By Evan Hong
The issues regarding poverty and eviction of poor families in the United States do not resemble true American values, an urban sociologist says.
“By no American value is this situation justified,” says Matthew Desmond. “Shouldn’t access to a decent, formal home be a part of what it means to be an American?”
Desmond, a sociology professor at Princeton University, spoke at the Schofield Auditorium on the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire campus Thursday night. A sold-out crowd of nearly 600 people gathered to hear Desmond speak about the issues highlighted in his newest book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.
Desmond detailed his experiences following poverty stricken families as they struggled to find homes in the Milwaukee area due to the eviction crisis.
He conducted a “Milwaukee Area Renters Study” on over 1,000 households and over 100,000 eviction cases to record the characteristics and reasoning behind the high rate of evictions. Desmond also spent time in the impoverished areas himself, spending five months living in a trailer park to get a better understanding of the lives of those renters.
One family he followed in particular, was that of a woman named Arleen, and her two sons, Jori and Jafaris.
Arleen’s family struggled for months to find a place to live, as she was using around 80 percent of her income to pay the family’s rent. Desmond says that most poor renting families devote over half of their income to their housing.
While reading from a letter written by Arleen to Desmond, he shared a quote from Arleen herself describing her poverty-stricken life.
“My soul is messed up. I wish my life was different,” Arleen said.
Desmond said that a major reason for Arleen’s struggle is due to the fact that she was taking care of her kids. One of her son’s attended five different schools between his seventh and eighth grade year.
“Eviction chances triple if you live with kids,” Desmond said.
He also emphasized the fact that gender can play a role in the eviction of renters.
“Eviction is the feminine equivalent to incarceration,” Desmond said.
Throughout his study, Desmond said he found that other factors of the high eviction rates are due to race, along with criminal records and prior incarceration.
Due to these issues, landlords are not hesitant to evict their tenants. Desmond said that landlords in the Milwaukee area evict 40 people a day, while 1 in 8 renters are evicted in Milwaukee every two years.
Brent Jensen, an audience member at the forum, says that he is surprised to see that the levels of inequality behind the eviction crisis has not changed in recent years, but believes that a change is possible.
“If we bring people together from different disciplines, we can fix this issue,” Jensen said.
Desmond believes that creating affordable housing can be a solution to the eviction problems throughout the nation. A study shows that nearly three-fourths of renting families below the poverty line receive no housing assistance.
“Being evicted starts on the ground, and ends on the ground,” Desmond said. We cannot fix poverty in America without fixing housing.”
Desmond has launched a website called justshelter.org to raise awareness about the cost of living and other aspects of the eviction and poverty crises in America. He hopes that one day, the United States escape the issues of poverty and everybody can live in their homes without worry.
“The home is the center of life,” Desmond said. “Imagine if every family in America had a decent, formal place to live.”