Sociologist and Harvard Professor Matthew Desmond spent a year living in Milwaukee’s inner-city neighborhoods studying the implications of poverty. Staying in rooming houses and trailer parks, he spent his days with tenants being evicted and the landlords leading the evictions. He conducted surveys and analyzed thousands of eviction records. The conclusion? Eviction causes deep-seated poverty — especially among single African American mothers.
In the research for his book Evicted, Desmond discovered a direct correlation between eviction and generational poverty for lower-income families.
We checked in with Desmond to learn more about evictions’ impact on families and communities. (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
AJ+: What prompted you to tackle this subject, and why did you decide to focus on Milwaukee?
Matthew Desmond: America is the richest democracy in the world with the worst poverty. There is no other industrial society that has the same level and amount of poverty that we do. That is something that has always troubled me. I’ve always thought that was totally unnecessary, and I wanted to understand the role housing plays in creating poverty in America today.
I think we know a fair bit about joblessness, mass incarceration, social welfare policy and the family, but research and journalists really haven’t paid housing — especially the private rental market where most low-income families live — its due. So I wanted to try my hand on it.
I love Milwaukee. I love the rustbelt. I feel really at home in cities like that. I think that if you’re going to place yourself in a city and write about a really American problem, a widespread problem, Milwaukee gives you a shot at representing the experiences of people in Cleveland, Minneapolis, St. Louis and Omaha, Nebraska in a way that studying New York or San Francisco doesn’t. If you read about Milwaukee, you read about the middle of a broader story.
AJ+: There’s a misconception that most low-income people are either receiving subsidies or live in public housing, but you show they are mostly in the private housing market. Can you speak more to this point?
MD: Only about 1 in 4 families in the U.S. that qualify for any kind of assistance get it. It’s not because they don’t rise above a certain bar or meet a certain kind of standard or qualification, we just don’t have enough.
That would be a situation that would be pretty unthinkable when it comes down to basic needs. Imagine if we turned away 3 of 4 families that needed food stamps. “We don’t have enough for you, you have to go hungry.” That’s exactly how we treat low-income families that need food and affordable shelter. In some of our biggest cities, the waiting list for public housing is not counted in years, it’s counted in decades.
So if a young parent applied for public housing in DC for example, he or she will probably be a grandparent by the time his or his application came up for review. That’s the sort of situation poor renters are facing today.
AJ+: Rental properties have become a lucrative business for landlords, where they can kick out tenants and raise rents as they’d like. Do you see this problem getting better or worse in the upcoming years?
MD: According to some analytics, eviction rates today were just as high as they were in the middle of the housing crisis. We know that rents keep increasing as well as utility costs. We know that in America — especially in really central cities — there isn’t enough housing to meet the need. We don’t see bold vision cast by policy makers when it comes to addressing this problem in a really big and serious way. In some respects the future is a bit troubling.
We have a major crisis, and that crisis will not abate by itself. We have a situation where children in poor communities have become used to getting evicted. We’re in a situation where instability is coursing through the city, destabilizing families, communities, entire neighborhoods and schools. That’s the bad news. The good news is we are having a serious national conversation today about inequality, and housing has to be central to that conversation.
We can’t fix poverty in America if we don’t fix housing.
I’ve been having conversations since Evicted came out with policy makers at a lot of different levels of government. People are mobilizing around this issue. I’m optimistic that we can get something done. We need to start settling for incremental change on this, or small adjustments. This level of inequality and social suffering is not justified by any American value.
AJ+: Describe how race plays a part in Milwaukee evictions and rental culture.
MD: It’s central to understanding this issue. If you go into any housing court around the country, you’re going to see the face of America’s eviction epidemic, and it’s moms with kids. Until recently, the housing courts in the South Bronx had a daycare because there were so many kids coming through its doors. African American women, especially low-income mothers, are evicted at incredibly high rates. Among Milwaukee renters, 1 in 5 black women have been evicted in their life time compared to 1 in 15 white women. I think of this as the feminine equivalent to incarceration.
We know that many of our poor African American men are locked up, and our poor African American women are locked out, baring the brunt of the eviction epidemic.
Today, 70 percent of white folks own their homes and only 40 percent of black folks own homes. That discrepancy is a direct result of the racial heritage of America. It’s also important to recognize this is not just a problem in low-income communities of color. This is in white communities, immigrant communities. It’s on the coast, in the south, in the middle of the country. It’s a widespread problem.
AJ+: How does generational wealth play a part in evictions?
MD: The biggest factor when it comes to wealth building for most Americans is owning a home. The biggest predictor to owning a home is if your parents owned a home. And one of the biggest predictors of that is if you’re white and if your parents are white. The legacy of American housing policy and home ownership is deeply grafted into the legacy of racial inequality.
Pick your starting point. You can go back to slavery, to sharecropping, to the North End Migration, to the institutionalization of the ghetto, to the release of legal segregation, to the gutting out of the inner city, to red lining and excluding black folks, to the private insured mortgage market, to contract selling, to the eviction epidemic today.
We saw in the housing crisis that owning your home is not a guaranteed right, but for many Americans owning your home does give you not only wealth building but stability and certainty about where you’re going to live year to year, and for many low-income renters that’s far from the reality. That is a part of our racial heritage.
AJ+: Describe somebody that stood out to you during your time in Milwaukee.
MD: There’s this little story in the book that I find myself coming back to, and it’s with a woman named Crystal. She is homeless, living in a homeless shelter, and she met a woman name Benita there. They went out for lunch at McDonald’s and this boy walked in. He was about 9 or 10. He had dirty clothes on and it looked like someone just hit him. He didn’t go to the counter, he just goes around looking for scraps. Crystal and Benita see him, and Crystal says to Benita, “What you got?”
These two women that are homeless pull their change together, buy this kid lunch and send him on his way. It was a very powerful and moving moment for me. It reminded me how gracefully people like Crystal refused to be reduced to their hardships. How poverty doesn’t define or reduce them. That’s a moment that comes back to me time and time again.
AJ+: Why are families with children most likely to be evicted?
MD: We did a survey of about 250 people in eviction court in Milwaukee, because we wanted to know why they get evicted, and I don’t — even though we owe the exact same amount. What we found is it’s not race, not gender, it’s not even how much you owe your landlord. It’s kids. If you live with kids, the odds of you receiving an eviction judgment triples. What you’re seeing there is landlord discretion. One landlord told me that kids cause him headaches. They flush toys down the toilet, test positive for lead poisoning and use the curtains for superhero capes.
AJ+: How does having an eviction on your record impact your life?
MD: Eviction has huge consequences on your life. Many landlords can’t accept anyone who has been evicted in the last two to three years. So that means if you’re an evicted person, than you have a fresh eviction on your record and that record is often publicized online for free for anyone to see. That can really push you into worse housing and worse neighborhoods. We have statistical data that shows that families that are evicted relocate from poor neighborhoods to even poorer ones. Families that get evicted also get relocated to worse housing. Dangerous neighborhoods and degrading housing situations are really bad for a child’s health and well being.
An eviction record can affect your credit. Your eviction debt can be registered, and that can come to haunt you later on in life if you apply for a mortgage or something like that.
AJ+: You’ve mentioned probable solutions, even saying housing should be a fundamental right. What solutions do you pose, and how do you think the government should intervene?
MD: Solutions flow from a national conversation about if we believe that decent affordable housing is what it means to be an American, and if we believe it’s a right. I think that it has to be seen as a right, and without suitable shelter everything else falls apart.
It comes down to a call for universal vouchers. The idea is super simple: we already have a housing voucher program that works pretty well, but the program only serves a lucky minority of low-income families. Authorities should take that program and extend it to everyone below the poverty line— so instead of paying 70 percent or 80 percent of your income on housing, you can take that voucher and live anywhere you want, just as long as it isn’t big and expensive or too shabby. That would fundamentally change the face of poverty in America. It would drive evictions down. It would stabilize communities and families.
We know that when families finally receive a housing voucher after years and years on the waiting list, they do one consistent thing with free income—they take it to a grocery store. They buy more food, and their kids become stronger, less anemic. The majority of children in this country that belong to low-income families aren’t so lucky, and their kids don’t get enough to eat, because the rent eats first. I don’t think we should tolerate that, and we don’t have to tolerate that. We have solutions that work, the problem is that we need to expand those solutions to people that fit the need.
Detroit suffers from the highest eviction rate of any major U.S. city. Watch our video about how billionaire investors there are buying up properties while longtime residents are forced to confront life without a home.