This interview is an extended version of the story “Housing Crisis,” which appears in the May issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
Evicted, A book by sociologist Matthew Desmond, ripped the Band-Aid off more than a few of Milwaukee’s ills, including segregation and the city’s pockets of desperate poverty, by linking them to housing instability. It also sparked an international conversation since its March release. Desmond spoke with Milwaukee Magazine on the issues the book raises.
Q: Are you surprised by conversation your book has sparked?
Matthew Desmond: I’m really encouraged it. A lot of folks who have been evicted or are renters or are finding themselves in a tough spot are coming to the events and sharing their stories. And landlords are doing the same. In this country, one in five of all renters report spending over half of their income on housing. So the issues that the book touches on are affecting a lot of folks.
Q: You did your research in Milwaukee, but the issue of housing and evictions touches many cities in the U.S.
MD: When we looked at the data from Chicago, Kansas City, Cleveland, the rates are pretty darn similar to what they are in Milwaukee. The last time I crunched the numbers in Milwaukee, it showed that about 40 people a day are evicted in the city. Today, New York sees about 60 marshal evictions every single day. So this is something that we’re seeing all across the United States. This is definitely a Milwaukee book, but it tells an American story.
Q: Fiscal conservatives might disagree that housing is a fundamental right that should be subsidized in the way that the government subsidizes food stamps or education. What do you say to that?
MD: We can disagree on how we get there, but I think it’s hard to argue that housing isn’t just as central to things like human flourishing and economic mobility [as food and education]. And I think people who have vastly different politics can come around to the idea that stable, affordable housing is really central to the things that they care about. We’ve found that folks who get evicted are much more likely to lose their jobs the year after they get evicted. It’s such a consuming, overwhelming, stressful event, it could cause you to lose your step, your foothold in the labor market. And so if we care about things like work, allowing people to work, then we need stable housing. If we care about families or communities, we need stable housing. I think that there’s actually a broad coalition that would rally around this idea.
Q: Can you explain your ideas about expanding the existing voucher program, and how that would address the issue of providing stable, affordable housing to people whose income is below the poverty level?
MD: I think that most of us today assume that the typical low income family benefits in some way from government assistance when it comes to housing, but the opposite is true. Only a small minority get any kind of help from the government with housing, about one in four. The vast majority of poor families today don’t get any help with housing, and most of them are spending at least half their income on rent, and one in four are spending over 70 percent. So under those conditions, eviction is much more of a result of inevitability than irresponsibility. I think it’s important to recognize, we’re paying for this thing one way or the other. We are bearing the cost of all the fallout from eviction, [including] mental health and depression, job loss, loss of school, homelessness, forcing people into worse neighborhoods and substandard housing, which is really bad for kids’ health. You know, eviction is a cause, not just a condition of poverty. One way of addressing this is to take a program that has bipartisan support and works pretty well already, the housing voucher program, and expand it to all families below the poverty line. So, if you’re someone like Arlene in the book, instead of paying 88 percent of your income on rent, you pay 30 percent, and you can take that voucher and live anywhere you want, as long as your housing isn’t too expensive or too shoddy. That would massively change the face of poverty in this country. We can make evictions rare again. I think it’s really clear that without stable shelter, everything else falls apart. We can’t fix poverty in America if we don’t fix housing.
Q: Is it wrong for landlords to profit off of the poor?
MD: If we’re going to house most of our low income families in the private rental market, that market has to be profitable. I think the question is, how can we bring landlords and tenants to the table and design a policy that balances the need or the desire of a landlord to make a living, and the desire of a tenant to simply live? And I think that the book works really hard to think about how much landlords are making, how they’re making it, and to ask us if we’re okay with that level of inequality. So it’s actually a trickier, complicated question. But I do think that we have to be clear-eyed about the fact that poverty isn’t just a product of low incomes, and it’s not just a sad [byproduct of] things like deindustrialization, which is the Milwaukee story. It’s also the story of exploitation, and I think that needs to be part of our conversation in going forward in the inequality debate.
Q: Do you think your ideas regarding expanding government subsidies for housing are borderline Socialism?
MD: There’s a floor that no one should fall below in this country. This isn’t us. We don’t have to tolerate this and we’re better than this and there’s no American value that can justify this level of suffering and this level of blunting of human capacity. Poor folks don’t want some small life. Right? They don’t want to eke out a living, they don’t want to just get by. They want to thrive and they want to contribute but because we are allowing them to be crushed by the high cost of housing, we are denying them the opportunity to fulfill those goals. What I would love us to focus on is that the level of poverty in the United States is unmatched by any rich democracy. Why do we tolerate that? What’s really encouraging to me is that folks on both sides of the aisle are having a serious conversation about this. Paul Ryan is having a serious conversation about poverty, and Hillary Clinton is having a serious conversation about poverty. I feel like this is a moment to do something in a real way that extends the American values of fairness and equal opportunity to folks who are denied that every day because it’s so hard to keep a roof over your head.