Matthew Desmond’s ‘Evicted’ and the Solutions within Oregon’s Reach

Cross-posted from Neighborhood Partnerships’ blog.

Matthew Desmond’s groundbreaking new book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit inEVICTED3Dcoversquare-r-1000x1000 the American City, uses the stories of Milwaukee, Wisconsin tenants living in poverty, their families, and their landlords, to illustrate the harsh and devastating consequences of eviction. Desmond also points us towards next steps. As he says, “a different kind of society is possible, and powerful solutions are within our collective reach.”

From our work as the Housing Alliance, we know housing opportunity is the foundation for health, financial stability, and educational success. We can address poverty and its wide-ranging consequences for health, educational, and economic wellbeing by making serious investments to ensure everyone has access to a safe, decent, and affordable home.

Eviction: A Cause, Not Just Condition

Evicted offers an unusually vivid portrayal of the families it features. As a graduate student conducting ethnographic research in neighborhoods with low incomes, Desmond lived in a trailer park on the mostly-white south side of Milwaukee, followed by a period living in a predominantly African-American neighborhood on the north side of town. Now a professor of sociology at Harvard, Desmond has woven the stories of these residents and combined it with detailed research into a gripping, powerful book that shows how housing instability breaks apart families and communities.  Desmond demonstrates how “eviction is […] a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.”

We see that no matter how frugal or creative a family is with its finances, many simply do not have enough income to survive paying 80 or 90 percent of their income towards housing. When a family has such a significant housing cost burden (all too often for an unsanitary and unsafe unit), leaving just dollars a day to buy food, medicine, and other basics, the cycle of eviction can be inevitable. For others who have fallen on hard times, an eviction can push them into poverty and keep them there.

One of the most striking conclusions of Desmond’s research is how evictions devastate black families and communities. “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.” Children were another strike against a tenant—in Milwaukee, families with children were three times as likely to receive an eviction judgment. Women were especially vulnerable, as parents and caretakers of those children.

Desmond creates compelling portraits of vulnerable tenants, conveying their dignity, courage, and resilience as they struggle to find housing.

Solutions for Our Housing Crisis

Evicted’s one heartening story is that of a nurse who had lost his job due to heroin use. After facing many barriers, he has the good fortune to secure affordable, decent housing. He is the only one who remained stably housed by the end of the book, thanks to a program that provided housing he could actually afford and the opportunity that safe, stable housing can mean for tenants. Evicted offers a stirring call to action for serious changes to our housing policy.

Addressing these structural challenges will take bold action.

Offer Legal Assistance for Tenants

Legal assistance for tenants is an immediate solution to help tenants have a fair chance in court. The legal system is inscrutable to the layperson, and essentially impossible for a tenant to navigate when facing imminent homelessness. Attorneys can help tenants access complex systems, and protect them and their rights. Legal assistance combined with improvements to our laws will help balance the system so that tenants can assert their full rights under our landlord-tenant laws.

Balanced Landlord-Tenant Laws

We need more balanced landlord-tenant laws to protect tenants from evictions simply because the landlord thinks they can charge more, or because of retaliation or discrimination. Adequate education for tenants and legal assistance can help renters stay in their homes.  Today in Oregon, tenants can be evicted at any time for any reason with as little as thirty-days notice. This type of eviction causes similar instability to what Desmond described in his book, and today’s rental market often leaves families with few choices about where to move next.

Change How We View Housing

Desmond recognizes that housing opportunity for all will require a fundamental change in how we view housing. He proposes a sweeping change to our national housing policy—making every family below a certain income level eligible for a portable housing voucher.

Today, housing assistance, whether public housing, Housing Choice vouchers (Section 8), or subsidized housing targeted at people with moderate incomes is essentially a lottery where the lucky few secure stable, affordable housing, and the rest languish on waitlists, often for years. These programs are successful and efficient, just underfunded. Desmond notes that “these problems are neither intractable nor eternal.” Fully funding these programs is within our reach. Adjustments to our tax code, such as reforming the mortgage interest deduction—which primarily benefits higher-income households—would result in more than enough savings to fund such a voucher program. We as a nation can choose to ensure that everyone has access to a housing voucher to help pay the rent every month, and maintain a safe, stable place to call home.

Build More Affordable Homes and Supply Emergency Assistance

More affordable housing will also help keep tenants in their homes by ensuring families can consistently pay rent that’s appropriate for their income. For those in market housing, emergency rental assistance can prevent an eviction—and homelessness.

Oregon Can Make Change Happen in 2017

So what does this mean for the Housing Alliance and other housing advocates?

In Oregon, tenants are often afraid to make a request for basic repairs or call to report code violations because a landlord can easily evict them for no reason, called a no cause eviction. This type of eviction can be an easy cover for illegal discrimination. Finding an affordable, new unit within the 30 or 60-day notice period is next to impossible, and as Evicted illustrates, many families then move into poorer quality housing, imperiling their health and safety.

As the Housing Alliance develops its agenda, we’ll be working toward systemic changes that help families find safe, stable, and affordable homes where they can stay. A just cause eviction statute would protect tenants from the devastating consequences of suddenly losing their homes without having done anything wrong to violate their lease. Allowing local governments to implement rent stabilization ordinances would help make paying rent be more manageable for families. Funding to educate tenants on their rights and responsibilities, and increase access to legal assistance would also enhance housing stability. We’ll also be working to fund the Emergency Housing Account and the State Homeless Assistance Program, two flexible programs for rental assistance that can help families stay in their homes when they fall on hard times, or for families to quickly move into new units and avoid homelessness.

Evicted is a must-read book, and Multnomah County Library has just selected it for Everybody Reads 2017. All Oregonians would benefit from reading Desmond’s book., as evictions are a growing issue statewide.

As part of Everybody Reads, Matthew Desmond will give a lecture on Thursday, March 9, 2017, 7:30 PM at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland. Tickets are available from Literary Arts.

We hope that in reading Evicted, you will be inspired by this book to take action and support efforts around the state for housing opportunity. We will need you in 2017 to tell your legislators that housing is a top priority for you. Sign up for Housing Alliance email updates, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter so you stay informed on how you can help ensure every Oregonian has a place to call home. Solutions are in reach, but we need your advocacy to achieve them.

Want more? You can read a great interview with Matthew Desmond from Housing Alliance member Street Roots.