Author: Fewer Evictions Needed To Help Housing Crisis

Matthew Desmond, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, speaks about the eviction crisis in America during a recent lecture at Chautauqua Institution. Photo by Dylan Townsend/The Chautauquan Daily

CHAUTAUQUA — Pulitzer Prize-winning author Matthew Desmond contends that the United States is the richest democracy with the worst poverty.

“That’s who we are as a nation. There’s no other advanced industrial society today that has the kind of level of poverty we have,” he said.

Desmond spoke to an Amphitheater audience Tuesday as part of the theme of “More than Shelter: Redefining the American Home.”

He said he decided to look into how housing played a part in poverty in the U.S., so he moved into a mobile home park on the south side of Milwaukee, then he moved to a rooming house on the city’s north side. From those two neighborhoods, he followed families who were evicted.

“I went everywhere with those families. I went to eviction court with them. I followed them into abandoned shelters, and I slept on their floor. I watched their kids. I ate from their table and went to work with them, (and) to church with them,” he said.

But he knew, he said, if he really wanted to figure out how the housing market worked, especially in the very lowest edges of America, he also had to get the landlords perspectives.

“So I went to eviction court with landlords too, and I helped them pass out eviction notices, and fix up old properties,” he said.

According to assembly.chq.org, Desmond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City draws on years of embedded fieldwork and painstakingly gathered data to transform our understanding of inequity and economic exploitation in America.

For 100 years, he said, there’s been this idea, in America that people should spend 30 percent of their income on rent.

“That gives us enough money to feed our kids, save, (and) afford a car. Then for a long part of our history, a lot of us met that goal. But times have changed,” he added.

Currently, he noted, the most poor renting families spend at least half of their income on housing costs. About one in four of those families spend over 70 percent of their income just on renting, and utilities.

But help is not really plentiful, he said, as only a small percentage of families receive Section 8 vouchers to live in public housing.

“So about 6 percent of renting families below the poverty line live in public housing. Another 20 percent received some other kind of government subsidy usually in the form of a written reducing voucher. But the unlucky majority, the remaining 74 percent, receive nothing, nada, zippo from state, local or federal governments,” he added.

And it doesn’t really get better, he noted. For a long time, scholars have been writing that low income families exhibit high rates of instability. There wasn’t an explanation as to why high rates of instability were reached, he said.

“What we’ve learned is that poor folks are moving so much because they’re forced to. It’s not just a rhetorical point. You can run a statistical model that show that poor folks don’t move more than anyone else, if you control for eviction, which means if we want more family stability and more community stability, we need fewer evictions,” he said.

In addition to the Pulitzer, Evicted –won the National Books Critics Circle Award, the Andrew Carnegie Medal, the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award, the Heartland Prize, and more, and was named one of the Best Books of 2016 by nearly three dozen media outlets, the website said. In 2018, he received the Stowe Prize for Writing to Advance Social Justice, awarded by the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center to authors whose work shines a light on critical social issues. Desmond is the Maurice P. During Professor of Sociology at Princeton University, where he is also the founder and principal investigator of the Eviction Lab, which in 2018 published the first-ever national dataset of evictions in America, collecting millions of data points going back to 2000.

Desmond is a former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows, and was formerly the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University. He is also the author of the award-winning book On the Fireline: Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters, the coauthor of two books on race, and the editor of a collection of studies on severe deprivation in America. His work has been supported by the Ford, Russell Sage, and National Science Foundations. Desmond received his Bachelor of Science degree in communications and justice studies from Arizona State University and his doctorate in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the website noted.

“If poverty persists in America, it’s not for lack of resources. We lack something else.”


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