Interview with Matthew Desmond

By Katherine Oktober Matthews

 

In his book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond reports on the contemporary American epidemic of evictions. His warning looms large: “Without a home everything else falls apart.” Told from the perspective of eight individuals being evicted in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as well as their landlords, Desmond’s investigative book addresses the scope of the crisis through personal narratives. Desmond will be speaking about his work at the John Adams Institute on July 4.

What is the relationship between poverty and housing?

Today, most home-renting families in America spend at least half of their income on housing, and about one in four spend over 70 percent of their income just on rent and utilities. We’ve had flat incomes, soaring housing costs and a failure of our federal government to bridge that gap. Under those conditions, you don’t really need to make a huge mistake to get evicted.

Photo by Sally Ryan, www.sallyryanphoto.com

The burden of paying for housing is a direct cause of poverty, but so is eviction. It causes families not only to lose their homes, but everything. You lose your school and your neighborhood, you’re pushed into worse housing and into worse neighborhoods after you get evicted, and it impacts on your mental health, too. Your likelihood of holding a job is affected by eviction. All told, eviction it is not just a condition of poverty, it’s also a cause of poverty.

What makes housing such a linchpin to stability and the ability to keep afloat?

Without stable shelter, everything else falls apart. This is an insight that the Netherlands have taken very seriously throughout their modern history and it’s one that America has lagged behind on. Whatever the issue is that you care about, the lack of affordable housing sits at the root of that issue. If you care about school and stability, and kids not reaching their full potential in the classroom, you have to care about providing them with a stable place to live. If you care about reducing healthcare costs, then you should know that the top five percent of hospital users – the users who consume fifty percent of the costs in America – are folks whose unstable housing and medical conditions feed into each other. If you care about giving communities stability and a chance to keep themselves safe and produce a civic life, then housing is a big part of that story as well.

Housing is a fundamental issue in our life, certainly for low-income Americans. When families who have been on the waiting list for years finally get subsidized housing, which allows them to spend thirty percent of their income on housing instead of sixty or seventy percent, they do one consistent thing with that money: take it to the grocery store. Many of our families and kids aren’t getting enough to eat, because the rent eats first.

Why do you suppose the U.S. has lagged so far behind, considering the mantra of being one of “the wealthiest nations on Earth”?

Photo by Sally Ryan, www.sallyryanphoto.com

We have made priorities about how to spend public dollars when it comes to housing, which can be summed up like this: we give the most help to families that need it the least and no help to most families that need it the most. And so, we are unique among advanced democracies for the amount of money we spend on homeowner tax subsidies. We spend more than $100 billion a year on homeowner tax subsidies, but only about $40 billion a year on direct housing assistance to the needy. Most of our tax subsidies go to families with six-figure incomes, because the biggest subsidy is a deduction on your mortgage, and you can take that up to $750,000 now—the bigger the mortgage, the bigger the deduction.

Photo by Sally Ryan, www.sallyryanphoto.com

Most white families in America own their home and are eligible for this sweet deal, this lucrative cut-out in the tax code. Most Latino and black families don’t own their home, and so are left out of this bargain, because of our history of racial discrimination. That’s our policy priority, and Americans should be honest about that, and stop repeating this canard that the richest country on the planet can’t afford to do more.

It reminds me of the Ronald Wright quote about America’s poverty-reinforcing delusion: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

I haven’t seen that quote, but I do think that it’s hard to step out of the story that the country tells about you, even if you’re on the receiving end of

that story. No one is harder on the poor than the poor themselves. They would say, “I see all my mistakes,” or, “Look how I messed up.” Part of my work is to challenge that kind of sentiment, to say, “No, millions of people are facing this every day in the country. You’re not alone, you’re part of a bigger story, and it’s not a story that’s reducible to your own missteps.” That message has resonated directly with folks in the book, which I’m pleased about. I think that’s the number one thing a sociologist can do.

There’s also a gender component to evictions.

The face of the American eviction epidemic is moms with kids. You see this at any housing court around the country: there are a ton of kids running around and their moms chasing after them. In fact, the South Bronx housing court in New York City until very recently had a daycare inside of it because there were so many kids coming in. Low-income African-American women get evicted at incredibly high rates, mothers in particular. One in five black women reports being evicted at some point in her life in Milwaukee, compared to one in fifteen white women. That is a really troubling statistic. It means that black women are disproportionately bearing the brunt of the eviction crisis. So, what’s going on?

Photo by Sally Ryan, www.sallyryanphoto.com

Kids are a big part of the story. We know that if you live with children, the chance of you getting an eviction judgment when you go to housing court actually triples, all else being equal. We’re seeing landlords line up behind the belief that they don’t want to work with children, and women are at a disadvantage as well. If I went to my landlord and said, “Hey, I know I’m behind on my rent, let me work it off,” that would mean giving me a hammer or a paintbrush, something like that. But if my wife went and said the same thing, that would have a totally different connotation. That matters, with respect to how people can negotiate to stay in their homes.

Evictions can be profitable for landlords.

We’ve now looked at profit rates for landlords across America, and we’ve asked: Do landlords who own housing in poor neighborhoods make more money? The answer is a resounding yes. That’s not true in America’s hottest markets, like D.C. or New York or San Francisco, where the pattern is reversed, but if you’re anywhere else in the country, it’s much better to be a landlord in a poor neighborhood than a well-to-do neighborhood.

The mortgage payments and the property taxes of poor neighborhoods are a lot lower than in better-off neighborhoods, but rent isn’t that much lower. Rent in many cities across America is very compressed; there’s not a lot separating the cheapest units from the most expensive ones. So, landlords in poor neighborhoods basically have lower costs, but charge the same rent, so they reap larger profits.

What is the most important thing for people to understand about eviction?

Matthew Desmond at work. Photo by Sally Ryan, www.sallyryanphoto.com

I want them to remember Arleen and her sons Jori and Jafaris. I want them to remember Scott and Larraine and Vanetta. For American readers, it’s important to know that somewhere in their city, someone has been evicted that day and their stuff has been piled on the sidewalk. If we don’t recognize the human costs of this wreckage, then all the other arguments won’t resonate. We really do need to get back in touch with the trauma we’re inducing by tolerating so much homelessness and the denial of home to so many Americans.

Matthew Desmond will be speaking at the John Adams Institute on July 4 at De Balie. After his talk, he will have a conversation with moderator Tracy Metz, Cody Hochstenbach, a postdoctoral researcher in urban geography at the University of Amsterdam, and Dutch journalist Arjen van Veelen, who wrote about his experiences living in the city of St Louis during the Ferguson riots and unrest.