Eviction is a cause, not just a condition of poverty

Matthew Desmond
Lindsay France/University Photography
Matthew Desmond, the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University, speaks Nov. 16 in the Statler Auditorium.

When 70 percent of a family’s income is used to pay the rent and keep the lights on, eviction is inevitable, said Matthew Desmond, the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.

Speaking to a crowd Nov. 16 in the Statler Auditorium, Desmond explained how eviction takes away a family’s home, school and community along with their furniture, clothes, mental health and jobs.

“We can’t fix poverty in America without fixing housing,” he said.

As an ethnographer and graduate student attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2008 and 2009, Desmond said he spent five months residing in a trailer park and seven months in a rooming house getting to know his neighbors in two of Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods. He watched their children, ate meals at their table, went to their funerals and even attended a birth.

Until Desmond’s work, which earned him a MacArthur “Genius Award” in 2015, no one had studied how eviction interferes with the lives of inner city, low-income renters, in particular black people.

With support from the MacArthur Foundation, Desmond designed a survey of tenants in Milwaukee’s private housing sector. Called the Milwaukee Area Renters Study (MARS), roughly 1,100 tenants were interviewed from 2009-11. Using new data on housing, residential mobility, eviction and urban poverty, MARS is the only comprehensive estimate of involuntary displacement from housing among urban renters. It also identified the fallout that comes with eviction, such as residential instability, substandard housing and job loss.

The survey had an 84 percent response rate and showed that 1 in 8 Milwaukee renters experienced at least one forced move, he said. Those that are evicted end up moving from dangerous neighborhoods to neighborhoods that are even more unsafe. Only one in four families that qualifies for public housing actually obtains assistance due to waiting lists that are years, and sometimes decades, long.

Desmond’s findings are chronicled in his book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.” A New York Times best-seller, the book follows eight families – black, white, some with children and others without – thrown into the eviction process. Desmond said he strived to capture people’s humanity and get their stories right.

“I believed that if you tell people stories of complexities, and capture their essence, it’s possible to show the wreckage of poverty in America,” he said.

His book is interspersed with quotes he captured on digital recorder from people like Lamar, who sold $150 of food stamps for $75 cash to pay his rent.

“The vast majority of poor kids are not getting enough to eat,” said Desmond.

Desmond also wanted to understand landlords and why anyone would buy property in downtrodden neighborhoods. He learned “what makes landlords tick and what ticks them off.”

By accompanying landlords to eviction court, he found that tenants do not have a constitutional right to free counsel. As a result, 90 percent of tenants do not have attorneys representing them in court yet 90 percent of the landlords do. Often, tenants do not even bother to show up in court because they cannot take time off work or do not have the means to pay for transportation to the courthouse. Yet, even landlords in the poorest neighborhoods turn a profit – the landlord in the worst trailer park in Milwaukee took in $450,000 in annual income, Desmond said.

Desmond also found that those living with children face greater hardships than those without.

“If you live with kids, the chance of you getting an eviction notice triples,” he said.

Although housing discrimination against families living with children is illegal, the practice remains widespread.

The statistics are even worse for African-American women. One in 5 black women are evicted sometime in their life compared to 1 in 15 white women, he said.

Desmond believes policies could be implemented to address the crisis. He pointed out that Seattle has adopted a housing levy where a portion of property taxes subsidizes housing for low-income people.

Asked what graduate and undergraduate students can do to address these problems, Desmond said, “Whatever you do, remember to care about the poor. If you want to be a lawyer, remember that most families facing eviction don’t have a lawyer by their side.”

The event was cosponsored by the Center for the Study of Inequality, the Institute for the Social Sciences and the University Lectures Committee.

Lori Sonken is the staff writer for the Institute for the Social Sciences.

Media Contact

Melissa Osgood