MacArthur ‘Genius’ Matthew Desmond examines eviction crisis, offers possible solutions

The struggling single mother who committed armed robbery to make rent. The war veteran with amputated legs working laboriously to pay off his rent to his landlord. The elderly woman who pays 70% of her income to stay in a condemned home that was declared a biohazard by the city. These are the faces behind the pink papers on the doors that evict about 3.6 million Americans a year. 

While eviction may seem faceless, just a word to those untouched by housing displacement, it affects real people. In pursuit of understanding why eviction happens in America, over the course of a year, author Matthew Desmond followed eight families facing homelessness in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a journey he detailed thoroughly in his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Living in a mobile park in the South Side of Milwaukee, and later in a house in the North Side, Desmond watched the process unfold for both the evicted and the evictees. 

“I was going about this work, and then there were all of these questions that kept springing to mind that were just beyond the reach of normal reporting,” Desmond said. “ ‘How often do people get evicted? Who gets evicted? What are the long-term consequences of getting tossed from your home?’ I went looking for some answers, at least some data to support this kind of inquiry, and I got nothing. I decided to click the data myself.”

In writing his book, Desmond collected hundreds of millions of eviction records. In Milwaukee, he surveyed over 1,000 renters and 250 tenants in eviction court and looked over 100,000 eviction case records. 

Dylan Townsend / staff photographer Matthew Desmond, the Maurice P. During Professor of Sociology at Princeton University, gives his presentation for both the Chautauqua Lecture Series and the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle on his Pulitzer-winning book ­Evicted Tuesday in the Amphitheater.

“I tried to write a book that brought all of this stuff together, to combine big data with the small data, and things that I was learning on the ground every day in Milwaukee,” Desmond said. “In that spirit, Evicted is really a book that starts on the ground and ends on the ground.”

Desmond told the eviction story of America to Chautauquans at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 9 in the Amphitheater in his lecture titled after his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Desmond’s discussion of how and why eviction happens in the country was part of the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Seven theme, “More than Shelter: Redefining the American Home,” and the Chautauqua Literary and Science Circle’s 2022 vertical theme, “Home.”

Desmond is the Maurice P. During Professor of Sociology at Princeton University and winner of the MacArthur “Genius Grant,” as well as the founder of the Eviction Lab, which published the first national dataset of evictions in the United States in 2018. In addition to Evicted, Desmond has authored several books, including On the Fireline: Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters.

In addition to the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction, Evicted has amassed the National Books Critics Circle Award, the Andrew Carnegie Medal, the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award, the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, and more; it was also cited as one of the best books of the year by over three dozen media outlets. 

Desmond chose one particular narrative of a single, Black Milwaukee mother named Arleen, and her children Ger-Ger, Boosie, Jori and Jafaris, to lay out how eviction happens in the country. He said Arleen’s story provides a lens through which people can understand and empathize with the housing injustices plaguing America. 

Arleen’s eviction experience started with an enraged man kicking down the door of her home after Jori threw a snowball at his car. The landlord swiftly kicked them out after the incident, leading them to stay at the Salvation Army until Arleen found another place to live. She bought a house for a little over $500, but it had no running water. 

“When we looked at that survey data and we asked, ‘What happens to families after they get evicted?’ a big thing that we learned is that they move into much worse housing than they lived in before,” Desmond said. “If we want to nail a kid who lives with lead paint, exposed wires, no heat, no water, a big reason is families are forced to accept these conditions in the harried aftermath of an eviction.”

The city found the house unfit for human habitation, sending Arleen and her sons back on the streets without a home. They then moved to an apartment on a block ridden with crime and drug activity.

“The fact that she was kicked out of this place was pretty important for understanding how she ended up in such a dangerous part of the city,” Desmond said. “… We found that you can control a lot of things, and you still see families who get evicted moving from high-crime neighborhoods into more dangerous neighborhoods in the city, from poor neighborhoods to even more impoverished communities. Eviction seems to push families deeper into disadvantage.”

Arleen quickly moved to another house in poor condition on the North Side of Milwaukee. With utilities excluded, the property cost $550 a month — 88% of Arleen’s entire welfare check. 

“Arleen is not alone in spending the vast majority of her income on housing,” Desmond said. “For 100 years, there’s been this idea, this consensus in America, that we should spend 30% of our income on rent. That gives us enough money to feed our kids, save and afford a car. For a long part of our history, a lot of us met that goal. But times have changed.”

Most poor, renting Americans spend nearly half of their income on rent and utilities, and one-fourth of those families spend over 70% of their income on rent and utilities, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Housing Survey. 

“If you want a roof over your head and hot water, under these conditions, you don’t need to make a huge mistake or have a big emergency hit your life to get evicted,” Desmond said. “Something as small as a snowball can do it. For folks like Arleen, eviction is much more of an inevitability than responsibility.”

Desmond laid out three reasons for the rise in rent, the first being that the income rate of Americans without a college education has been stagnant over the last 40 years, according to a population survey directed by the U.S. Census Bureau. 

Second, housing costs soared nationally within that same time period. Since 1985, rent has outplaced income gains by 315%.

The third reason is that federal government programs have little reach. Three-fourths of renting families below the poverty line receive no housing assistance, and those that have government housing often wait for years before they receive it, Desmond said, referencing the American Housing Survey.

Arleen tried to put her name on a government housing list only to find it had been frozen, with 3,500 families in Milwaukee and a wait time of five years; five years is a short wait compared to other cities, according to Desmond.

“The waiting list for public housing in our biggest cities is not counted in years anymore,” Desmond said. “It’s counted in decades.”

A notice for a welfare appointment was sent to Arleen’s old address and she missed the meeting, causing her $628-a-month check to be reduced. This, in combination with funeral expenses for a loved one, caused Arleen to fall two months behind on rent, and she was evicted yet again. 

“When we think of the typical low income family today, when it comes to housing situations, we shouldn’t think of them like living in public housing or getting any kind of help from the government to make rent,” Desmond said. “We should think of someone like Arleen, because she’s our typical case.”

Milwaukee has over 130,000 rental homes, and every year, the city evicts 16,000 people. One in 14 houses in Black neighborhoods are evicted in an average year, according to Desmond’s “Eviction and the Reproduction of Urban Poverty” article, which looked at the repercussions of inner-city evictions. 

In Desmond’s research, he found that “eviction is a cause, not just a condition of property.” 

“The home is the center of life,” Desmond said. “It’s our refuge from work. It’s our protection from the street. It’s where we go to let down. It’s where we remove our masks and shoes and (that) language is spoken all over the world. … Home is not just shelter, but like warmth, family, community, the womb. (When evicted,) families lose their homes, but children also lose their school. You lose your neighborhood. You lose your connections.”

Eviction proves to be particularly harsh for women of color, especially single, African American mothers. Desmond’s research shows that one in five Black women in Milwaukee report being evicted at least once in their life. 

“Eviction is something like the feminine equivalent to incarceration,” Desmond said. “We know that many poor, African American men are being swept out over the criminal justice system, being locked up. Many poor, African American women are being locked out and disproportionately bearing the brunt of the eviction crisis.”

For adults with children, the likelihood of eviction and homelessness rise. 

“This is a problem that affects young and old, the sick and the able-bodied,” Desmond said. “The face of our eviction epidemic is the smallest of kids. Go into any housing court around the country and you see a ton of kids running around.” 

Arleen’s eviction record — and the fact that she had children — prompted landlords to turn her away from a total of 90 homes. Arleen finally was accepted into a one-bedroom apartment, but was shortly kicked out after an incident involving Jori and his teacher that required the police to come to her home. 

“When I started this work, I thought kids would shield you from eviction,” Desmond said. “It’s the opposite. In fact, that study we did in eviction court, we were trying to crack that mystery. Why do you get evicted? It wasn’t your race. It wasn’t your gender. It wasn’t how much you owed. It was kids. The chance of you getting an eviction judgment tripled if you lived with kids.”

Having an eviction record also bars families from safer housing; Desmond said he met many landlords who would not accept a tenant with an eviction in the last two to three years.

“If you’re carrying around evictions like this, they follow you,” Desmond said. “They haunt you. This is the reason why families move into worse housing into worse neighborhoods after they get evicted, because there are limits.”

When Desmond began his journey to understanding evictions in America, he had no data to draw on. Seeing the shortage of information around evictions, he founded the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, a data resource for the public about evictions in America. In 2018, it released the first-ever comprehensive dataset on evictions with millions of data points collected all the way back to 2000. 

“We have collected millions and tens of millions and over 100 million eviction records from all over the country, and published them. … One thing we learn is every year in America, 3.6 million evictions are filed,” he said. “About seven evictions are filed a minute every year.”

The hope is that compiling research and data about evictions can help policymakers and communities target the issue head-on. 

While the eviction crisis pervades the United States, Desmond’s research offers good news and hope of progress in smaller areas of the country. New York’s eviction rates in 2020 were much lower than what was expected under normal conditions, and remained low even after the COVID-19 eviction moratorium expired. The strides the country has made in the last century of revitalizing communities show what can be done for the eviction crisis today. 

To pull communities out of the eviction crisis, Desmond suggests that the government expand the existing legislation of the Housing Choice Voucher Program. 

“If you qualify for this program, you benefit from the program,” Desmond said. “You can take this voucher. You can look anywhere you want in the private market, as long as your housing isn’t too expensive or too crummy. Instead of paying 50, 60, 70% of your income on rent, you would pay 30% and the voucher would cover the rest. That would fundamentally change the face of poverty in America.”

Two questions arise from this suggestion: Would the expansion be a disincentive to work, and can taxpayers afford it?

Research shows there is no relationship between housing and work, Desmond said, and he predicts that if adults worked less with this voucher, they are most likely spending time with their families.

“I think that if we’re honest with ourselves, the status quo is a much bigger threat to work and self-sufficiency than any affordable housing program could be,” Desmond said. “… Many can’t hold their jobs down long enough, because they can’t hold their homes down.”

In terms of national expense, Desmond points to a jarring statistic: The year Arleen was evicted, the country devoted $41 billion to housing assistance, where $170 billion was allocated on homeowner tax. That $170 billion is equivalent to the entire budget for the Departments of Education, Veteran Affairs, Homeland Security, Justice and Agriculture — combined. 

“Most of that benefit goes to families with six-figure incomes, because if you have a bigger income, you can get a bigger mortgage, take a bigger deduction,” Desmond said. “… If poverty persists in America, it’s not for lack of resources. We lack something else.”

A few years ago, the Bipartisan Policy Center calculated that to address the eviction crisis, the nation would need to devote an additional $22 billion. As rent increases, its calculations fluctuate from $22 billion to $40 billion to $45 billion. 

“These are not small figures,” Desmond said. “But this is well within our capacity. We have the money. We just made decisions about how to spend it. Every year, homeowner tax subsidies far, far outpace direct housing assistance. We already have a universal housing program. It’s an entitlement. It’s just not for poor people.”

While promising, this solution isn’t the only one that can solve the housing crisis; Desmond calls on people to work with housing equality organizations and educate themselves about a system that does not affect them directly, but does affect their neighbors and fellow citizens. 

“This degree of inequality, and this level and depth of social suffering, and this cold denial of basic human need, this isn’t us,” Desmond said. “This doesn’t have to be us.”

In concluding his lecture, Desmond asked Chautauquans to think of their communities and what America could be if people uplifted those like Arleen when they’re faced with eviction. 

“Poverty reduces people born from better things,” Desmond said. “Arleen didn’t want some small life. She didn’t want to make a living gaming the system. She wanted to work and contribute. Poverty is complicated, but a stable home is a great way to give folks like Arleen a shot at realizing their full potential.”

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The author Skyler Black

Skyler Black is a rising senior at Miami University studying journalism and emerging technology and business design. At Miami, she reports for UP Magazine and The Miami Student newspaper while also serving as an undergraduate assistant to several journalism classes. This summer, Skyler will report on the environment and Bird, Tree & Garden Club. When not writing, Skyler enjoys listening to music and skiing in her home state of Michigan during winter.