National Housing Policies Leave Poor Families Behind

Leah Binkovitz | @leahbink | May 10, 2017

Photo by Matthew Desmond

The stories in Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City can feel exceptional. The misfortune that weaves its way through the lives of the eight Milwaukee families is so pronounced that the moments of relief, of levity and humor, are like a handful of signs on a winding road, too far apart to keep from getting lost.

But part of Desmond’s mission in publishing the book, and now in publicizing it and his continuing efforts, is to reveal how very ordinary the events are for a portion of society. In fact, the events are, because of the policies surrounding their occurrence and the profit that can be extracted from them, he argued, almost inevitable.

Since publishing the book in 2016, Desmond has started gathering narratives and data from across the country as well as collecting resources in an online map for folks looking to get involved in housing issues in their communities.

Though still in the process of gathering that data, this work has revealed one obvious thing: “This is not a Milwaukee problem,” as he put it before a Houston crowd gathered Tuesday night for the Kinder Institute’s KI Forum lecture series.

It’s a national story.

As housing prices and median rents soared, wages and the limited availability of public housing have not kept up. Only one in four families who qualify for housing assistance actually get it, Desmond said. Waiting lists for public housing in some cities are measured by decades not years. Left to fend for themselves in the private market, low-income families in cities across the country are facing increasing odds of eviction. In Milwaukee, where Desmond combined years of reporting and more than a year of living in two vulnerable neighborhoods with original survey data, he found that 1 in 8 Milwaukee renters had been displaced in the previous two years, whether through a formal or informal eviction, foreclosure, condemnation or other circumstance.

But that burden fell disproportionately on black women, who faced 1 in 5 odds of being evicted during her lifetime compared to 1 in 15 white women. That stark division ties into policies and places that can feel worlds away from the poor places the families in Desmond’s books are condemned to live.

As mass incarceration has left a mark on black men, eviction has worked in parallel against black women. Shut out of the broader home market for generations by racist policies and practices, black families had little access to the kind of wealth building tools that white families not only enjoyed but also received subsidies, particularly the mortgage interest deduction, to pursue.

“We already have a national housing program,” explained Desmond, “it’s just not for poor people.”

This subsidy for home-owning families, most of which accrues to those making more than six-figure incomes has produced hugely disparate outcomes. As he put it in a New York Times Magazine story published online Tuesday, “It is difficult to think of another social policy that more successfully multiplies America’s inequality in such a sweeping fashion.”

On the other side of that equation, the majority of low-income renters spend more than half of their income on rent, a percentage that’s grown in recent years as rents have risen. Some, like Arleen, a mother who gets evicted after a man kicked their door in after her son threw a snowball at his passing car, spend more than 80 percent of their income on rent.

Under those circumstances, said Desmond, “you don’t need to make a huge mistake or have a big emergency wash over your life to invite an eviction.”

And once someone receives an eviction, it triggers a cascade of consequences that can bury a person. Having eviction can bar renters from most apartments as well as public housing in some cities. Landlords that will take tenants with evictions often charge more simply because they can.

When Arleen was evicted in the freezing January cold, she spent roughly two months applying to 90 different apartments. Her eviction and her kids were the main strikes against her, even though discriminating against families with kids is illegal. “Kids are a big part of this story,” said Desmond. In fact, he found that having kids tripled a person’s chance of receiving an eviction, all else being equal. And just as eviction leaves long-term financial and emotional harm for adults, it taxes children as well. Bounced between schools and often forced into dangerous living situations — housing with lead paint, exposed wires, no heat, broken or missing appliances, the list goes on — because it’s the only housing available to them, children often have to go without. “Rent eats first,” Desmond said.

By pushing families into increasingly precarious neighborhoods and housing, evictions act as a cause not a condition of poverty, he argued. “They’re leaving a deep and jagged scar on the next generation.”

Though these outcomes are often inevitable for low-income families, the policies that create these outcomes are not.

“It’s really important to recognize the size of the budget we’re spending on homeowner subsidies currently, which vastly outpaces what we spend on direct assistance to the needy,” said Desmond. “I think that raises serious moral questions about national priorities.”

Expanding the housing voucher program to everyone living below the poverty threshold and modifying the mortgage interest deduction.

“By one estimate, capping the MID at $500,000 would save $87 billion over 10 years, even though less than 6 percent of mortgages nationwide exceed half a million dollars,” Desmond writes in the New York Times Magazine. “That savings would allow 1.2 million additional families to benefit from housing vouchers.”

But with devastating cuts to the federal housing department in the president’s preliminary budget, it’s unclear how politically palatable this vision is at the moment. Cities have their role to play, said Desmond. “There’s a lot of things going on all around the country and it’s very inspiring and informative,” he said, “but I think the bottom line for this one for me is if we really want to get serious about this problem we need a significant federal investment.”

The math is there, he argues. The rest is a matter of will.

“This blunting of human capacity,” he said, “this doesn’t have to be us.”

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