Princeton sociologist talks eviction in United States


Urban sociologist and best-selling author of “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” Matthew Desmond spoke at the Hoversten Chapel on Sat. Oct 21 at 7 p.m. His talk preceded a panel discussion on Minneapolis-specific organizations and problems low-income residents encounter when faced with the highly privatized, relatively defunct public housing system.

“America is strange,” he said. “It is one of the most wealthy countries in the world but has the highest level of poverty.”

Desmond, professor of Sociology at Princeton and formerly a professor at Harvard, chronicled the findings of his much acclaimed book. His research studied eight families from the Milwaukee, Wi. area, documenting their experience with eviction by living among them and speaking with them.

In Milwaukee, according to Desmond, landlords evict 40 people a day. The number includes both formal evictions with summons to eviction court and informal evictions.

“If a landlord is angry that the rent is not paid, he might just take a door off,” said Desmond.

But evictions were not always so prevalent. “Evictions used to be rare,” said Desmond. “They used to draw crowds.”

Such scenes, both spectacle and anomaly, are depicted in Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” where the main character witnesses a family thrown out of their New York dwelling.

Now commonplace and part of city life, evictions disproportionately affect low-income residents who use much of their monthly incomes to pay for often substandard housing. “Imagine if you lost 75% of your income at the first of every month to have a roof over your head,” said Desmond.

He recalled one of the interviewees from his Milwaukee project, Arleen, a black woman and mother of two, who spends 88% of her income on rent.

“Children aren’t getting enough to eat because the rent comes first,” said Desmond. The gap between income and need is gaping.

“Arleen’s situation is especially common,” said Desmond: “One in five black women in Milwaukee will be evicted at some point in their lives.”

Evictions are destabilizing; involuntary vacancy forces residents and families to move “from poor neighborhood and dangerous places to even more dangerous places,” said Desmond.

Children are displaced from their schools and social networks, and parents are more likely to lose their jobs after an eviction. Additionally, the stress of eviction, whether court-ordered or informal, puts strain on renters’ mental health. According to Desmond, suicide and eviction are fatally intertwined.  

Despite the stark increase of evictions in the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, government efforts do little to mitigate the expense of living for low income families.

“Only 6% of low-income residents live in public housing; the other 74% receive nothing,” said Desmond. “If I applied for public housing in Washington, D.C. today, I would be a grandfather before I received assistance.”

Desmond reported that in Milwaukee, the housing voucher wait-list is completely frozen.

Further, U.S. residents who do receive housing are those who are homeowners in the form of tax deductions. Desmond argued that the government aid was not going to the people who really need government assistance.

In closing, Desmond called for a drastic change to housing assistance programs and advocated for expanding the housing voucher program, which can lower rent from being 70% of a paycheck down to 30%.

“Eviction and poverty keep people from better things,” said Desmond. To the sociologist, evictions and the state of housing for low-income residents is “a cold denial of basic rights.” “This doesn’t have to be us.”

This article first appeared in the Friday, November 3, 2017, Edition of The Echo.