WSW: Why Many American Families Face Eviction

Mar 9, 2018

Supporters of a bill to ban most no-cause evictions of home renters in Oregon demonstrate on the Capitol steps in Salem, Oregon in 2017.
Credit Andrew Selsky / AP Photo

Every year, millions of Americans are forced to leave their rental homes. They lose the roof over their head, possibly their belongings, and their sense of stability. Sociologist Matthew Desmond says evictions have reached crisis levels in the United States - a problem he says the country could address with a few major changes to its housing programs.

Desmond is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, which is the Kalamazoo Public Library's Reading Together book for 2018. He’ll give a presentation at Chenery Auditorium in Kalamazoo, Friday March 16 at 7pm. Desmond, who teaches at Princeton University, joined West Southwest by Skype to talk about the impact that eviction has on people’s lives and how to make forced moves rare again.

Interview with Matthew Desmond

Sehvilla Mann: You did your fieldwork for Evicted in Milwaukee. You follow eight individuals and families who are struggling to hang onto housing, and who go through multiple evictions in the course of the book. What’s the most common reason these families end up getting evicted?

Matthew Desmond: Because they can’t pay the rent. You know we’ve reached a point in America today where families have seen their incomes flatline but their housing costs have soared. They’ve soared all around the country. Between 1995 and today, median rents have increased by over 70 percent, and so you have this really shrinking gap between what a lot of American families are bringing in and what they have to pay for just basic shelter.

And the majority of poor renting families today spend at least half of their income on housing costs and about one in four spend over 70 percent of their income just on rent and utilities. So under those conditions, eviction is pretty easy.

SM: You’re basically one crisis away from not being able to make rent.

MD: You are and then we might ask, you know, wait a minute, where’s public housing or Section 8 Vouchers, where are they in this equation? And the answer is, those programs exist and those programs work pretty well but they’re only for the lucky minority of poor families today. So the vast majority of poor renting Americans, about 75 percent, they receive zero help from the government even though they qualify for it. And the waiting list for public housing in our biggest cities is no longer counted in years, it’s counted in decades.

And so the things that would really help mitigate this crisis are things that you have to wait in line years and years for.

SM: Right, there is a voucher program but you often have to wait so long for a voucher that like you said, you could simply be waiting decades to try to get some housing.

MD: Oh my goodness. In Boston the last time that the Section 8 Voucher list was open was eight years ago and it was only open for a couple weeks. I have two young kids. If I applied for public housing today in, like Washington DC, I’d be a grandfather by the time my application came up for review.

So when we imagine like the typical poor renting family we shouldn’t think of them living in public housing or getting any kind of help from the government. We should think of the folks that I wrote about in my book, people spending upwards of 60, 70, 80 percent of their income just on housing costs.

SM: Lack of money is a big reason that people lose their housing in the book but it’s not the only one. Some of the tenants you follow who live in a trailer park, there’s a handful of tenants there that are deemed ‘nuisances’ after an investigation I believe by the city. Who are they and what happens to them?

MD: This was a big shocker to me. So in Milwaukee and in cities all across America actually, there are things called nuisance laws and I know they sound boring, but the story behind them isn’t. And what they do is they hold landlords accountable for their tenants’ behavior, so if I’m a landlord and you’re my tenant and you call 911 over and over and over again, I might get a letter saying ‘Dear Mr. Desmond, your property is a nuisance to our city. And if you don’t abate this nuisance, we’re going to fine you.’ And the fines are often scary. The fines have commas in them. So I’m in this kind of threatening situation, and usually from a landlord’s perspective, I evict the tenant to kind of abate the nuisance. That’s my game plan.

Now a lot of police departments have put these laws in place because they think they address things like partying and loud noise and drugs, but the landlords that I spoke to said, ‘you know who’s calling 911 a lot are victims of domestic violence.’ And you know we did this big statistical study to fact-check that, basically, and we found that the landlords are right. Domestic violence in Milwaukee for example is the third-most popular nuisance that’s cited, and every four days a landlord in that city gets a nuisance ordinance for domestic-violence related activity.

And in the vast majority of cases, they evict the tenant. Which means we’re putting these women in these terrible, terrible situations, we’re asking them either to call 911 or risk eviction, or not call 911 or risk more abuse.

We have seen movement on this issue, though. The ACLU has started a campaign called “I am not a nuisance,” to kind of fight these laws in the court, and right before the election, after a meeting I had with some senators, we saw some federal law being moved back on the side of domestic violence survivors. So we do have good news on the policy front here.

SM: If you’re spending nearly your entire income on rent, you would hope to at least have a decent place to live. What kind of condition is this housing in?

MD: It’s not in great condition. But it is in better condition in general than it was a few generations ago, and I just think that’s important to recognize, because often when we talk about housing and poverty, homelessness, the problems can feel so internal and intractable and we can feel like ‘gosh, we threw all this money at the problem and nothing ever works.’ And that’s just not true. When we’ve taken on a big problem as a nation we’ve often come up with big solutions.

The slums were a problem in our cities. Kids were dying of tuberculosis in Detroit not that long ago. And we took on a battle with the slum and the slum was defeated.

But that doesn’t mean the conditions that a lot of low income Americans are living in today aren’t still wracked with problems. I lived in an trailer that didn’t have hot water for most of the time. I spent time with families who are living with stopped up plumbing, pest infestations, lead paint, doors coming off the hinges and falling on children. These are some of the conditions that families are facing.

And it matters. It matters not only to things like your health and your children’s health, but it also matters to your dignity. If you’re paying 70, 80 percent of your income to rent a rat hole, it tells you something about who the country thinks you are.

SM And as you explain in the book, it’s not as simple as calling up the landlord and saying, ‘Excuse me, my fridge doesn’t work and there’s no stove.’ And it’s not as simple as calling the building inspector either.

MD: It’s not. So if you and I looked at the laws on the books in Detroit or Kalamazoo or Milwaukee, laws that protect tenants, I think we’d probably say ‘Hey, these laws are pretty good. They’re strong.’ In Milwaukee for example, you can report a landlord for the city, the city is obligated to send someone to inspect your home. And if the landlord has code violations they can fine the landlord.

But those laws kind of quite literally cost money. If you’re a tenant that’s paying 80 percent of your income to rent, you’re going to have to ask your landlord for a favor one of these days. And if you’re behind, and you call the building inspector on a landlord, you greatly increase your risk of eviction. Not because it’s legal to retaliate - it isn’t - but because landlords at any time can evict someone who’s behind in rent. And their prerogative to do so might increase if you do get a building inspector coming around.

So it’s not that tenants don’t know their rights. They do. But they know those rights are not for them, in a way. They’re only for people that can make rent on time, every month guaranteed.

SM: How does it benefit landlords to have tenants leaving all the time? Wouldn’t they rather have steady tenants?

MD: They would. The eviction crisis is a crisis for everyone. It’s a crisis for tenants and it’s also a crisis for landlords who are on the forefront often of the residential instability crisis. One thing that I really wondered going into this book was, okay, if landlords are taking a hit and if it costs money to evict people, why are there so many evictions.

And the reason I came up with in the book is that it’s cheaper to evict a family than to keep your housing up to code, and those things are linked for the exact reason that we just talked about. That you can kind of fall behind on plumbing, or on fixing up your railings or abating the lead in your apartment, you can fall behind on these things if the tenant is in a financially precarious position, you know that they’re not going to call the building on you most of the time.

And so that’s the kind of trade-off landlords make. It’s also true that landlords in poor neighborhoods take higher risks. They do incur bigger losses. So what might also be the case is landlords increase the cost for all of their tenants because they don’t know which ones will cause them losses, and that increases rent burden for everyone and ends up increasing their risk too.

SM: What does happen to these families after they have to leave, after they’re evicted? Where do they go?

MD: We did a survey in eviction court and we asked families, ‘Where are you going to go if you got evicted?’ and most families did not know. They did not know where they would go which was an incredibly scary finding for us. Some families go to homeless shelters, some families go to the street. You end up in an abandoned homes, you kind of rely on your relatives and friends.

But often, you know, that’s asking a lot of them. If you’re a renter and taking on boarders can actually be something that is a violation of your lease, you can increase your risk of eviction if you take in a family who’s been evicted. So a lot of families are left to get by either on their own or by relying on people they just met to make ends meet.

It’s important to recognize that eviction causes all kinds of loss, too. You don’t only lose your home but often your kids lose their schools, you lose your community, you also lose your things, which are taken by movers or piled on the sidewalk and scavenged by neighbors. We have studies that link eviction to job loss, links it to depression and suicide. So you add all of that up and it’s not just about the link between eviction and homelessness, it’s about the link between eviction and all sorts of social ills.

Which means, whatever we care about - whatever issue keeps us up at night, the lack of affordable housing is somewhere at the root of that issue.

SM: Many of the families that you follow have young children and if anything that seems to make it harder for them to find housing and to keep housing. Can you talk about that?

MD: So many families I met lived with kids. And one of the most disturbing things that I saw in Milwaukee was, spending time with Arleen who was a single mom trying to raise two young kids, and Arleen had been evicted and she was staying with her friend Trisha. And one day, the movers came and just started moving Trisha’s things. This was unexpected to Arlene. So here she is, having just been evicted and in a way is being evicted again.

And her youngest son comes home, Jafaris, and he’s seven at the time. And he climbs the stairs and he comes upon this scene where there’s all these movers, and they’re piling stuff in and his mom’s running around trying to find the phones, the charges, the medication and he takes in this scene and he doesn’t cry, he doesn’t ask a question or run to get his favorite thing, he just turns around and goes outside to play.

And that still really chilled me to the bone, that for some kids in America, eviction is something that’s part of their life, that they’ve grown used to. Having a kid doesn’t shield you from eviction, it actually exposes you to it.

And we do this study of eviction court and we learn that what makes a difference between if you’re in eviction court and I’m in eviction court and we owe the landlord the same amount of money, what makes a difference is not gender or race or even how much we owe, it’s kids. The chance of you getting evicted, all else equal if you live with kids.

SM: But why is that?

MD: Because kids cause landlords headache. They can use the curtains for superhero capes and flush toys down the toilet and if they’re young they can test positive for lead poisoning. That can come with a pricey tag if you’re a landlord. They can draw the attention of child protective services, or the police.

If you’re living in a segregated community, you don’t really have the option of replacing, say a poor family with a middle-class family, or if you have racial bias you don’t have much choice of placing, let’s say, a Latino family with a white family because our cities are so segregated.  But you certainly can replace a bigger family with a smaller one, or a family with kids with renters without any kids. And that’s certainly better from a bottom-line perspective.

SM: This impossible housing situation is just grinding millions of people down. Many of them are children and you say it doesn’t have to be this way. So, why not? What can we do that would be different?

MD: There’s things we can do big and small. What’s been amazing going all around the country is seeing cities just get after this problem with creativity and commitment. You go to Seattle or Lawrence Kansas and those are two cities that have learned how to increase the amount of money spent on affordable housing either through a housing levy like in Seattle or through sales tax like in Lawrence, Kansas. And all that money is going to build stable, affordable homes for families.

You go to New York City who’s just passed a right to counsel in housing court. So every family who’s facing eviction and homelessness will have a lawyer by their side.

These are really effective strategies. But the big kahuna is that we just need a sizeable investment in affordable housing programs in America. That does need to come from Washington. And so the thing that I advocate for in the book is taking a program that we have in the book that works pretty darn well, the affordable housing voucher program and just expanding it to everyone below the poverty line. That would really fundamentally change the face of inequality and it would drive down evictions and make them rare again.

SM: And you make the case in the book that that’s something we can afford.

MD: Of course we can afford it! If poverty persists in Kalamazoo and America, it’s not for lack of resources. And a good example of this is the amount of money that’s going to homeowner tax subsidies. So every year in the country, the amount of money spent on homeowner tax subsidies, particularly the mortgage interest deduction, those far outpace direct housing assistance to the needy.

The mortgage interest deduction for example, most of that money goes to families with six-figure incomes. Most white families in America own their home and are eligible for this really sweet deal on the tax code, and most black and Latino families, because of our histories of segregation and discrimination, they don’t. That’s really hard to think of a social policy that more unblushingly amplifies our economic and racial inequality than our housing policy does.

It’s not for lack of resources. We don’t have the money but we’ve just made certain decisions about how to spend it, who benefits from it. The people who need it the most get nothing and the people that need it the least get the most.