Maurice P. During Professor of Sociology, Princeton University
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
Today, poor families are facing one of the worst affordable housing crises in generations. Many are spending almost all they have to live in decrepit housing in our cities’ worst neighborhoods. What it means to be poor in America today is to be crushed by the high cost of housing and evicted when you inevitably fall behind.
In this groundbreaking book, Harvard sociologist and 2015 MacArthur “Genius” award winner Matthew Desmond, Ph.D. takes us into Milwaukee to introduce us to eight families on the edge of eviction. As Prof. Desmond lived alongside these families, he was also conducting a groundbreaking study that collected and analyzed years of novel statistical data about poverty, housing, and displacement. And what he found is that for the poorest families in America, eviction has become routine, and its effects are devastating.
Decent, affordable housing should be a basic right for everybody in this country. The ability to work, get an education, provide for one’s children, stay sober and healthy: it all requires stable shelter. We’ve affirmed provision in old age, twelve years of an education, and basic nutrition to be the right of every citizen. Housing should also be seen as a fundamental human need because without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.
Low-income families on the edge of eviction have no right to counsel. But when tenants have lawyers, their chances of keeping their home increase dramatically. Establishing publicly funded legal services for low-income families in housing court would be a cost-effective measure that would prevent homelessness, decrease evictions, and give poor families a fair shake.
Extending the right to counsel in housing court would not address the underlying source of America’s eviction epidemic: the rapidly shrinking supply of affordable housing. A universal housing voucher program would carve a middle path between the landlord’s desire to make a living and the tenant’s desire, simply, to live. Every family below a certain income level would be eligible for a housing voucher.
A universal voucher program would change the face of poverty in this country. Evictions would plummet and become rare occurrences. Homelessness would almost disappear. We have the money to fund such a program; we just choose not to. Each year, we spend three times what a universal housing voucher program would cost on homeowner tax breaks, which mainly benefit families with six-figure incomes.
Eviction encapsulates in a single, hard moment the depths of our nation’s poverty, the brokenness of our housing policy, and the human costs of a crisis caused by low incomes and high rents. This moment, when the ramifications of the crisis are felt most acutely, also offers a window into extreme poverty, economic exploitation, and human perseverance. Look at eviction and you arrive at a bigger truth: the centrality of home, without which nothing else is possible.
NOTE: Prof. Desmond spoke at two FAN events on Tuesday, March 15, 2016.
Event 1: 1:00 PM, Loyola University Chicago School of Law, 25 E. Pearson St., Chicago.
Event 2: 6:00 PM, Seminary Co-op Bookstore, 5751 S. Woodlawn Ave., Chicago.