Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted” Supports, Challenges Housing Field

With Evicted, Desmond is taking a powerful argument that housing matters beyond the usually circles where that is discussed.

In 2003, when I was very new to my job as the news editor of the alt-weekly newspaper in New York’s Capital Region, I went on a ride-along with someone who served eviction papers in the city of Schenectady. Having begun my career at Shelterforce, where we still have boxes of “Slumlord in Trunk” windshield signs tucked away in our filing cabinets, this felt somewhat akin to hanging out with a mobster—only without the glamour. I got a quirky, not very deep feature piece out of it.

Sociologist Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted, went approximately one million times better in his monumental and much-discussed work that is worth every one of the accolades it’s getting. Over the course of a year, Desmond lived in a decrepit mobile home park and a poor inner-city neighborhood of Milwaukee, getting to know not only residents who were experiencing evictions, but also their landlords, and assorted other characters in the drama.

Desmond seems to be that rare person who is a dedicated and careful researcher and a phenomenal writer. The stories he tells in Evicted are gripping and intimate, at the same time as compelling as a novel and painstakingly illustrating how people are trapped and what the systemic implications are of that. I literally could not put it down.

Housing Gets Its Moment?

For the community development field, the publication of Evicted is a very interesting moment. The need for stable, quality, affordable housing—our issue, as it were, and something the field has spent years lamenting the lack of broader attention to—is the unapologetic center of something of a sensation. (There was apparently actually a bidding war from publishers and a six-figure advance for Evicted.) “Without a home, everything else falls apart,” reads the quote on the book’s website.

Desmond is taking a powerful argument that housing matters beyond the usually circles where that is discussed. His analogy that eviction is becoming to poor women, especially African-American women, what mass incarceration is to men—a mark on their records that continues to haunt them as they try to stabilize their lives—is the sort of comparison that sticks in one’s head and feels like it has the potential to catalyze a movement.

The only unequivocal heroes of the book are the providers of the home that one lucky character finally manages to land, after an extended, recursive odyssey through addiction, eviction, and homelessness. The brief window the book gives into just how much different having a decent, permanent place to live that costs only 30 percent of his (extremely low) income makes in his life would make anyone proud to be associated with the nonprofit housing movement.

A Challenge

However, Evicted will also challenge the field. First, because the folks Desmond is talking about are actually living in deep poverty, not merely “low-income.” Saying that some large percentage of people under 30 percent of AMI pay more than 50 percent of their income on housing doesn’t begin to touch on the experiences Desmond witnessed. The people he follows are many cases are spending (or expected to spend) 90 to over 100 percent of their regular income on housing. They have no security or stability in their homes, and for long stretches many of them spend all of their waking hours trying to find a stable place to land. Their housing situation affects every aspect of their lives, from health to employment to parenting.

These folks do not remotely make enough to afford LIHTC developments, unless they also bring a voucher with them. Much of what the community development world builds does not reach these folks.

Community developers spend much of their time talking about subsidized housing. As Alan Mallach recently noted here on Rooflines, what Desmond is describing is the world of private, unsubsidized, one- to four-unit buildings, which house the majority of poor people in this country, but which we talk about very little. (Though not never, and I know Rafael Bostic has talked about launching some research on the topic.)

Say It: Exploitation

Relatedly, Desmond is very, very intentional and explicit about the fact that value is being extracted from poor neighborhoods and poor households. He spends anthropological research time with some landlords, not just their tenants, riding along as they collect rent, serve evictions, and show up to respond to crises. While he humanizes them to some extent, he also makes no bones about the fact that part of the problem is exploitation.

The founders of Shelterforce, as tenant organizers and legal aid lawyers, would have agreed wholeheartedly. But these days, “exploitation” doesn’t come up much, or when it does it seems to be reserved largely for luxury developers causing displacement in hot market areas. I’m guessing, from observation, that in spaces where the focus is on capital, investment, revitalization, and public-private-corporate partnership that words like “exploitation” are too negative and evoke too much conflict.

The development world seems to mostly stick to using the travails of extremely low income renters as arguments for more funding to build permanent supportive housing. And that is one very valid and crucial conclusion. But Desmond’s reminder that these problems are not just accidental is also super important. If you don’t recognize the motivations and money trails, you will overlook possible solutions. One of the conclusions that Desmond came to from his research, for example, is that we need a massive investment in legal aid for people in housing court.

There are tenant organizers out there still, fighting the good fight, plus some newer organizations calling what they do “housing justice.” But somewhat bizarrely, they are often not represented in community development gatherings, either in person or in topic.

Don’t Aim Low

Finally, as something of an outsider to the field, Desmond is not consumed with the desperate struggle to not lose any more of the crumbs of funding given to affordable housing. And so when he talks about solutions, he goes to the heart of the matter: everyone who qualifies for housing assistance should get it. Period.

We know that fewer than 1 in 4 eligible families get rental assistance. We talk about that. But before Desmond’s book, in my 20 or so years in this field, I don’t think I had ever heard anyone state getting vouchers for everyone directly as a policy goal. In retrospect, that’s astounding, and not in a good way. Even if we don’t expect to achieve it, it should still be stated as the goal.

(Of course it doesn’t hurt that Desmond makes this sound much easier to do by arguing that by his research, there’s so much overcharging of voucher holders going on in weak market areas that small-area market rents would go a long way toward paying for extending vouchers to everyone.)

Desmond’s proposals are not a perfect or complete package for how to address America’s housing crisis. They do not address the housing quality issue, for example, nor the way that code enforcement basically punishes tenants rather than landlords, nor how to support smaller scale landlords who are trying to not be exploitative.

But I don’t think he set out to create the perfectly nuanced housing policy solutions package, so much as he set out to show or remind everyone, inside and outside the affordable housing field, how the housing crisis really plays out for those in the most need and at what scale the proper responses need to be. He did his job.

It’s up to us—hopefully with a bunch of new allies inspired by Evicted—to take it from here.

(Photo credit: ‘Possessions,” by Bart Everson via flickr, CC BY 2.0)

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