Not Just a Condition, but Cause of Poverty

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Not Just a Condition, but Cause of Poverty
By: A U.S. Catholic interview
13 February 2018

Being evicted isn’t just a condition of poverty, it’s a cause, says Matthew Desmond, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Crown Books).

While much research and conversation has been devoted to other poverty-related topics such as nutrition, education, and violence, the Princeton sociologist realized no one was looking at eviction or how housing affects poverty in America.

For more than a year Desmond lived among families on the brink of eviction, some paying as much as 70 percent of their income in rent. He also conducted studies to understand how common and how devastating it is to be forced from your home.

“Whatever our issue is, whatever keeps us up at night, whether it’s family, community, educational inequality, or racial inequality,” Desmond says, “the lack of stable, affordable housing sits at the root of that issue, because without stable shelter everything else falls apart.”

In his book Desmond does more than tell the stories of evicted families and expose the staggering results of his study. He offers a solution that he believes could fundamentally change the face of poverty in America: an expansion of the current housing voucher program.

Why did you choose to write about eviction?

America is the richest democracy with the worst poverty. There’s no other advanced Western democracy that has the kind or level of poverty that we do. That’s troubled me for a long time.

I wanted to understand the role that housing plays in that story. We’ve had a lot of books on joblessness, welfare reform, mass incarceration, and things like that—all incredibly important topics. But there was a piece of the puzzle missing for me: the role housing plays in deepening poverty in America. I thought that looking at eviction—people being physically forced from their homes—was a decent way of trying to understand how housing is implicated in the American poverty story.

I chose to focus on eviction in Milwaukee because I thought the story of the American city was being written on the margins. There were a lot of books about the cities considered our biggest successes—like New York—and a lot of books on cities considered our biggest failures—like Detroit. I thought that writing a book about Milwaukee would give me a shot at a more general experience.

How common is eviction?

The housing crisis has become much more acute in recent years than it was even a decade or two ago. During the 2000s housing costs all around the country rose at an exceptionally fast rate, especially for low‑income renters who weren’t seeing major gains in their income.

The income for Americans of modest means flatlined or fell during a time when housing costs were exploding. In addition, federal policy has failed to bridge the gap. Only about 1 in 4 families who qualify for housing assistance get it. We’ve reached a point today where most working families spend at least half of their income on housing costs, and about 1 in 4 of those families spend over 70 percent of their income to fund rent and utilities.

Under those conditions eviction has become really commonplace. Eviction has become kind of a defining moment in the lives of low‑income families, this common but really critical experience.

Crunch the court records of evictions in Milwaukee, and you learn that 1 in 14 rental homes are evicted every year in the city, which is astounding. When I first crunched that number I thought, “Oh, we must have made a mistake, because it’s so high.” I went back and did it all again and found the same estimates.

Those are only the formal court‑ordered evictions. There are all these other cheaper and quicker ways for landlords to get renters out. When we found a way to count those informal evictions through a survey, we found that 1 in 8 renters in Milwaukee is evicted every two years, which is just an incredible amount of instability.

What happens when someone is evicted?

Evictions come in a lot of different shapes and sizes. In Milwaukee half of all forced moves are informal evictions that never go to the court system. I met a building manager that would pay you a few hundred bucks and let you use his van to move, but you have to be out by Sunday. I met another landlord who will just take your door off if you’re behind on rent.

The formal process we use to execute evictions is so broken that it would be better to just abandon that process altogether.

But if you do go through the formal process of eviction and you’re found in violation of a lease, meaning you can’t make the rent, then the landlord can serve a writ of restitution, which is the legal process that summons the sheriff.

In Milwaukee the sheriff has to arrive within 10 business days of that happening. They come with a team of movers and a judge’s order—and they’re usually armed. You then have a choice: have all your things laid on the sidewalk or put it all in bonded storage. But storage costs money, so most folks I saw get evicted would choose the curb option. Suddenly, you’re homeless.

After that you’re faced with this monumental challenge of finding affordable housing when you have an eviction on your record—a fresh eviction. Arleen, a woman from my book, called 89 landlords before one said yes. It’s a long, drawn out, exhausting process.

What is the personal effect of eviction?

Eviction causes loss. You lose not only your roof over your head, which is enough, but you also lose your things. Your kids often lose their school. You lose your community. It takes a good amount of time and money to establish a home, and an eviction can just delete all that.

It comes with a court record of this process that can prevent you from moving into a safe house in a decent neighborhood because so many landlords turn you away. It can also prevent you from moving into public housing, because most of our public housing authorities, even though they don’t have to, count evictions as a mark against an application.

We have a study that shows that eviction causes job loss. If you’ve ever been evicted, you know why. It’s just such a consuming, stressful event. It can cause you to make mistakes at work, lose your footing in the labor market.

Then there’s the effect that eviction has on your mental health, or your soul, like Arleen put it once to me. They have a study showing that moms who get evicted experience high rates of depression two years later.

You add all that up, and I think we are forced to conclude that evictions, which used to be rare in America, aren’t just a condition of poverty; they’re a cause, too. They’re making things worse. Were the folks in my book facing difficult times before they were evicted? Absolutely. But did their evictions make their life much harder? It absolutely did.

What role did faith play in the lives of those you interviewed for your book?

Larraine was a devout Christian. She lived for Sunday morning. She was a member at her church. It was incredibly important to her. She loved her church and loved her pastor. In the book you see her pastor struggling with questions about the church’s role confronting poverty.

On one hand he says, “The government shouldn’t be in the business of helping people like Larraine. That should be the church’s job.” But on the other hand, he fully admits the church was totally incapable of serving as a sturdy safety net for Larraine.

She needed a lot more than a little help from time to time. She was living as a grandma in poverty, spending over 70 percent of her income to rent a trailer in a mobile‑home park that the city considered an environmental biohazard.

I think that in Larraine’s story you kind of put the preacher’s political commitments or theory of change to the test and say, “OK, how well does the church do in meeting the needs of the poor?” The answer is, “Not very well.”

It raises serious questions about how well the American church is doing in the fight against inequality today. It also raises questions about how much more powerful the church’s impact could be if it recognized that nothing replaces the state and nothing replaces a healthy job market.

What can faith communities do to support people like Larraine?

One thing Larraine’s church does, amazingly, is give her value and respect. If you walk into Larraine’s church her picture is on the wall, along with that of every other member of the church.

She and Crystal and other folks that were really avid churchgoers in the book took so much meaning, value, and respect from that. That is hard to replace. You can’t put a price on that. I think that’s critical. The church was doing things for these folks, was reaching out and helping. But they were serving folks whose life was defined by compounding adversity.

What could the church do with respect to the housing crisis at large? The church has led on issues of hunger and homelessness. It’s led by deed, and it’s led by word. I think that the church could be an incredible moral leader in this struggle for affordable housing today. I think one thing the church can do is clear its throat and make a moral case against this situation.

What are we missing in our approach to poverty in the United States?

One thing America is missing is a strong moral indictment of the level of destitution in this rich land and a real, frank conversation about how our lives, our tax breaks, our neighborhoods, and our schools contribute in real ways to poverty. And this conversation is missing on the left and on the right.

The right tends to favor more individualistic explanations for poverty, such as, “This person made bad decisions or doesn’t have the right kind of education.” The left tends to emphasize what sociologists call structural explanations for poverty, like large scale changes in the labor market or big policy transformations like welfare reform.

What’s missing on both sides is a discussion of the fact that some folks profit at the expense of others. Poverty isn’t just a product of low incomes or certain decisions, or even certain structural transformations.

For example, looking at the landlord‑tenant relationship really closely draws out larger moral questions about how most relationships in American society advantage some people at the expense of others.

According to my calculations, which were based on the landlord’s rent rolls, property tax records, utility bills, water records, and everything I could get my hands on so I could account for all the expenses, missed payments, and vacancies, the landlord of the trailer park I wrote about in my book was netting about $400,000 a year from 131 trailers in Milwaukee.

That’s 55 times more than the annual income of a tenant working full time at minimum wage. Is that a situation we’re OK with?

Do you think there is a way to end housing insecurity in the United States?

The good news is that there are incredible solutions within our collective reach. In the book I write about a solution to use a program we already have that works pretty well—a housing voucher program—and expand it to everyone below the poverty line.

Instead of waiting eight, nine, 20 years to access any kind of housing assistance, anyone below the poverty line qualifies immediately. Instead of paying 60 or 70 percent of your income on housing, you pay 30 percent and the voucher covers the rest. You can live anywhere you want as long as your housing isn’t too expensive or too shoddy.

That would fundamentally change the face of poverty in America. It would make evictions rare again. It would drive down family homelessness. Research shows that when families finally get a housing voucher after years and years on the waiting list they do one consistent thing with their freed‑up income: They take it to the grocery store to buy more food.

Is expanding the housing voucher program even possible? The Bipartisan Policy Center estimated a few years ago that it would cost $22 billion to do something like this. Twenty-two billion a year is not a small figure, but it’s well within our capacity.

One place that money could come from is homeowner tax subsidies. Every year we spend far more money on homeowner tax subsidies than we do on direct housing assistance. These are things like the mortgage interest deduction, which, in a few years, will cost our country an estimated $97 billion a year.

Most of that benefit goes to families with six‑figure incomes, because if your income is bigger, your mortgage is bigger and so your deduction is bigger. Most white families in America own a home with a mortgage, and most black and Latino families don’t. It’s really hard to imagine a social policy that more unblushingly amplifies our racial and class divides than our current housing program does.

A very sensible solution, I think, would be to take that mortgage interest deduction and modify it in reasonable ways so that most of our benefit isn’t going to families that need it the least and to take the savings and direct it to affordable housing programs.

Now is it plausible or conceivable that we’d do that? I think that’s a moral question. If we live in a $700,000 house, would we be OK with a little less money in the bank at the end of the year if it meant that more families in our cities can have access to a decent, affordable, stable home? I would be OK with it.

This article also appears in the February 2018 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 83, No. 2, pages 18–22).

Image: Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

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