Author and Harvard professor talks about the human cost of evictions

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At Calvin College, Matthew Desmond talks with an audience member as he signs books after his presentation on affordable housing and eviction for the January Series.

LEGAL NEWS PHOTO BY CYNTHIA PRICE

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

In “Poverty and Profit in the American City,” part of the Calvin College January Series, Matthew Desmond told the audience about the power of people’s stories.

Not satisfied merely to interview people, Desmond went to live in low-income housing to immerse himself in the conditions facing those whose stories he tells.

Miller Johnson law firm joined the Howard Miller Company in underwriting his moving and vital presentation.

The Harvard University professor (John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Science at Harvard) has written for a variety of well-known publications, including the New York Times, The New Yorker, and the Chicago Tribune, and many scholarly journals. Desmond edited the first issue of RSF: The Russell Safe Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences on Severe Deprivation in America.

He is also the author of four books, On the Fireline: Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters  (2007), Race in America (with Mustafa Emirbayer, 2015), The Racial Order (also with Emirbayer in 2015), and Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City which provided the subject matter for his lecture at Calvin.

The book conveys a lot of information while downplaying the expected scholarly detachment, which makes the book, and his lecture, all the more impactful.

“It’s changed me a lot,” he said. “You kind of carry these stories with you, and I think they have taken a toll.”

But at the same time, he said, he feels as if the people he wrote about have become supportive friends. He told about being asked to go down into someone’s basement to check why there was no heat coming out of the boiler — “I didn’t know anything about that, but  I’m a guy,” he said to laughter — only to come back upstairs and find that it was a ruse so the family could surprise him with a birthday cake.

In fact, he came to have such strong emotions about the people whose stories are included that he started a foundation, The Evicted Book Foundation, specifically to benefit directly the people profiled in Evicted.

The book takes place in Milwaukee, and covers research that began while Desmond was a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin Madison, from which he graduated in 2010. Another result of his study there is the Milwaukee Area Renters Study, a wide-ranging survey of tenants in the city’s private low-income housing sector.

Conducted in 2009-2011, the study collected data through in-person interviews with over 1,000 households on such topics as neighborhood characteristics, civic engagement, hardships faced, and history of moves in the two-year period, including why the person had to move.

The patterns that emerged intrigued Desmond, but moreover, he says, he felt really comfortable in Milwaukee.

In 2015, Desmond was given a MacArthur “Genius” award, which allowed him to continue his research.

The son of a Christian preacher, Desmond himself felt the shame and pain of eviction when his family’s home underwent foreclosure.

But his upbringing was evident in his January Series lecture’s focus on doing the right thing, on people’s responsibilities if they take seriously the Biblical charge to “love your neighbor as yourself.” His talk was peppered with comments such as, “That’s just not us,” and “We’re better than that.”

The book quotes Martin Luther King: “Every condition exists simply because someone profits by its existence. This economic exploitation is crystallized in the slum.” To that, Desmond adds, “Exploitation. Now, there’s a word that has been scrubbed out of the poverty debate.”

However, Desmond made it clear to the Calvin audience that he was not intending to vilify the landlords as “evil.” He also got to know, and profiled, the people who profited from the two venues where he was embedded, a mostly-white trailer park and a mostly-black low-income apartment building.

“Sherrena had been a fourth grade teacher in Milwaukee, and at the time she was making quite a decent living as a landlord. But in the book you see how complicated a person she is,” Desmond said. He noted that there were some tenants she treated well, and at times she would give them a pass on a month’s rent or do them personal favors.

“I think it’s lazy to blame one party,” he added.

The book focuses on the consequences of the discrepancy between the large segment of the population that pays 25 to 40 percent of income on housing, and people like Arleen, Lamar, and Vanetta in his book who may pay even more than 80%. Desmond’s overarching point is that the repercussions of this waste of human potential are costly in a wide variety of ways to society as a whole and to the next generation.

Also in contrast to many scholarly writers, Desmond believes he has a solution. He suggests Universal Housing Vouchers, an expansion of the “Section 8” housing vouchers idea — which, he noted, are a cause for incredible celebration when received after years-long waiting periods.

Desmond recommended that the housing vouchers be capped at 30% of the renters’ income, and required to be accepted by landlords across a wide spectrum of locations and housing types. This would eliminate the stigma associated with public housing.

In response to a question from the Calvin audience about Cabrini Green and other such public housing projects, Desmond said, “It’s a complex subject, but this kind of public housing did have a way of concentrating poverty. The big picture of public housing wasn’t so much that the idea itself was flawed, which it can certainly be debated it was, but also that we gutted the funding right after they were built.”

How to pay for the voucher program’s approximately $22 billion price tag? Although again he respects the fact that it is complex, Desmond thought that some of the current homeowner tax credits, which he said amounted to about $171 billion, could be redirected towards the vouchers.

Acknowledging that it would be naive to think there was only one solution to such a complex problem — and praising local efforts to address it at a small scale — Desmond noted that his website, justshelter.org, lists both local (organized by state) and national organizations tackling the problem.

Just Shelter, founded by Desmond and his wife Tessa Lowinske Desmond, raises “[amplifies] the work of community organizations working to preserve affordable housing, prevent eviction, and reduce... homelessness.” Desmond also encourages people to post their own stories on the site.

Evicted notes that one action people can take locally is to provide legal representation in eviction proceedings. Desmond notes that, nationally, 90% of those facing eviction are unrepresented, and 90% of landlords asking for evictions have lawyers.

Desmond is also the co-founder of Harvard’s Justice and Poverty Project, which seeks to focus and disseminate research on three areas of social inequality, including low-income housing and housing instability. It can be found at justicepoverty.org.