Structural Change Needed to Ease Eviction Burden on Those in Poverty, Desmond says

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Matthew Desmond hates poverty. And he wants students to hate it too.

Desmond, John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University and co-director of the Justice and Poverty Project, spoke Wednesday evening about the subject of his book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.

The book, a New York Times bestseller, is about eight families fighting poverty and the troubles of eviction. Sponsored by the Lowell Humanities Series, the event was held in Gasson 100, where a packed audience waited to hear Desmond’s perspective on pervasive American poverty.

Desmond shared stories and statistics from his time in a trailer park in Milwaukee, where he communicated and learned from real residents and landlords in the 30th-most populous city in America.

Desmond wanted to understand  the role that housing plays in deepening poverty in America, and he decided to focus on eviction, which he thinks is a good starting point for understanding the challenges of poverty.

Desmond found that there was a lack of research on the effects of eviction on the American public and the poor, so he did some of his own surveying of renters, landlords, and families in eviction court. In Milwaukee alone, there were over 100,000 eviction cases on record, not counting all the informal evictions that brought Milwaukee’s eviction rate up to 1 in 8 renters displaced every two years.

But instead of drowning the crowd with statistics, Desmond focused on one family that went through heartbreak and loss several times.

Desmond talked about a woman named Arlene, and her two sons, Jory and Jafaris. Arlene and her sons were evicted because Jory and Jafaris threw a snowball at a car, which stopped on the street. The driver got out and went after the kids. The brothers raced into their home and locked the door, but the man kicked it down. He left the house, and the family was evicted based on property damage.

“Families who get evicted relocate from poor neighborhoods into poorer ones, to dangerous neighborhoods with high levels of crime,” Desmond said.

Arlene and her children had to move into a house that was eventually deemed unfit for human habitation, so they were evicted again. The majority of poor families are paying at least 70 percent of their incomes to pay rent, often not including utilities. Arlene had to use 88 percent of her welfare check and sell her food stamps to pay hers.

Two-thirds of renting families below the poverty line receive no housing assistance from the government. Most victims of eviction are mothers with kids, and Desmond found that most landlords don’t consider it a form of discrimination to not take families with kids.

Desmond used Arlene’s story to make a point—we can make poverty in America better.

Desmond noted that eviction isn’t a condition only attributed to the inner cities, or just a condition of the poor—it’s causing poverty, and wrecking homes. Mothers who have been evicted suffer higher rates of depression, and eviction is a better indicator of job loss than job loss is of eviction. Yet, most Americans gloss over the experiences many people have to suffer each day throughout the country.

Desmond, however, is hopeful for the future. He’s contributing through Just Shelter, an organization that helps to mobilize other organizations working to improve housing.

Desmond also finds a sense of hope in looking back at our history.

“Over the past 50 years, we’ve reduced world poverty by half,” he said.

Desmond sees a light for the housing problem in America.

“We have a civic responsibility,” he said. “[There’s] no code, no piece of Scripture, or ethical teaching that can be summoned to defend what we’ve allowed our country to become.”

Desmond hopes students will one day see the injustice that comes with poverty.

“I just hope that as you grow and go into your careers and think about your studies, that you just more and more come to hate poverty,” he said.

Featured Image by Kristin Saleski / Heights Staff