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“Evicted” Author Matthew Desmond On Fixing America’s Broken Housing System

Photography by Michaelangelo’s Photography

Matthew Desmond thinks America can’t see itself clearly.

“We’re the richest democracy with the worst poverty. There’s not another advanced society that has the kind of poverty we have,” the sociologist said as he paced the stage at the State Theater in Cleveland’s Playhouse Square.

Dressed casually in a black pullover, Desmond’s talk was the marquee event for One Community Reads, the three-month book club for Greater Cleveland residents to rally around “Evicted,” his Pulitzer prize-winning book on poverty and housing inequality. It is focused on two neighborhoods in Milwaukee and is subtitled “Poverty and Profit in the American City.”

More than 2,000 came out to hear the Princeton University professor. Desmond spent more than a year embedded in Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods, charting the challenges of eight families and their landlords.

The statistics for Milwaukee are dire — nearly 1 in 8 renters have experienced at least one eviction. In Cuyahoga County in 2016, some 27,000 families were officially evicted, reported Judge Ronald J.H. O’Leary of Cleveland Municipal Housing Court. That year, one in five renting families in Euclid were forced out of their homes, he said February 23 at the City Club of Cleveland.

Once evictions were rare enough to gather crowds and protests, Desmond writes. But in the last decade, the number has skyrocketed. As an ethnographer, Desmond wanted to know why.  

The professor, 38, became a MacArthur Foundation fellow in 2015, the same class of “genius” grant winners that honored playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. His soft speaking voice contains a hint of Southern twang, despite his upbringing in Winslow, Arizona, the son of a preacher and his wife.

As a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he began laying the groundwork for “Evicted.” While in Milwaukee, Desmond followed landlords as they collected rent and handed out eviction notices; he accompanied renters everywhere — to church and AA meetings, shelters and funerals.

He also accompanied them to housing court, where he quickly noticed a stark pattern: single black mothers, often returning again and again, stuck in a cycle of poverty and unstable housing. Drawing a parallel to the crisis of mass incarceration, Desmond noted in Cleveland: “Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”

Eviction pushes families deeper into disadvantage, he argues, adding that eviction is a cause of poverty as much as it is a consequence.  The stress of losing a roof over your head — and the logistics of replacing possessions, routines and stability — can hurt job performance and mental health. 

“With unstable shelter, everything else falls apart,” Desmond said. “How do we deliver on that obligation?” He wants the federal housing program expanded to include all households below the federal poverty line. Currently, 74 percent of poor families receive no housing assistance, forcing them into grim decisions between paying rent and buying practically anything else. Poor families who achieve stable housing shift their dollars most urgently into food.

Ideally, Desmond said, poor households should spend no more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Some now pay as much as 70 to 80 percent, heightening their risk for eviction.

To pay such a federal expansion, Desmond suggests capping the mortgage tax deductions for the wealthy, who account for about 6 percent of homeowners. “That would fundamentally change the face of poverty in America,” he said. “It would drive down family homelessness. It would make eviction rare again.”

Continuing the discussion on poverty and housing inequality, young student artists from Twelve Literary Arts will host a staged reading of “Evicted” at the East Cleveland Public Library on Wednesday, April 4, at 10 a.m. It’s free and open to the public.

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