By Cody Tracey, Program Representative, Metro Housing|Boston
Cody Tracey, program representative in Metro Housing’s Leased Housing Department, recently attended a presentation by Matt Desmond, author of the bestselling book “Evicted.” Cody reflects on this presentation in this latest blog post.
“This is the part of the presentation where the presenter struggles to load the PowerPoint,” Matt Desmond chuckled, squinting down at his laptop in front of a full auditorium at Bunker Hill Community College. “This is when you regret winning a MacArthur Award,” he smirked, playfully referring to the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship he was awarded in 2015 for his original sociological survey of low-income renters in Milwaukee which culminated in his book and urban ethnography, Evicted.
Desmond addressed a hefty crowd of BHCC students, staff, and other community members. Charming from the get-go, he quickly acknowledged that he, too, was a product of a community college from his time in Arizona. All too relevant to his talk, he joked despite the criticism that students and millennials frequently face for living in their parents basements into their 20’s, he understands that sometimes your parents’ basement is the only option you can actually afford.
(So if younger readers needed that bit of affirmation from a nationally renowned eviction investigator and scholar, now you have it.)
Desmond’s original research (The Milwaukee Area Renters Study, or MARS) predominantly included data from interviews with 1,000 low-income Milwaukee renters. MARS investigates the multitude of ways that eviction disrupts the lives of the evicted, and more specifically, how eviction pushes disadvantaged families deeper into disadvantage. In other words, eviction is a cause, not a symptom, of poverty. And much like incarceration, the MARS study suggests, eviction might make sense in some very specific circumstances, but we don’t need so much of it.
Desmond’s presentation used Arleen’s story, an interviewee from MARS and a character in Evicted (and most importantly a real life person by a different name), as an illustration of eviction’s impact.
Arleen’s two young boys were launching snowballs at oncoming traffic one blisteringly cold Milwaukee morning. When one particularly direct hit smashed into a windshield, an exceptionally angry driver exited the car, approached the porch on which the boys were heaving snowballs, and kicked the apartment door in. The landlord knew Arleen wasn’t able to pay for a new door, so she evicted Arleen for damage to property.
The family relocated to a Salvation Army Shelter nicknamed “The Lodge” to deter stigma towards visiting families. Landlords screen potential tenants for eviction history, so Arleen was forced to adopt a desperate, whatever-we-can-get mindset with regard to her housing search, which landed her an apartment in an unsafe neighborhood. And all the same, Arleen was still spending 80% of her income on rent before utilities. On the cycle went.
Arleen’s son, Jori, spent 7th and 8th grade in five different public schools. On one occasion in the classroom, Jori became rowdy and he acted out. An empathetic, level-headed teacher with an informed understanding of poverty & trauma might consider Jori’s circumstances before doing anything totally rash, but Jori’s teacher decided to call the police. The cops filed a report and sent the details to Arleen’s landlord. The landlord decided to kick Arleen and her two sons.
“Without stable housing,” Desmond and his research insist, “everything else falls apart.”
Desmond’s research has evolved into the Eviction Lab, the first ever national database of evictions (evictionlab.org.)
A few demonstrative findings from the Eviction Lab:
- 74% of families renting below the poverty line in the United States receive no housing assistance of any kind
- Among Milwaukee renters, one in five black women reported being evicted at some point in their lives. This is compared to one in 15 white women (with this stat, Desmond likens eviction to the feminine equivalent of incarceration: ““Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”
- An eviction court in the South Bronx started a daycare center for children to be supervised while their parents (mostly mothers) meet with a judge
- Most poor renting families spend at least half of their income on housing costs
- And one in four of those families spend 70% of their income just on rent and utilities
- Mothers who experienced eviction reported higher rates of depression two years after their move
Near the end of the talk, Desmond spoke about his time living in a Milwaukee trailer park, an area with one of highest concentrations of poverty in Wisconsin. “Why in the world,” he asked himself on the first of every month when he delivered a rent check to the landlord, “would anyone want to own the poorest trailer park in Milwaukee?”
The owner of the trailer park, Desmond later learned, makes $470,000 per year.
“Why in the world,” he lightly revised his question, “would anyone not want to own the poorest trailer park in Milwaukee?!”
After a moment, Desmond paused. He posed the question: Are we OK with this?
Consider that Suffolk County, Massachusetts, averaged about 6 court-ordered evictions per day in 2009. This totals 2,363 evictions on the year. These figures don’t even account for families that entered the eviction process but relocated before a court mandated it. These figures also don’t include families that were forced to abandon units due to unfit housing conditions or other safety concerns. It also doesn’t account for the families that will inevitably face eviction again. And again. And again.
“If poverty persists in a rich city like Boston,” Desmond opined, “it’s not for lack of resources… There is no justification of this cold, blatant denial of a basic need.”