Interview with Dr. Matthew Desmond, Author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
Fort Wayne is an affordable city in the very affordable Midwest, which suggests stability. However, affordability and stability don’t extend to the region’s rental market. Princeton University’s Eviction Lab ranked Fort Wayne 13th in the nation for the number of renters evicted from their houses and apartments in 2016. That year, an average of 8.35 households were evicted each day, but the challenges renters face have grown steadily since then. With area rents increasing by 40 percent over the last year, average household earnings haven’t come close to keeping up. Pressures like these can force more and more renters to fall behind and end up evicted.
What’s happening? Are northeast Indiana and the American Midwest poised to become yet another region of the country in which working residents cannot afford local housing? Why is this happening?
Fears of an out-of-reach housing market drew more than 300 community leaders, local housing officials, and activists to the Fort Wayne 2022 Fair Housing Summit on April 27. Fort Wayne Metro Human Relations Commission sponsored the summit, where Matthew Desmond took a much wider view of the national housing crisis. Desmond argues that the high cost of housing doesn’t explain how or why so many people, especially low-income people of color, aren’t able to find and hang onto stable housing.
Desmond, an urban ethnographer, professor of Sociology, and principal investigator at Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, which grew out of his research on eviction in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 2008.
“Just because a community’s affordable doesn’t mean it’s stable, and that’s an utterly fixable problem,” Desmond said. “You guys still have really big eviction rates. Indianapolis is one of the highest-evicting cities in the nation. If you look at the housing crisis, and you look at just rents, you think this is a blue state problem, this is a coastal problem. But if you look at eviction rates, you realize this is a big national problem. Some of the highest evicting cities are some of the more affordable cities: Tulsa, Albuquerque, Indianapolis. It’s not just a city issue, either. There’s little towns, there’s suburban communities, that have tremendously high rates of eviction.”
What’s Causing Evictions?
“There’s so many people paying so much of their income to housing. Most Americans think most low-income families live in public housing or get some kind of government help when it comes to their housing situation, but the opposite is true.”
One solution for combating the eviction crisis, Desmond argues, is to expand the public-private housing voucher program to all low-income households. Renters pay 30 percent of their income toward rent, and the voucher covers the remaining 70 percent.
“We could take that program and expand it.” Expansion is needed, he says, because its biggest obstacle is the waiting list. The federal government would need to make deeper investments into affordable housing.
On the landlord side, he suggests mandatory participation in the voucher program. Desmond also called for more outreach to property owners to streamline the program and perhaps adjust the way housing inspections are done in a more landlord-friendly way, while combating discrimination.
“It’s not okay to turn away a family just because they’re in possession of a housing voucher, or because they have children, or because they’re African-American. There are certain forms of discrimination that still really are alive and well in our housing system today. Monitoring and enforcing anti-discrimination laws is an important part of the solution.”
Legally, eviction is a civil court matter, but Desmond said access to legal aid would also reduce the number of evictions. “If you can’t afford an attorney, you don’t have a right to an attorney in civil court. Most folks just don’t show up, and the folks that do often get really rolled over by landlord attorneys. Eviction court is really an eviction processing plant, where tenants really often don’t have a shot.” The right to an attorney at eviction court, however, gives renters a better chance at avoiding eviction.
Different cities have come up with different solutions. Philadelphia has a mandatory diversion program, which mediates between the landlord and renter to create win-win solutions. New York City mandated the right to an attorney in eviction court, which led to a 40% drop in evictions since 2013.
More legal and community solutions abound. In Desmond’s home state of New Jersey, the Mount Laurel Doctrine has been in place since the 1970s. It allows the private sector to offer solutions to a jurisdiction if the local government has not provided ideas and actions toward solving a community problem such as housing. Once the pitch from a private-sector company is made, the onus is on the jurisdiction to accept it or reject it by demonstrating why the plan would not work.
Community members who want to get involved in the housing debate can attend alderman meetings, which cover zoning laws and where affordable housing units can be created. Communities, he says, often very “violently and aggressively oppose these things.
“If you survey Americans, most Americans say yes, I want more public housing. And if you say, okay, can we build that in your neighborhood? A lot of us say no… Many communities have the resources, but there’s so much resistance to building.
“There’s clear private-market solutions to this problem too, but it often requires either a massive rethinking of these walls we’ve built around communities, or our courts to really enforce a value system that many of us are professing with our mouths but aren’t living in our daily lives.”
Why Don’t More Low-Income and Young Households Own a Home?
Low-income Americans who are shut out of homeownership and who can’t get a housing voucher are limited to one option: renting in an overpriced market. Desmond noted that in Milwaukee, the average rent used to be $700 per month, but if a tenant had owned the low-cost unit, its monthly mortgage payment would have been for far less.
What could give banks the incentive to draw up mortgages for low-cost properties? Desmond noted that loan origination fees for the bank are the same, whether they are done for a $70,000 loan or a $1.7M loan. “The problem is, banks don’t want to finance low-cost mortgages. Last year, about one in four homes were sold for under $100,000 dollars. Fairly affordable homes. But most of those were not financed with a mortgage.” When low-income properties can’t be financed through a mortgage, they become rental properties for cash buyers. This provides fertile ground for detached investors to buy up low-cost properties and increase the rent prices beyond what locals can pay.
“Why is that okay with housing?” Desmond asked. “It wouldn’t be okay with food. If a company came in and bought up all the wheat and raised bread prices by 50%… or if gas prices shot up, the government intervenes… I think the reason is, for like two-thirds of Americans, housing works great! It’s a wealth builder, your bill doesn’t really go up, the biggest thing you have to complain about are property taxes… A lot of us are just immune to these fluctuations.”
A related problem, he noted, is the massive decline of homeownership among the young. “It’s not for lack of demand or for lack of trying.” This affects every sector of society. Business owners have to pay employees more so that employees can keep up with their housing costs. Schools have to manage kids flowing in and out of the system every year due to people moving in and out of different districts. Community ties aren’t as strong when roots don’t grow deep.”
Discrimination has historically influenced—and continues to influence—both the rental and housing markets. Desmond called for new investment in homeownership to be done in a way that repairs historic wrongs. “There was a clear, huge, federal intervention into white homeownership and not nonwhite homeownership.”
What Roles Should Landlords Play?
Landlords make big money in poor neighborhoods. Desmond believes it’s time to debate the question, “How much of a profit is a fair rate of return?”
Being the landlord in a middle-class or affluent neighborhood is more expensive in terms of mortgage and tax payments. These payments are much lower for those who own property in low-income neighborhoods, where the rent “is not much lower than the rent in other neighborhoods.”
Meanwhile, landlords of low-income properties may not provide adequate maintenance for their properties, which leads to conflict. If the tenants do not qualify for, or are not considered for, better housing, their options are limited. Some landlords take advantage of this dynamic by not responding to their maintenance needs.
“Our housing code enforcement is totally reactive. It requires a tenant picking up the phone and reporting a landlord. Now, if you can pay your rent on time every month, if you’re never going to have to ask a landlord for a favor, that works for you. But if you’re perpetually behind, if you’re paying 80% of your income to rent… A lot of tenants would move into a place and the landlord would ask first month’s rent, last month’s rent, security deposit.”
For low-income tenants this isn’t possible, so arrangements are made. For example, at the landlord’s suggestion, the tenant would add $50 to the rent amount each month until the security deposit is paid off. This agreement, while convenient in the short-term, adds to the imbalance of power between landlord and tenant. “This means you’re behind on Day One. You’re in your landlord’s pocket on Day One.” If an appliance or HVAC system breaks, and the landlord does not respond or send someone to fix the issue, that tenant can call code enforcement, but then they find themselves in a face-off with the landlord.
“Unless we provide people real choice and real freedom and a bit of power at the bottom of the market, you’re going to have exploitative situations like this.”
To combat this issue, some cities, such as Washington DC and Seattle, require proactive inspections each year. They conduct a landlord census and send inspectors out to inspect all rental units, saving tenants from reporting to authorities when a landlord fails to maintain a property.
Who’s Doing All the Evicting?
Desmond’s research team asked the question, “Who’s doing all the evicting?” This question hadn’t been asked before, and the result was surprising.
Most landlords don’t take decisions to evict tenants lightly. However, researchers found that “a small number of owners are responsible for outsize amounts of harm and pain.” For example, in Tucson, Arizona, the owners of 100 rental buildings and communities were responsible for 75% of the city’s evictions. This data suggested a different kind of intervention, with a goal of greater transparency and ways to hold certain owners accountable for their behavior.
Rules that govern what a landlord can and cannot do vary between states and other municipalities, but the research shows that transparency benefits the tenants and the community. Requiring landlords to register properties to their legal names, rather than Limited Liability Corporations, for example, forces someone to take responsibility. If a property is neglected, and the owner stops paying taxes, it is then the responsibility of the city or county where it is located, and the owner is absolved of upkeep or further responsibility.
What Happens When the Money Runs Out?
Low-income tenants contend with rising rental prices, a lack of vouchers, and tension with landlords, while landlords are responsible for managing property, people, and records.
When there isn’t enough money to pay the rent, Desmond noted, “it’s harder to ask your landlord for help or forgiveness than it should be, because there’s this huge power differential.” Tenants who come up short sometimes ask for the chance to work off their debts. Men have the option of offering to cut grass or paint walls in the hopes of having their debts reduced. However, in the case of a woman renting from a male landlord, an offer to work off debt could be misconstrued as an offer for sex. Desmond said that this silences a lot of women.
He observed that landlords don’t mind if a tenant gets angry about a rent increase. What makes their jobs harder is when tenants avoid them. Given the power differential, landlords can seem intimidating to tenants. A landlord dropping by is unlikely to share good news.
Research shows that interventions can help. Desmond told the story of a group in Boston that helped families on the verge of foreclosure during the housing crisis. Since the foreclosures were published, this group would find affected homeowners and invite them to a community meeting, where they could problem-solve together. Homeowners found support in the form of people who would protest their foreclosure and lawyers who would advocate for them.
What Happens When a Household is Evicted?
Tenant belongings can end up locked away inside the property, on the street, or in storage, depending on where they live and if they’re home when the sheriff comes. Some states require the landlord to hire movers to pack up the belongings, plus a storage business to store the tenant’s belongings. It’s then up to former tenants to claim their items and pay the storage fee. “A lot of tenants couldn’t get their stuff out of storage, but it did give them a chance.”
Wisconsin state law used to require the movers and the storage, but then the law changed. Now, a landlord doesn’t have to do anything with the tenant’s belongings. Maybe they’ll end up on the curb, in the dump or listed for sale on Craigslist.org.
In response, local nonprofits and community organizers sometimes provide free or reduced storage fees for evicted tenants. “That certainly is a need. That could help people from having to start over, really start over, after an eviction. It takes a good amount of time and money to establish a home and a root, and an eviction can really erase a lot of that.”
Beyond shuffling people and their belongings out of their homes, eviction changes everything about their lives. It takes away their literal home base. This is when questions arise about how communities are built and maintained. What about the emotional, mental, and physical health of the tenants who are evicted? What if their search for a new home cuts into work hours, or the eviction causes a job loss? A vulnerable household becomes more vulnerable when it doesn’t have the support it needs to stay housed.
“These situations are depressing. You just want to sleep and bury yourself a little bit… Tenants who get those pink papers on their door, that can really be the reaction, their first reaction. This is another reason why we need lawyers, and advocates, and organizers.”
What Solutions Could Work?
The Housing First model, which is being used in other states and countries, is summed up as: “Let’s put folks in housing first, and then we’re going to deal with all the other issues.” Desmond’s research showed it to be a “very effective and powerful solution.”
Utah and Texas, for example, have implemented the Housing First model and seen great successes.
“Folks that are living rough on the streets, that are sleeping outside, their lives are often a constellation of problems. Sometimes it’s a mental health issue, sometimes it’s addiction, sometimes it’s just dire abject poverty, but it turns out providing those folks a home is a massive foundation to address those problems.”
Desmond added that in the hospital system, the top 5 percent of Emergency Room users consume half of all hospital costs. These patients are typically homeless people with serious medical conditions. In this instance, the Housing First approach is humane, pragmatic, and saves money.
Housing options for low-income people have to evolve beyond a rental economy that keeps them vulnerable. Creative solutions are needed. “Renting and homeownership are not the only two options,” Desmond said.
A community land trust allows residents to invest in a chunk of land with homes on it that are owned by the community. Residents keep the equity in their individual home but the profit goes to the community.
An example of this is a cooperative in Minneapolis that had a negligent landlord. Residents obtained resources from land banks and foundations to buy the property and run it themselves. They collectively own it now, and rents have decreased by $100 instead of growing by 11% (as rents in their area grew) last year.
This type of arrangement, “solves more problems than the affordability problem.” By organizing this effort, members had to set up meetings with new arrivals who were immigrants, using Google Translate to communicate. In the process, the residents became friends and better neighbors. They welcomed newcomers into a situation that provided greater support to the community as well. “They formed a family. They’re doing life together.”
In the End, Who Pays for Evictions?
What would it cost to help low-income families afford the rent? And what would it cost if communities don’t make the investment? No matter what happens, someone always pays.
“We’re all bearing the costs for the eviction crisis,” Desmond said. “We bear it by not allowing kids to reach their full potential, because they get batted around from school to school to school. We bear it in the healthcare costs. We bear it in crime statistics. Neighborhoods with more evictions have higher levels of violent crime, all else equal, which is understandable. We know what makes us safe. It’s when a neighborhood is stable, when people know their neighbors. If you turn those neighborhoods over with so much churn, you’re going to make them less safe. “We need to look at this as a community problem, and stop looking at eviction as a solution but as a problem.”
Gabi Lorino is a writer, editor, and organizer of people and words. Her feature articles and short stories have been published in newspapers, newsletters, magazines, websites, and books. She has self-published one book, A Magical Time Called Later, in addition to a journal series, and has edited short story anthologies.