. Yet almost everybody in your book [has] at least at 70 percent or 80 percent of income going toward rent.
It’s troubling when you’re looking at data, and the data are telling you one out of 14 renter-occupied households in inner-city African American neighborhoods in the city of Milwaukee [is] evicted every year. It’s really hard to get your head around. Or when you crunch the data from the American Housing Survey and you realize that 50 percent of poor renting families are paying at least 50 percent of their income on rent.
For me, this is a call to action. This is something that encourages us to recognize that we can’t fix poverty without fixing housing; that eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty; and that there are things that we can do within our collective reach to change it. These problems haven’t been with us forever, and they’re not necessary.
Can you say more about how eviction is a cause of poverty?
When we started this project, I thought eviction was the consequence of other things, like losing your job, or separating from your boyfriend, or a divorce, or a big medical expense. But what I quickly learned in the field was that if people are paying so much of their income for rent, it doesn’t take much to invite an eviction. It can be things that don’t have to do with rent, like having kids. Under those conditions, eviction is almost an inevitability—not the result of irresponsibility—for a lot of families.
Then I started following families who were evicted and seeing that eviction causes loss—not just a loss of their home, but [also a loss of] possessions because they’re taken to storage and you miss payments, or they’re put on the street. People lose their communities. Kids lose their schools.
We know not only from my fieldwork but also from statistical data that evicted families move into poorer neighborhoods. They move into neighborhoods with higher crime rates. They also relocate to housing that has more housing problems. And this is because eviction comes with a record, and a lot of landlords refuse to take folks who have been evicted recently. A lot of public housing authorities also count the eviction record as a blemish against extending aid. So we’re in a situation where, arguably, the families most in need of housing assistance—the evicted—are systematically denied it.
There are other consequences that eviction has on people. We have really good data that show that workers who are evicted are much more likely to lose their job the following year. The reason is because eviction is such a consuming, stressful, overwhelming experience [that] it can cause you to miss work [and] make mistakes on the job, and when you do relocate somewhere else, relocate further away from your work. And there are consequences [for] your health, especially your mental health. For example, evicted mothers express higher rates of depressive symptoms two years after the event.
So, you add all that up and look at the effect that eviction is having on people’s mental health or neighborhood quality or their housing quality or their access to housing assistance, their job security—it becomes very clear to me that eviction is causing poverty. It’s driving people deeper into poverty. It’s not just a result or a condition of poverty.
How connected are poverty, eviction, and prior adverse experiences?
Poverty is rarely just poverty. It is compounded adversity. If we were able to offer more affordable housing and provide people with a shot at stability and decency, that would be a very sturdy foothold on the way toward more economic security and a massive antipoverty measure. Obviously, we need an antipoverty platform that addresses many problems—low wages, joblessness in the inner city, and housing unaffordability. But housing has to be central to this.
What do we know about the costs of eviction compared with the costs of potentially preventing it?
The face of the eviction epidemic in the United States belongs to mothers and children. Most homes evicted in Milwaukee have children living in them. The average age of the evicted child in Milwaukee is seven. This robs children of the security of a home, the ability to invest in their neighborhoods, to stay in school. And we pay for that as a nation both in financial terms and in moral terms.
If it’s the case that eviction does have these sticky consequences on people’s lives, we pay for those, too. We pay for those in public health bills. We pay for those in terms of subsidizing folks when they lose their job. We pay for it in terms of providing public defenders when people do drastic things to [try to] stay in their homes.
We need a lot more research on this point, but I don’t think it’s a controversial one. We do know that when families get housing vouchers, one of the first things they do is take their freed-up income to the grocery store and they buy more food. Their children become less anemic and stronger. But [the kids mentioned in the book’s vignettes] don’t get enough food because the rent “eats” first. And I think we pay for that, too.
Some of the things that happened to the households that you followed are fair housing violations and code violations. But somehow a practice just being illegal isn’t enough to protect these families. What do you think would be enough?
One of the big realizations I had was that if you’re not able to pay your rent confidently in full every month, your legal protections go away. If you and I read the books, the laws of Milwaukee, we probably would say these are fair and reasonable. But if you’re someone like Arleen, who is paying 88 percent of [her] income to rent, there’s going to be a time that you need to ask for some compassion from your landlord and some help. And if you activate your rights and enter into more of an adversarial relationship with your landlord, it gets really risky for you.
A lot of tenants start out behind because they can’t pay the first month’s rent, last month’s rent, and security deposit when they move in. They start out owing a landlord. And this allows a landlord to get a little bit more flexibility on housing problems.
In sharing the landlord stories, you noted that rookie landlords hardened or quit. But there also are examples of landlords being sympathetic. A collaborative and compassionate relationship existed on one hand, while a very natural business relationship existed on the other. Were you more surprised by how hardened landlords could be or by how sympathetic they were?
What most surprised me about the landlords I spent time with was how much they knew about their tenants, how involved they were in their lives, and how much control they had over those lives.
What changes do you believe the nation’s housing programs need?
Ultimately, the question of how to address this enormous problem comes down to a question about rights. Do we, as a nation, believe that access to stable, decent, affordable housing is a right? Is it part of what it means to be an American? If our answer is yes, then our response has to be big enough to match the problem.
This rich nation can deliver on that right if we chose to. This is why I advocate for a universal voucher program. This is a vehicle that other countries have used to institutionalize universal affordable housing. Study after study has shown that you can offer housing of equal quality for a lower price with vouchers than with public housing.
Ultimately, addressing the scope of this problem is going to start not only with a debate about efficiency and policy design, but also a debate about what we as a country will tolerate and the level of poverty and suffering we will admit within our borders.
And then, cities are different, so what works for New York might not work in Houston. The universal voucher program is one of many solutions that I think should be on the table. But when we are thinking about this and talking about this, scope and scale are central. We need a housing program for the unlucky majority.
Maya Brennan, vice president of the ULI Terwilliger Center for Housing, is managing editor of HowHousingMatters.org, the How Housing Matters website. It is managed by the ULI Terwilliger Center for Housing with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.