“The home is the wellspring of personhood.” So writes sociologist and MacArthur Genius Matthew Desmond in his critically acclaimed recent work Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. What he means is straightforward, intuitive, and difficult to contest: our homes are the places where we emerge and mature, where our sense of self first develops, and deepens over time. Desmond’s up-close ethnographic study of eight families in Milwaukee and their struggle to keep a roof over their heads drives home the point: losing a home does not simply upset the routine of daily life (which it certainly does)—it unsettles one’s very sense of personhood. Desmond’s vivid and often heartbreaking observations call us to remember one of the basic convictions of societies like ours: that to be a person is to have inherent dignity, and to treat someone poorly is to treat them with less respect than their dignity demands.
In his 18 months spent living in two of Milwaukee’s poorest communities, Desmond observed the brokenness of the American housing system first hand: the disproportional amount of instability, material hardship, and lack of opportunity that many of Milwaukee’s poorest residents experience daily. There’s Scott, a once-successful nurse who lost everything after becoming addicted to pain meds. And Lamar, a double amputee who is left with $2.19 a day after paying $550 in monthly rent. And Doreen, a single mother who refuses to name her children (or grandchildren) after their fathers because, as she puts it, “We didn’t have a daddy. My kids don’t have no daddy. And your kids don’t need no daddy.” Meanwhile, Desmond shows, their landlords capitalize on their vulnerabilities. For example, trailer park owner Tobin Charney profits some $400,000 a year. Another named Lorraine bemoans the task of property management, but has the time and resources to vacation in the Caribbean.
Desmond’s analysis moves quickly from the individual to the social. Profiting from poverty in the American city scars not only individual dignity, he argues, but our very national identity. These scars are the neglected side effects of a booming market that exploits America’s poorest families and one of their most basic needs: housing. The problems stem mainly from a combination of poorly managed public services, unequal legal representation, low levels of social mobility, and predatory profit motives. Each of these work hand-in-hand to form the brick and mortar of a seemingly impenetrable wall. What was once the land of opportunity has devolved into the land of the opportunistic.
Poor families know this all too well; in Desmond’s words, “poor families move so much because they are forced to.” Short of winning the lottery, solutions are slim for this destabilized, itinerant existence. Black mothers in particular bear this burden at an alarming rate. According to Desmond, 75% of blacks in eviction court are women. “Poor black men were locked up,” he writes, while “poor black women were locked out.”
Take Arleen and Vanetta, for example—two women who participated in Desmond's research. Their rent consumes 70% to 80% of their monthly income. Imagine the increase in their standard of living if they were able to find safe and secure affordable housing. Lower rent costs would offer some semblance of stability, and afford Arleen and Vanetta the ability to care for their children's clothes, education, and health care—not to mention their own well-being. Instead, lack of affordable housing forces dislocations and evictions. Families like theirs are stripped of their beds, clothes, and heirlooms, are 15% more likely to lose their jobs, and their chances of receiving public housing or other aid greatly diminish. What is more, a 2014 MacArthur Foundation study found that children who move three or more times attain less education and earn nearly 52% less wages. In essence, we are seeing the systematic denial of housing to those who need it most, perpetuating a cycle of poverty for generations to come.
What can be done?
Desmond’s analysis shows that America has a serious problem on its hands. But he also offers possible solutions—no single one of which bring complete healing, but all of which deserve sustained consideration. On a small scale, improving legal representation for poor families would help level the playing field in housing courts. Desmond notes that 90% of landlords have legal representation whereas 90% of tenants go without. By establishing publicly funded legal services for low-income families, evictions and homelessness could decrease dramatically. Due to the high volume of evictions, housing courts have all but given up the idea of due process, running instead on what Desmond calls “mere process: pushing cases through.” A return to due process and a small step toward legal reform would surely stem the tide of mass involuntary displacement.
Larger-scale results will require long-term efforts to reform housing policy from the ground up. Among Desmond’s proposed reforms is protecting citizens from the exploitation that can result from unrestricted profit motive. The issue before us is not simply to prevent poverty, but to erase an economy that preys and profits on the impoverished. As Desmond writes, “We have overlooked a fact that landlords never have: there is a lot of money to be made off the poor. The hood is good.”
Desmond also proposes expanding the current housing voucher program to all low-income families. A universal housing voucher program would assure qualifying families that no more than 30% of their income would go towards housing. It would also mandate participation from landlords (unlike the current voucher program), but not without incentives. According to Desmond, “a well-designed program would ensure a reasonable rent that rose at the rate of inflation and include flexible provisions allowing landlords to receive a modest rate of return… steadier rental income, less turnover, and fewer evictions.” The goal would still be to make housing profitable, but not at the expense of families and their futures.
Perhaps most importantly, Desmond argues that residential stability should be seen as a human-capital investment—i.e., an investment in the long-term common good of society as a whole. The stability of a home is a near-essential feature of human and city thriving. It provides a certain degree of psychological and social well-being, creating safe spaces for relationships and growth. It increases educational opportunities for current and future generations, providing children a life of healthy routines in their local schools and communities. Residential stability also creates a sense of solidarity among community members, creating common ground for the work of common good. In short, to invest in the stability of our homes is to invest in the stability of our communities.
Ultimately, Desmond believes that solutions to this problem boil down to how we answer this question: “Do we believe that the right to a decent home is part of what it means to be an American?” The question seems fair enough, and my inclination is to answer yes. However, answering in the affirmative stills leaves us with the daunting task of fixing this mess—a task without obvious or direct solutions. But despite its complexity, Desmond’s assessment is clear: “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.”
One thing is sure: affordable housing in America is in crisis. Our duty to our country’s poorest is to thoughtfully consider a way forward.