The Miseries of Eviction: An Interview With Matthew Desmond

Current Affairs speaks to the Harvard sociologist about his book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.”

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Matthew Desmond, a sociologist at Harvard, has written a critically-acclaimed study of the role evictions play in the lives of America’s poor. In Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Desmond argues that the lack of access to affordable housing has become one of the most important, and unrecognized, social crises in the country. For his research, which involved years of ethnographic fieldwork in inner-city Milwaukee, Desmond was awarded a 2015 MacArthur Fellowship. Desmond recently spoke to Current Affairs legal editor Oren Nimni about his work.

ON: What was the goal of doing the research?

MD: For me, the first goal was just understanding. I’ve always been perplexed and troubled by how much poverty there is in America, the richest country with the most poverty, and I’ve always found that totally unnecessary. I wanted to understand the role housing plays in that story. If you read poverty literature, you read a lot about jobs and joblessness in families in all sorts of forms and mass incarceration. There’s just not a lot on housing. But we’re at this point where the majority of poor folks live in private apartments and get no assistance. They spend most of their money on housing, it’s a completely vital and imposing thing in their lives, and we just didn’t know much about it. When I started I had no idea how prevalent eviction was, I had no idea how consequential it would be. I thought eviction would be like a good window into [poverty], a good narrative device to hold the story together. I didn’t have any idea that it would be the central problem that emerged from the research.

ON: One possible risk I saw was that, over the past 10-15 years in particular, there have been a lot of books that pitch themselves as saying “this is actually the thing that explains poverty.” “It’s actually mass incarceration,” “it’s actually jobs,” etc. There’s a lot of value in saying that these are elements of poverty, the way it manifests, but if you say “no, this is actually the root cause,” and we address housing but don’t address other aspects of poverty, we will just continue to poke at the problem while the underlying conditions continue to reify.

MD: I so wish that was our problem. I so wish our problem was that we’re focusing too much policy on housing. I would love that problem. I think the problem we have is that only 1 of 4 American families that qualify for housing assistance get it. The vast majority of poor folks get nothing, from any level of government. If you ask the typical American, maybe not your readership, but the typical American “where do poor folks live”? They would say public housing, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. And so we have to have a huge investment that’s on the scale of the problem, we can’t settle for smaller change anymore when it comes to this issue of the affordable housing crisis.

Poverty is never just poverty, and this search for a silver bullet doesn’t confront the complexity of the problem and I hope the book does. You see the problem of joblessness, the problem of trauma, and we have to confront all of these things. I think you’re right, but also that housing has to be at the table and for a long time it just hasn’t been. And so any comprehensive poverty legislation has to have a housing component. I wouldn’t argue that that would a panacea. But also, we are existing in a world where the waiting list for public housing in our nation’s capital is like 20 years long. That’s out world. I would love it if we had inherited a world where housing assistance, etc., were addressed and we had dealt with that problem.

ON: One thing the book makes clear is that while it is partially about these grander systems of economics and housing availability, it’s also about actual people that make decisions every day in those systems. I’m thinking of the main landlord in the book, who makes decisions every day about whether to give leniency on rent or evict a tenant. There’s a place that you cite as the one time you intervened and convinced her to not call the Sheriff, which actually changed someone’s life, however marginally. How do we get at that, the fact that it’s not all systemic, that there are individual people making often devastatingly cruel choices?

MD: Or super generous choices. Part of me just doesn’t want something as fundamental as housing to come down to the whims of an individual, and I think that if you are a stable renter, it doesn’t. And there are legal protections and procedures for both landlords and tenants. But if you are someone like Arleen, renting at the bottom of the market and paying 80% of your income in rent, those laws literally cost money. And you exercise them at serious risk of eviction. So under those kinds of conditions, you really are at the risk of caprice either way; you could experience benevolence and magnanimity or callousness.

ON: It’s hard when we talk about discretion. Because a lot of times, for example in criminal defense, on one hand we’re pushing for judges to have less discretion, since discretion can result in racism. But when you have less discretion, all boats sink, and we end up with everyone just being harmed equally by policies like mandatory minimums. In the book you show this, too. In the trailer park, for example, when there’s more discretion, Tobin [the manager of the trailer park] is often kicking people out that need leniency, and it’s really based on his own personal whim, and in a really gendered way where men seemed to garner a lot more favor from him. But then when the new property management company came in, and had really strict evenly applied rules, that wasn’t necessarily a benefit to the residents either.

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MD: Well, people were terrified of that. There was real terror when the new property management firm was coming in and cleaned up. On paper, by all accounts they were more professional, they were fairer, there was a system. But that terrified the people of the park, because they thought that confronting that kind of bureaucracy or these kinds of rules would eviscerate this discretion that sometimes favored them. I hope it comes through in the book that Tobin bailed people out, paid for people’s funerals… and also evicted folks.

ON: A lot of times in the book you describe the difference between “stable poverty” and the tenuous poverty of a lot of tenants. What is the biggest core difference between the two experiences of poverty, other than the money?

MD: There are a ton of differences. Over the last 20 years, we’ve had a massive expansion of inequality, not just between rich and poor, but under the poverty line. There are stable folks, the working poor, and then this grinding poverty, often the non-working poor. The big difference is stability, as well as exposure to trauma. Another big difference is access to help… so there was this paper published a few years ago out of Johns Hopkins about per capita welfare spending over the last two decades and it showed that if you’re a working poor person, just in terms of per capita aid, you’re a lot better off than twenty years ago, if you’re a non-working poor person, it’s a lot worse. So just having access to things like the earned income tax credit, and public housing. Basically it’s an employment-based safety net, rather than welfare payments, which are almost dried up and haven’t increased since 1997, or SSI which is really just helping you scrape by. That’s the huge difference.

ON: One thing that was striking in the book is who landlords are. You see tenants that are living in pretty terrible conditions, clearly in violation of myriad housing codes, but at the same time its true that some (by no means all), of the landlords are actually lower middle class or stable poor. And they actually couldn’t afford to bring the house up to code without losing the property. What’s your feeling about these rules that are on one hand there for the benefit of tenants but on the other hand if they were all followed might actually deprive some people of housing, even as we try to make the housing better.

MD: I think the bigger problem is just that it’s hard to pay your rent if you’re a poor person. And under those conditions, rules and regulations, kind of tinkering with them, criticizing or praising them… there’s bigger game afoot. We’ve reached the point where most poor families are spending most of their income on housing, and 1 in 4 are spending over 70%. So addressing that point then allows us to address building blocks like code and things.

The history of housing codes can in one way be read as a history of unanticipated consequences. In another way, though, it is an enormous success story. If I wrote this book in the beginning of the 20th century, what would be different? Poor folks would be living in conditions a lot worse than they now are today. We’ve eviscerated slums from our communities. The book is totally clear on that; we have a long way to go, but we’ve made huge leaps forward on that score. But the other thing is this problem that’s facing folks, that they’re just at the mercy of landlords, and they’re just crushed by the high cost of housing. Until we fix that, it’s hard to regulate ourselves out of the problem.

ON: A lot of the people I represent are low wage workers, domestic workers particularly, and one thing that struck me when I started representing them was that, in my mind, a domestic worker-employer relationship looks like a low-wage immigrant worker working for a wealthy white family in the suburbs. But what I found was that many of my clients were low-wage immigrant workers, working for other low-wage immigrant workers. And those workers have to work two jobs and can’t take care of their kids themselves, so they hire a domestic worker, who they then underpay because of their own low wages. So they’re violating the law, minimum wage, overtime etc., but it’s also true that they actually can’t pay that wage because they’re getting screwed over by their bosses in turn… It brings up this thing where in a sense because of the way the employment relationship is set up, it’s poor people robbing the poor to feed the poor. Some of that appeared in the book as well; Tobin didn’t seem particularly well off. And a lot of the times the landlords actually weren’t big firms or property management companies but were regular people with a couple of dilapidated properties. Of course, by the end, the main landlord has expanded quite a bit and I think had like 34 or 35 properties. But they were also people who didn’t necessarily always have access to all the resources needed to keep the buildings up to code.

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MD: I think some would say that. Some would say the landlords in the book were undercapitalized so they have to resort to distractions. So, what’s acceptable? How much should a landlord that’s renting to a very poor person profit? So Sherena, the main landlord, took home about $10,000 [per month] after expenses, 36 units all squarely in the inner city. She rented almost exclusively to black families, she had a five bedroom home, Jacuzzi in the basement. She and her husband took vacations every year, they had two cars, and ate out every day. She took home in a month what her tenants took home in a year. So, there it is. And part of the profit model that she practiced was running some properties into the ground to be able to minimize expense and maximize profits. And there’s a ton of different landlord strategies. But there is a business model at the bottom of the market and there is a way of making money off of properties, not in spite of the neighborhood, but because of it…The big takeaway for me is like a lot of times when we write about poverty we write about it like it’s a sad accident and no one ever asks “Who’s profiting off this in a direct way? And what does that mean for how to fix poverty?” One thing that means is that if we don’t confront that bare fact, our public policies are going to fall very flat. And wealth will continue to be extracted and markets will just adapt.

ON: One thing I appreciated about the book was that the shine was off the apple as far as law was concerned. Legal remedies for both landlord and tenant were just viewed as pieces in a calculus rather than having some kind of mystical overriding force. I think a lot of people who haven’t experienced any poverty or housing difficulties would be baffled that you wouldn’t show up for an eviction court date. And there’s two elements to that, one point is that it’s just an economic calculus, should I pay all or part of rent, should I withhold but plan to move out and then not show to court, and then combined with that there’s a psychological element of I just don’t have the energy to deal with this.

MD: So when I first started this research and was going to eviction court with Sherena and seeing most of her tenants not show up…I mean, you’ve spent time in eviction court, housing court.

ON: Here it’s about 200 people every Thursday in a bureaucratic processing mill…

MD: It’s just so crowded and so much noise and so much is going on, it’s hard to even call in a court. It is, like you said, really just a processing plant. I remember giving a talk at a law school when I was starting this research and I got this question from a legal scholar, and I have been asked it a few times and then I realized, “oh, they’ve never been to an eviction court” like they have this image of what a court is and it’s not squaring with the image that I’m presenting. I’ve now gotten to go to a few housing courts and Milwaukee is not an outlier, I was in South Bronx housing court a few months ago and I learned that until just recently there had been a daycare inside because there were just so many children around. I think when I saw this high default rate a lot of tenants not showing, I tried to get a hold of that statistically, and there’s this little footnote in the book about this but we didn’t find anything, no connections, like if you owe more are you less likely to come, no, if you live further away no, so if the model is right then it means its random, so it’s like why did you show up, oh well you happened to find someone to watch your kids, or you had the day off of work, or you randomly just value that highly, or you think you have a case. So it’s really disheartening. And I think some commissioners, who are the ones who handle the cases in Milwaukee, some commissioners are known to be more pro or anti tenant and I don’t think it really matters, everyone’s just trying to get through the stack of cases and get to the end of the day. And there’s another stack tomorrow. So when we think of how to fix that, and when we think of suggestions of the right to civil counsel, it also means staffing the court so that it can function like a court.

ON: So in Boston Wednesdays are public housing eviction day and Thursdays are private housing eviction day and its very different to go into court on those days. The first client I ever had in Boston was a 93 year old woman getting evicted from subsidized housing. She was getting evicted for spilling juice on another tenant, which the landlord was charging as an assault. She defaulted on her first date, before I was representing her, just because it took her PCA [Personal Care Attendant] 2 hours to get her dressed every morning and the PCA didn’t get in till 8am so there was no way even without travel time (which was substantial) for her to make a 9 am court time. She had so many obstacles, but still came. I really didn’t expect her to ever. I think sometimes it’s a lot about mood, on that day, are you too depressed to deal with having to go to court, or do you think you can bear it?

MD: I think that comes through a few places in the story. Where one of the tenants in her first eviction, there were two things really, like one she didn’t think it was a big deal, and there was this moment where I was kind of trying to say “Aren’t you nervous? This is your first eviction, aren’t you nervous about it going on your record?” And her response was, “all my friends except my white friends have evictions on their record.” The racism was staggering and the whole thing is normalized. And the second thing is that I think she could have gone to court, she thought she would be embarrassed, though. She told a story about her mom going to court and the judge being rude and not winning anyway and …she has a bit of a point. I ask myself, if you had to go and face off with an attorney, would I go? And I have a PhD. And Patrice, a tenant in the book didn’t finish high school, would you want to go in there against a lawyer or a landlord that’s in there all the time and knows the system?

ON: In the book, although there’s a lot of hope and struggle, there’s also this pervasive hopelessness. Overwhelming hopelessness. Particularly when the movers are coming to kick people out and initially they’re in a frenzy and then just succumb to despair. A lot of the movers were even moving out people they knew. What is that like, that amount of human misery caused by other humans? What did you see from the tenants, in terms of how they dealt with that constant overwhelming force?

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MD: A good amount of dark humor. I think the movers try to do it as civilly as possible… if that’s even possible, by being polite and asking people things. But in the end they have a ton of houses to do by the end of the day. The amazing thing is just that you open your door, and the next minute your house is just not your house anymore, and they’re flipping on your lights and opening your cupboards and the invasiveness is astounding. And you’re moving people out in all circumstances; first eviction of the morning you’re waking them up, and the woman you mentioned was just cooking dinner and like she knew the day was coming but didn’t know exactly when it was going to be. And I remember she had this chalkboard on her wall with like a to-do list of the most pedestrian things like oil change for clock, homework, you know normal parts of home life. I think the psychology is really complicated about what that does to someone. You know we have this paper that links eviction to depression and it shows that evicted mothers, two years later experience high rates of depression and we control for rates of homelessness and other fallout of eviction, so one way of thinking about that relationship is to say that eviction itself, the physical act of removal leaves a mark, above and beyond the later fallout.

ON: Are there solutions short of full redistribution of property or wealth that will actually have an impact? Can any little tinkering really effect this? Or will the market just shift around whatever you try to do?

MD: There are little things, there are free things we can do that would matter. There are also things that involve an investment and this is a problem deserving of an investment. Among the free tinkering things… can we have a conversation about eviction records? Should they be public and free and put online for all to see? They have real effects on people’s ability to get housing. And I don’t have to tell you this, but most families that go to eviction court have no legal representation; there’s no check against a landlord’s claims for most cases. And the results of those cases just go up online for free, and they can stop you not just from getting safe housing, but also keep you from getting public housing. Can we have a conversation about that? It would be costless to limit those records. Or can we have a discussion about renter discrimination, about how landlords can just turn away folks with public housing vouchers just because they have vouchers? It’s a really immense barrier that stops people from moving into safer neighborhoods with better schools. I think we need to have a conversation about that. Then, moving from that end of the spectrum to the other, we do have to have to confront the fact that people just don’t have money. So, as you know, the book comes out in favor of a universal voucher idea. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, the program we have works pretty well, but we just expand it to everyone below the poverty line. That would have a huge, huge effect on poverty in America and would make evictions and homelessness rare. That’s a solution that’s equal to the scale of the problem, and one that’s within our capacity.

Author: Oren Nimni

is the Legal Editor of Current Affairs.