A conversation with Matthew Desmond

Matthew Desmond’s findings when researching his bestselling and acclaimed book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, surprised even him.

Among them: the sheer numbers of families being turned out of their homes; the high cost of shoddy apartments in the poorest neighborhoods; the extent of the physical and emotional toll on families, most of them women with children.

The effects of those trends go far beyond inadequate shelter, Desmond says. “I think that whatever we care about — whatever is our issue that keeps us up at night — a lack of affordable housing is going to be somewhere at the center of it.”

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City is a deep dive into the eviction landscape in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and is told through the stories of families Desmond lived with while researching his book. Desmond says that what’s going on in that Midwestern city mirrors what’s going on around the United States and even the world, but he still believes the landscape can change if there’s the will to change it.

Matthew Desmond
Without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.
— Matthew Desmond

Q: You talk about how America is supposed to be a place where you can better yourself, your family and your community, but that’s only possible if you have a stable home. How do you connect those dots?

A: I just think that without stable shelter, everything else falls apart. If you are a typical poor working family today, you are spending at least half of your income on housing costs, and sometimes you are spending 60, 70 percent of your income just on rent and utilities. Under those conditions, you are unable to buy enough food sometimes, to afford enough to be stable in the community. And you face eviction at a really high rate, which not only can result in you losing your home, but can result in you losing all sorts of other stuff, too, like your possessions, your school, your community.

Q: You write that the United States as a country fails to fully appreciate how deeply the lack of affordable housing is implicated in the creation of poverty. Why is that?

A: One reason is that the housing affordability crisis has not been as acute and as painful as it is today. If you just look over the last 20 years, rents and housing costs more generally increased pretty slowly during the 1990s. In the 2000s, they shot up. Between 1995 and today, median rent in the country has increased by over 70 percent. In the 2000s alone, the costs of fuel and utilities have jumped by over 50 percent.

At the same time, the incomes for families with modest means are really flat and, in some parts of the country, falling in real terms. So you have this growing gap between what poor families are bringing in and what they have to pay for basic shelter. And it has reached a fever pitch, I think. It has reached a point where we have moved from a time when evictions used to be rare and draw a crowd to a point that you go to a major American city like Milwaukee where 1 in 8 renters is evicted every two years, which is an astounding level of residential insecurity. That is one reason.

Another reason is that in these turning points in the poverty debate over the last 40 years there have been really important things that we have focused on, things like joblessness in the 1980s, welfare reform in the mid-90s, the rise of the mass incarceration in the 2000s. But we have to recognize how essential housing is in deepening poverty in America, too.

Q: Your book centered on the private rental market. Where do you see affordable homeownership fitting into the solution?

A: For me, as someone who volunteered for Habitat in college — and volunteered after college, too — it is a beautiful model. I think that the affordable housing crisis can be addressed in a lot of different ways and probably should be. If we have a model that has been successfully putting working families into homes and allowing those families access to the American dream, I’m all for that.

The question and the problem I always come back to is just one of scale, right? We are bleeding out. We have 11 million people who are incredibly rent-burdened in the country today. We have increasing rates of child homelessness and residential insecurity. It just seems to me that we need to figure out a housing policy for the unlucky majority, the vast majority of poor families that don’t get any kind of housing help.

Q: You see Habitat as being part of the bigger equation?

A: I do. And I think it is part of a larger package that also has to include things like building more affordable housing supply in urban neighborhoods and providing low-income renters just breathing space instead of them having to pay most of their income to landlords and utility companies. I don’t think we can build our way out of this problem totally, but I think building affordable housing and promoting homeownership among low-income families and working families is an incredibly important piece of the puzzle.

Habitat draws in college kids and church groups and civic organizations on any given weekend. That is really important for spreading the messages of the centrality of housing to success and well-being.
— Matthew Desmond

Q: You mentioned the Habitat model. Can you talk more about that?

A: I don’t talk about things I haven’t studied empirically, and I can’t say a lot about it. I will say that any effort to provide families with affordable housing, be it building and establishing the dream of homeownership like Habitat has done successfully for so many years or providing renting families more support, is central to reducing poverty in America and promoting economic mobility.

The thing I also love about Habitat is that it draws in all of these volunteers. There are college kids and church groups and civic organizations out with hammers and nails and drills on any given weekend working on a Habitat home. And I think that is really important not only for that home but also for spreading the messages of the centrality of housing to success and well-being in American lives.

Q: The figure that really stood out in your book is the difference between a rental in a terrible Milwaukee neighborhood and one in an upscale neighborhood.

A: It was 50 bucks.

Q: Do you think that would surprise most people?

A: It surprised me, and I study this stuff for a living. I think a lot of us talk about the housing market and how the housing market works with more confidence than we should. Asking really hard, rigorous questions about things that really matter to families today, like, “Is it that much cheaper to live in a poor neighborhood than a non-poor neighborhood?” It turns out in a lot of cities — and we know this now from Craigslist data — it is not that much cheaper.

There is a massive compression in some cities’ rental markets, which means that it is not the case that poor families are living in those communities because that is all they can afford. It is because that is where they are allowed to live, where people accept their applications. It also means that they are overpaying for the quality of housing and the quality of the neighborhood that they are getting in those communities.

Q: What else surprised you in researching your book?

A: I was surprised how common eviction was. When I started this work, I wanted to study eviction because I thought it would be a good device or a way in to understanding the connection between housing and poverty. I had no idea that we are probably evicting people today not in the tens or hundreds of thousands, but in the millions. No idea. No idea that just looking at court records, you see 40 people a day evicted in Milwaukee, 60 marshal evictions a day in New York City. The scope of this problem really blew me away.

Q: You wrote about the toll of evictions on families, moms and kids, in particular. Families like Arleen.

A: The face of the eviction epidemic is moms with kids. If you have spent any time in eviction court in any major city, you just see a ton of kids running around. Until recently, the housing court in the South Bronx had a daycare. There are just so many kids coming in. I think low-income African-American moms like Arleen and Vanetta are evicted at startlingly high rates. Among Milwaukee renters, 1 in 5 black women is evicted sometime in her life, compared to 1 in 15 white women, which is scary and troubling. That struck me as a kind of parallelism to mass incarceration, this kind of feminine equivalent to incarceration.

If we care about promoting health and well-being among families and kids, we have to care about stable, affordable housing.
— Matthew Desmond

Q: How does your work with the people you met and lived with in Milwaukee speak to all of us?

A: If we care about promoting health and well-being among families and kids, we have to care about stable, affordable housing. We can spend smart or we can spend stupid. If we don’t want to pay for decent, affordable housing, we can pay for asthma and increased rates of depression among mothers. We have a study that shows that moms who get evicted experience high rates of depression two years later. That affects cost.

If we care about providing kids a stable shot at going to the same school for several years and meeting role models and students and guidance counselors who can help them reach their full potential, then we have to provide their families a stable place to live. Or else those kids are just going to be bounced from school to school. Arleen’s 14-year-old son, Jori, went to five different schools between seventh and eighth grade alone. If that is our issue, housing has got to be our issue.

If our issue is racial inequality, housing plays a huge part in that story, right? Most white families today, for example, are homeowners, and they benefit from one of the most generous expenditures in the tax code: the mortgage interest deduction. Most black and Latino families don’t own their homes and do not receive that level of benefit.

If we care about crime reduction, we have some evidence from Milwaukee that shows that neighborhoods with higher eviction rates have higher violent crime rates the following year. We know eviction tears apart the fabric of the community and thwarts its political capacity.

Whatever our issue, whatever gets us out of bed in the morning and drives our philanthropic volunteer efforts, this problem is right there at the root of it. I also just think it is an unnecessary problem. When suffering in this rich land is unnecessary, it makes it a moral problem for us in a way as well.

Q: Can you talk about the experience of your family losing your home?

A: We lost our home when I was in college. I think I experienced that in a way a lot of folks who are evicted experience it. I was embarrassed by it. My family was embarrassed by it. It was painful for us. We really loved that home. I don’t know what effect that had on me. I thought it was an important detail to put in a book about eviction. I think writing about this, for the families in the book, has allowed them to see their experiences in a different light, and in a bigger light, a political and sociological light, instead of just understanding what happened to them is something about mistakes or individual failures. I didn’t anticipate the book having that effect on the folks in it, but I am glad it has.

Q: Did you think the families you wrote about would be good homeowners?

A: When you move a family into a Habitat house, they are often paying a lot less than they pay in the rental market. I think people like Vanetta and Arleen and Larraine and Lamar would be great homeowners. Lamar — and Larraine — had this incredibly impeccable housekeeping. They kept a way cleaner house than I do. Lamar liked working on his house. I think that they would make amazing homeowners and that it would ultimately be much better for them than a situation where they are paying above 70 percent of their income on rent, which is what Lamar and Larraine both were doing.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

Q: How can government and public policy enable more homeownership opportunities for qualified low-income families?

A: The best we can do is to answer the question honestly. The good news is we have models out there that are working. Habitat is a really successful model. The land bank in Houston is a really successful model. The Seattle Housing Levy is a successful model. The problem is that they are for the lucky minority of low-income families that benefit from them. We just have to increase the dosage. The federal government, if it wanted to get serious about homeownership, could invest in a very serious way.

One way that it doesn’t invest in homeownership is through really costly tax expenditures that the vast majority of economic research shows don’t promote homeownership. In fact, there is some research that suggests that things like the mortgage interest deduction increases the value of homes and actually makes it harder for young families and working families to get into the home. Doing things like partnering with organizations that have already done this work and are doing this work on the ground makes a lot of sense. And also just providing families with more down payment help. That is the biggest barrier to homeownership.

Q: What are you up to now?

A: We are building the first-ever national database of eviction in America with the help of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We are going to be able to understand if Atlanta evicts more folks than Houston and understand the big ramifications of residential insecurity for families and neighborhoods. We want to understand what laws work and don’t. We are also researching housing insecurity from a global perspective. This is not just an American problem.

Q: Can you talk about the impact that your book had on you?

A: One strong impact is to feel how gracefully and beautifully people refused to be reduced to their hardship — how a lot of folks that are facing obstacles and adversity that many of us have a hard time fathoming respond to them with kindness and generosity and humor. That left a deep impression on me.

Desmond is the keynote speaker at Habitat on the Hill 2017, Habitat’s annual legislative conference in Washington, D.C. He is the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences and co-director of the Justice and Poverty Project at Harvard University. In 2015, he was awarded a MacArthur “Genius Grant” for “revealing the impact of eviction on the lives of the urban poor and its role in perpetuating racial and economic inequality.”