Wednesday, July 20, 2016
by: Hites Ahir
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond—is a “brilliant book about housing and the lives of eight families in Milwaukee”, the Guardian writes. From 2008 to 2009, he lives in a trailer park in Milwaukee to study and document the lives of people who spend more than half of their income on rent. The two years of fieldwork generates more than 5,000 pages single-spaced notes (San Francisco Chronicle). He even employs a fact checker to verify every detail (Wall Street Journal).
Desmond is currently the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University and Co-Director of the Justice and Poverty Project. In 2015, Desmond was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” grant. What follows is a review of the reviews of Desmond’s new book.
Evictions: How big? How serious?
One of the main findings of the book is that “eviction is a much more frequent event than has been thought and has long-term consequences for the health and stability of families (…) from 2009 to 2011, 13% of Milwaukee renters had been evicted (…). Further, renters thus evicted moved to neighborhoods that were on average 5.4 percentage points poorer and 1.8 percentage points more crime-ridden than the neighborhoods in which renters who moved more voluntarily ended up. These findings lend considerable support to the claim that eviction causes poverty.” (Wall Street Journal).
Another review from the New York Times says: “How can you hang on to a job, send your child to school, or build roots in a community if you are constantly changing homes, each one more dilapidated and dangerously located than the next?” The Guardian notes that “an eviction on your record makes the next apartment harder to get.” And “What is clear is that this is a problem that affects a lot of people, with one in five renters spending half or more of their income on housing and over one in five black women having been evicted”, writes the Independent.
There is also a quote from the book that appears in almost all of the reviews. It says: “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods (…) eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”
Low-income rental housing market: Is it affordable? Is it profitable?
The Independent notes that “Post-war US housing policy has shifted from building and maintaining housing projects for the poor, towards providing limited “vouchers” that can be used with any rental provider.”
However, the problem of limited “vouchers” is that “sixty-seven percent of poor renting families received no federal assistance for housing at all in 2013 (…). The very people least capable of spending 70 to 80 percent of their incomes on rent are exactly the ones forced to do so (…) With vacancy rates for cheap housing in the single digits, the moment is ripe for exploitation. It’s a landlord’s market” (New York Times). “And all of this comes [on top of] gentrification and surging housing costs at a time of stagnant wages” (Boston Globe).
The New York Review of Books points out that “The government says that rent and utilities are affordable if they consume no more than 30 percent of a household’s income. Analyzing census data, Desmond finds that the majority of poor households pay over 50 percent of their income for shelter and more than a quarter pay over 70 percent. Among the tenants in housing court, a third spend at least 80 percent. Evicted’s families double up with strangers, sell food stamps, and pirate electricity but inevitably fall behind.”
Moreover, “You might not think that there is a lot of money to be extracted from a dilapidated trailer park or a black neighbourhood of “sagging duplexes, fading murals, 24-hour daycares”. But you would be wrong”, according to the Guardian. In the book, on one end there is one of the characters—Lamar—a single father and whose legs had to be amputated due to frostbite—makes $628 dollars a month, of which $550 dollars goes to rent, leaving $2.19 a day for the family. Similarly, Arleen—a single mom—spends 95 percent of $628 dollars monthly welfare check on rent for an apartment without appliances (Huffington Post).
On the other end, there is “The landlord who evicts Lamar, Larraine and so many others is rich enough to vacation in the Caribbean while her tenants shiver in Milwaukee. The owner of the trailer park takes in over $400,000 a year” (New York Times). Also, “There is a moment where Sherrena [a landlord in Evicted] is buying a duplex for $8,000, putting a bit of money into it, and recouping her total costs in a year. That’s the kind of return that attracts some folks” (Slate). However, even in the context of contrasting fortunes, the Wall Street Journal asks: “if the profit were less, would those accommodations remain available?”
“We have to recognize how essential housing is to driving down poverty and recognize that we can’t fix poverty without fixing housing” (Slate). So on policy suggestions, Desmond “solutions are simple: grant tenants the right to legal counsel in housing court, and create a universal voucher system for families below a certain income level, modeled after programs already in place in countries like Great Britain and the Netherlands” (San Francisco Chronicle). Desmond proposals also include restriction on the rents landlords can charge.
What is the estimated cost of annual housing assistance for the poor? “Tax relief on housing costs for American homeowners amounts to $171bn a year. Annual housing assistance for the poor is less than a quarter of that. Mortgage interest, tax relief and capital gains exclusions cost the US three times more than the entire cost of universal housing provision, according to the Guardian.
Why should we care?
“The Harvard center found that low-income households with severe rent burdens spent 38 percent less on food than similar households with affordable shelter, 55 percent less on health care, and 60 percent less on transportation (…) Evicted isn’t a depressing book. It is also a stirring reminder that the US accepts as ordinary a depth of poverty that is extraordinary and cruel. At its heart is a simple message: No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching, can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become” (New York Review of Books).
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