Eviction is cause, not just symptom, of poverty, author says

Princeton University professor and social scientist Matthew Desmond visited the University of Arkansas at Little Rock on Nov. 13 to discuss his Pulitzer Prize winning book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” which examines the impact of eviction on the lives of the urban poor and its role in perpetuating racial and economic inequality.

Desmond’s appearance was part of the Winthrop Rockefeller Distinguished Lecture Series. William Rockefeller, vice president of Winrock Farms and a board member of Winrock International, introduced Desmond, whose work earned him  the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

“My grandfather believed if you invited everyone to the table, problems could be served,” Rockefeller said.

One of the biggest problems facing Americans is an affordable housing crisis spurred by the high rate of evictions that lead families into homelessness and financial destitution.

“We’re the richest country with the worst poverty,” Desmond said.

Desmond interviewed 1,100 tenants in Milwaukee, searching for answers as to how eviction happens, how often it happens, and the long-term consequences of a family losing their home. He chronicled the plights of eight families living on the edge of survival in Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods. One of the families – Arlene, a single mother, with a 14-year-old and 6-year-old son – moved half a dozen times in the months when Desmond was with her. What he observed was that eviction leaves people with fewer choices.

“Families are forced to accept conditions in the harried aftermath of eviction,” he said. That often means paying more for substandard housing.

As part of his research, Desmond spent months living in a mobile home park on Milwaukee’s south side, a rooming house on the city’s north side, in shelters and in abandoned homes. He worked alongside the families, watched their kids, slept on floors with them and ate with them.

At the same time, he also sought to understand relationships between landlords and tenants.

“I knew if I was going to figure it out, I needed landlords’ perspectives too,” Desmond said. To do so, he accompanied landlords as they collected rent and posted eviction notices.

Desmond concludes that eviction is a cause, rather than merely a symptom, of poverty. Most poor renting families devote more than half of their income to housing, he said. Arlene was spending 88 percent of her income on rent, far more than the socially accepted norm of 30 percent.

Desmond researched Milwaukee’s housing market and found that the city had 105,000 renter homes, with 40 evictions occurring every day. The likelihood of eviction tripled for renters with children. He wondered how Milwaukee’s eviction rate compared to the national rate, but discovered that the government doesn’t collect national data on evictions. That discovery led to Desmond’s creation of The Eviction Lab at Princeton University, where researchers and students have built the nation’s first database of evictions. They have collected more than 83 million records from 48 states and the District of Columbia. Data for most states is available online.

“If we want more family stability, more community stability, we need fewer evictions,” Desmond said. “Home is the center of life. It’s our refuge from work, pressures of school, menace of the streets. Eviction causes loss. Families lose homes, kids lose their schools. You lose your community. You lose your stuff.

Eviction comes with a mark or blemish that can prevent you from moving into a safe house, or even public housing. Eviction is a mark against your application.”

Desmond told the audience, assembled in the Center for the Performing Arts, that bold political leadership with moral clarity is needed to advocate for affordable housing support. He believes housing support should be available to every family living below the poverty line.

“It is well within our capacity,” he said. “If poverty persists in American, it’s not for lack of resources.”

Pulitzer Prize winner Matthew Desmond talks about the impact of eviction on the lives of the urban poor during the Winthrop Rockefeller Distinguished Lecture at UA Little Rock. Photo by Benjamin Krain

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