Q&A on Evicted with Sociologist Matt Desmond

In his newly released book Evicted, sociologist and 2016 MacArthur Fellow Matthew Desmond explores life for low-income renters and their landlords in two high-poverty Milwaukee communities. The book weaves together extensive data collection and fieldwork to add clarity about extreme housing instability, its causes and consequences, and the surprisingly interconnected relationships between America’s poor and their landlords.

We spoke with Desmond about his research and its implications for housing policy. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How Housing Matters: Do you have a sense from your work of how prevalent eviction is in the United States? Are there any national data sources for that?

Matthew Desmond: We need a lot more data on this. Right now, I’m working with a wonderful team here at Harvard to get that. And we’re trying to collect eviction records from every county in the United States, so we can really lock down the prevalence and location of eviction and start digging deeper into this problem on a national level. But we do have some data from, say, the American Housing Survey and other national surveys that include items about eviction. In 2013, renters in over 2.8 million households in the United States reported that it was likely that they would be evicted within the next couple of months. That’s not a perfect measure by any means, but I think it sends a very concerning signal about how widespread housing insecurity is among renters in the United States.

HHM: Housing costs are typically considered unaffordable if they exceed 30 percent of income, and severely unaffordable if they exceed 50 percent of income. Yet almost everybody in your book is at least at 70 percent or 80 percent of income going toward rent. You’ve got one case where there’s $28 left after paying the rent.

Do you think that the affordable housing community—advocates for affordable housing or antipoverty efforts—doesn’t grasp the severity of the issue despite working on it?

Desmond: I think that there is a reluctance to confront the severity of the problem because it’s hard to believe. The first time I crunched the eviction numbers for Milwaukee just using court records, I thought they were wrong, and I made the team do everything over again just to make sure we didn’t make a mistake.

It’s troubling when you’re looking at data, and the data are telling you one out of 14 renter-occupied households in inner-city, African American neighborhoods in the city of Milwaukee are evicted every year. It’s really hard to get your head around. Or when you crunch the data from the American Housing Survey, and you realize that 50 percent of poor renting families are paying at least 50 percent of their income on rent. It’s something that is hard to swallow. But when you start talking to families and interviewing people in eviction court and trying to get a sense of what’s going on for poor families in these communities, it’s a lived experience, it validates what we’re seeing in the national data.

HHM: What do you hope readers will do with this knowledge?

Desmond: I want people to remember people like Arleen, who is forced to choose between feeding her kids all that they need and paying rent. I want them to remember someone like Vanetta, who was put in this terrible situation—this desperate situation—where she committed an armed robbery, the first arrest and crime of her life, to avoid eviction and keep the lights on, keep her kids off the street. And I want them to meet and remember people like the Hinkstons, who are able to hold onto their housing, but because they’re in such a financially precarious situation, their children have to live with broken windows and stopped plumbing and these kinds of housing problems.

For me, this is a call to action. This is something that encourages us to recognize that we can’t fix poverty without fixing housing; that eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty; and that there are things that we can do within our collective reach to change it. These problems haven’t been with us forever, and they’re not necessary.

HHM: Can you say more about how eviction is a cause of poverty?

Desmond: When we started this project, I thought eviction was the consequence of other things, like losing your job or separating from your boyfriend or a divorce, a big medical expense. But what I quickly learned in the field was that if people are paying so much of their income for rent, it doesn’t take much to invite an eviction. It can be very little things that don’t have to do with rent, like having kids. Under those conditions, eviction is almost an inevitability—not the result of irresponsibility—for a lot of families.

Then I started following families that were evicted and seeing that eviction causes loss—not just a loss of their home, but you often lose your possessions because they’re taken to storage and you miss payments, or they’re put on the streets. The biggest eviction moving company in the city of Milwaukee told me that, for 70 percent of their eviction and foreclosure moves, the stuff just gets hauled to the dump.

People lose their communities. Kids lose their schools.

We know not only from my fieldwork but also from statistical data that evicted families move into poorer neighborhoods. They move into neighborhoods with higher crime rates. They also relocate to housing that has more housing problems. And this is because eviction comes with a record, and a lot of landlords refuse to take folks who have been evicted recently. A lot of public housing authorities also count the eviction record as a blemish against extending aid. So we’re in a situation where arguably, the families most in need of housing assistance—the evicted—are systematically denied it.

There are other consequences eviction has on people. We have really good data that shows that workers who are evicted are much more likely to lose their job the following year. The reason is because eviction is such a consuming, stressful, overwhelming experience, it can cause you to miss work, make mistakes on the job, and when you do relocate somewhere else, relocate further away from your work.

And there are consequences on your health, especially your mental health. For example, evicted mothers express higher rates of depressive symptoms two years after the event.

So you add all that up and look at the effect that eviction is having on people’s mental health or neighborhood quality or their housing quality or their access to housing assistance, their job security—it becomes very clear to me that eviction is causing poverty. It’s driving people deeper into poverty. It’s not just a result or a condition of poverty.

HHM: How connected are poverty, eviction, and prior adverse experiences?

Desmond: Poverty is rarely just poverty. It is compounded adversity. A lot of folks we meet in Evicted faced setbacks from early on. For Crystal, it started even before she was born. But for everyone in that book, the lack of affordable housing is central to their lives. So if you meet someone like Arleen, who is trying to raise two boys but spending 88 percent of her income on rent, or meet someone like Larraine, who’s a grandmother in the trailer park who has to choose between paying the rent or paying the gas bill—it became very clear to me how central housing is to the lives of the urban poor and how the lack of affordable housing is a wellspring for all sorts of other problems they face.

If we were able to offer more affordable housing and provide people with a shot at stability and decency, that would be a very sturdy foothold on the way toward more economic security and a massive anti-poverty measure. Obviously, we need an anti-poverty platform that addresses many problems—that addresses low wages, joblessness in the inner city and housing unaffordability. But housing has to be central to this.

HHM: What do we know about the costs of eviction compared with the costs of potentially preventing it?

Desmond: The face of the eviction epidemic in the United States belongs to mothers and children. Most homes evicted in Milwaukee have children living in them. The average age of the evicted child in Milwaukee is seven. This robs children of the security of a home, the ability to invest in their neighborhoods, to stay in school. And we pay for that as a nation both in financial terms but also in moral terms.

If it’s the case that eviction does have these sticky consequences on people’s lives, we pay for those, too. We pay for those in public health bills. We pay for those in terms of subsidizing folks when they lose their job. We pay for it in terms of providing public defenders when people do drastic things, like Vanetta did, to help stay in their homes.

We need a lot more research on this point, but I don’t think it’s a controversial one. We do know that, when families get housing vouchers, one of the first things they do is take their freed-up income to the grocery store and they buy more food. Their children become less anemic and stronger. But Arlene’s kids, Vanetta’s kids, they don’t get enough food because the rent eats first. And I think we pay for that too.

HHM: Some of the things that happened to the households that you followed are fair housing violations and code violations. But somehow just being illegal isn’t enough to protect these families. What do you think would be enough?

Desmond: One of the big realizations I had was that if you’re not able to pay your rent confidently in full every month, your legal protections go away. If you and I read the books, the laws of Milwaukee, we probably would say these are fair and reasonable. But if you’re someone like Arleen, who is paying 88 percent of your income to rent, there’s going to be a time that you need to ask for some compassion from your landlord and some help. And if you activate your rights and enter into more of an adversarial relationship with your landlord, it gets really risky for you.

A lot of tenants start out behind because they can’t pay the first month’s rent, last month’s rent, and security deposit when they move in. They start out owing a landlord. And this allows a landlord to get a little bit more flexibility on housing problems. There’s a scene in the book where a tenant whose landlord, Sherrena, was being flexible about past-due rent calls the city building inspector. Sherrena evicts her that evening. It was a retaliatory eviction, but on paper it’s for nonpayment of rent. Without addressing the underlying problem—the fact that so many people are giving so much of what they have for rent—legal protections aren’t going to be as effective, if they are effective at all.

HHM: In sharing the landlord stories in the book, you noted that rookie landlords hardened or quit. But there were also examples of landlords being quite sympathetic. A collaborative and compassionate relationship existed on one hand, while there was also a very natural business relationship that existed on the other. Were you more surprised by how hardened landlords could be or how sympathetic they were?

Desmond: What most surprised me about the landlords I spent time with was how much they knew about their tenants, how involved they were in their tenants’ lives, and how much control they had over those lives in a way. Sherrena was just so much more than a landlord to her tenants. She sometimes was a counselor. She sometimes was a police officer. She sometimes kept the boyfriend and girlfriend together or split them apart. She was a lot of things to her tenants. And so I think that’s the part that really surprised me.

We have a tendency to write about the poor as if they lived in isolation, as if they weren’t connected to the rest of the city. The inequality debate that we are having as a nation right now focuses a lot on the rich and the middle class, and much less on the poor. Focusing on tenants and landlords expands our vision and makes us come to realize that poverty is a relationship.

HHM: What changes do you believe the nation’s housing programs need to actually improve life for low-income Americans?

Desmond: Ultimately, the question of how to address this enormous problem comes down to a question about rights. Do we, as a nation, believe that access to stable, decent, affordable housing is a right? Is it part of what it means to be an American? If our answer is yes, then our response has to be something big enough to match the problem.

This rich nation can deliver on that right if we chose to. This is why I advocate at the end of the book for a universal voucher program. This is a vehicle other countries have used to institutionalize universal affordable housing. Study after study has shown that you can offer housing of equal quality for a lower price with vouchers than with public housing. Ultimately, addressing the scope of this problem is going to start not only with a debate about efficiency and policy design, but also a debate about what we as a country will tolerate and the level of poverty and suffering we will admit within our borders.

And then, cities are different, so what works for New York might not work in Houston. And the universal voucher program is one of many solutions that I think should be on the table. But when we are thinking about this and talking about this, scope and scale are central. We need a housing program for the unlucky majority.


Photo courtesy Matt Desmond