An Interview with Matthew Desmond

The Harvard sociologist discusses his new book, Evicted, an unflinching look at poverty in America

An Interview with Matthew Desmond

Lauded for its exhaustive composite of poverty in America, Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City presents a portrait of America’s poor many care to ignore. He spent a large portion of 2008-2009 embedded in a Milwaukee trailer park in a zip code known less for its upward mobility than its endemic cycle of poverty and deprivation, to get an on the ground look at what it means to be poor in America.

Following eight families and two landlords, Desmond focuses his research on the private-housing market for the low-income wage earner, an overlooked and essentially bleak issue the American housing debate rarely gets right. He describes the plight of the community as having “gnarled thickets of interconnected misfortunes and trying not to go crazy.”

Sometimes they don’t pay their rent, and their choices aren’t always sound, but they try to cobble together the essentials for their children and make it through to the next month. They pay more than three-quarters of their monthly income on rent to entrepreneurial-minded landlords who let the toilets overflow and the locks break.

According to the data, eviction leads to heightened residential instability, substandard housing, declines in neighborhood quality, and job loss. In other words, “interconnected misfortunes,” the likes of which are hard to escape.

I sat down with Desmond to discuss common misconceptions about poor communities in America, characteristics of the current housing crisis, and the interconnectedness of the middle class and working poor.

I live in Washington, DC, where you have soaring wealth and power on one side of the street and staggering levels of poverty on the other — despite various government-based intervention programs and public assistance. You cite that it can take years to move up the list for public housing in this city, yet people seem to think it’s all so easy. It’s like the blanket statement where the rich tell the poor to “get a job at McDonald’s.”

In terms of inequality in general, there seems to be a conditioned tolerance for the level of suffering and deprivation in our country. But we’re also making progress on issues that just a few years ago were intractable, such as mass incarceration. There are a lot of folks that recognized the pain and damage that mass incarceration has [caused] in this country, and there’s a dialogue around that now. I’m optimistic. At the same time, it’s not just the poor who are affected by the housing crisis in America. It’s working-class families and middle-class families — older couples with adult children who want to move out but can’t afford housing in their city. One in five renters is spending at least half of their income on housing. The conversation is slowly moving in the right direction to figure out what we can do about it.

You note that the events in this book took place throughout 2008 and 2009, essentially at the height of the recession. Obviously, that affected housing across a wide demographic/socio-economic swath, but can you attribute a direct correlation between that time period and some of the major changes in job opportunities among the group of people you portray in the book?

The issues surrounding job opportunities go back a lot further than the recession. Lack of manufacturing jobs, industrialization, outsourcing, and technology have resulted in one boarded-up factory after another. If you’ve spent any time in cities like Cleveland, Milwaukee, Buffalo, and Indianapolis — those places have seen poverty climbing into the double digits. If you trace eviction records in Milwaukee, they were high before the foreclosure crisis; they stabilized during, and shot up again afterward. The problem of eviction is one that has been a long time coming.

When you were combing through the research, you realized that much of the prior focus had been on public housing and assistance programs, but the majority of poverty in America exists within private housing communities and under private landlords and property managers.

I thought it was important. I was living in the inner city, seeing the daily effects of the private rental market, and what it was doing to people’s wealth, consuming most of their income. I think most Americans still think the typical low-income family lives in public housing, but the opposite is true. That’s a really important point to consider. Most poor families are struggling in the private rental market, and we can’t ignore how that is happening and who is responsible for managing that system.

Speaking of which, you note that since 1970, the number of people employed as property managers has quadrupled. The two individuals you profile, Sherrena and Tobin, are two such managers. You don’t necessarily portray them as good or bad, but you objectively convey some of the struggles they also face dealing with a specific level of poverty.

I’d always been a bit troubled by the fact that we write about poverty as if the poor live in isolation and poverty was kind of experienced in certain places by certain people and no one else had anything else to do with it. But where and who are the people who make a living off the poor? I knew that if I wanted to understand poverty more generally, I needed to get the landlord’s perspective. And I found out that it’s complicated. We let ourselves off the hook if we say that only the renters are responsible for their own problems or vice versa. Looking at both sides allows us to have a harder conversation about the complexity of what’s happening at the transactional level between landlords who are accruing wealth by renting over-priced substandard housing to the poor. Landlords can easily make a profit at the bottom, and I talk about how they do that. Going into this research, I wondered, why would you do that? But by the end it was clear that for some, why wouldn’t you do that if the profits are there?

Early on, you cite that fuel and utilities costs have increased nearly 50 percent since 2000 due to increasing global demand and the expiration of price caps. That’s a pretty powerful statistic.

It’s an important part of the housing conversation that’s often missed, which are utilities. It’s really startling the rise in the cost of utilities — especially in places with more extreme temperatures. An interesting insight I had came from the Joint Housing Studies at Harvard. Poor families and affluent families pay the same for utilities — but the number takes a much bigger chunk of lower-income families’ wealth. What do you do if you’re someone like Arleen, when 88 percent of your income goes to rent? What you do is you pay the landlord in the winter because there’s a moratorium on utilities disconnection. When that lifts in the spring, you start paying the utilities. Eviction rates drop in the winter and spike in the summer because people are trying to pay energy companies. That cost in utilities is a big part of the affordable-housing crisis, as well.

If you look at national data from the American Housing Survey, a lot of people are spending more than 100 percent of their housing income on renting costs. When social scientists look at those numbers, they think it’s a reporting error, but if you spend time with this demographic — all of the families were paying more than their incomes allowed on rent alone.

One of the biggest characteristics of the community you were immersed in was distrust among the residents. Describe some of the ways you broke through that barrier to get to know them on a personal level.

I think living in the community helped a lot. When I wrote about Scott and Loraine, they were my neighbors. A lot of breaking through was just time spent on the ground. It turns out that people open up at different points — with Scott, it was immediate. Time and persistence and being honest with people about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it allowed the work to occur. But often folks still had trepidation about who I really was, despite the time spent. Arleen would still ask if I was working for child protective services, even after being through a lot of stuff together. There’s still going to be concerns about that. The housing market plays a big role in that, too. Lack of stable housing can fray the social fabric in entire communities. The research tells us this is true, but we don’t have a shot at changing the status quo if we maintain the current level of eviction rates.

Was that discouraging for you? The lack of trust?

It made a lot of sense to me. Some people were open from day one. But it’s part of this type of work, to dedicate a lot of time to “getting in” — I do think the harder part was leaving. I benefited by their generosity and became inspired by their courage and seeing them go through hard time after hard time. Pulling out of the field was far more challenging than getting in.

You make a striking statement in the epilogue that could also be applied to other instances of wealth inequality between CEOs and the lower-rung landlords and tenants, the owner and the worker, when you say, “There are two freedoms at odds with each other: the freedom to profit from rents and the freedom to live in a safe and affordable home.”

For me, that was one of the most important things I learned in this process. The inequality debate focuses a lot of the top 1 percent. That’s an important conversation but it distances us from the problem. It allows us to think that inequality exists only on yachts and Swiss bank accounts. The poor and the middle class are deeply intertwined, as well. It brings up important questions about rights and justice in this country and the strides we’ve made, but the length we have to go. We have a universal housing program in this country, but it’s not for poor people, and we have to be honest about that.

The poverty debate is lacking because it focuses on this or that program vs. talking about how we’ve come to this collective whole where the amount of money poor people pay in rent alone is almost their entire yearly income. We view the poor in this deficiency model — they lack good schools or skills, but that leaves out the perspective I talk about, which Sherrena exemplified in the book that the “hood is good.” There’s a lot of money to be made there. How do we design public policy with that in mind, re-adjusting the playing field?

One of the solutions you present to the housing and eviction crisis is a universal voucher system. How likely do you think that is to ever be adopted at the national level?

One of the reasons that I suggested that is because it does have bipartisan support. There’s something there that appeals to a lot of folks on both sides of the aisle. It’s an efficient way to allow freedom and movement and choice, and other countries have done it successfully. A problem as big as the affordable housing crisis deserves a big solution. Our current conversation about inequality has to recognize that this needs to be at the top of the agenda.

At the very end of the book, you talk about the level of humanity that you experienced among people who had nothing, but still managed to give something to others. I love that the Hinkstons surprised you with a birthday cake.

Yeah. People often ask what was most surprising to me, and what stuck with me most, and it’s moments like that. I felt it was really imperative to write a book that showed the Hinkstons pulling pranks and making jokes and being a family and not to portray them as people reduced to their hardships. They wouldn’t have recognized themselves if I did that. That was just as important to me as getting the statistics right — getting to their sole humanity and doing them justice.

The level of compassion you have for the individuals facing these issues is largely apparent throughout the book, and presents a compelling case for both your field research, and your dedication to changing the debate in this country.

Thank you so much. That means a lot.

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