Evicted: Pulitzer winner discusses poverty and housing inequality

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Princeton Professor of Sociology and Pulitzer winner, Matthew Desmond discussing his research on eviction and housing at UWEC. © 2017 Cole Edgell

By Cole Edgell

A Pulitzer Prize winning author and Professor of Sociology at Princeton University discussed the topic of poverty and housing inequality in the United States last night at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

“I tried to put myself in the shoes of the individuals and families facing these problems,” said Matthew Desmond, the author of award-winning novel, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.’

In front of a sold-out crowd of 596 people in Schofield Hall, Desmond discussed his research and first-hand experience on eviction and how it affects poor individuals and families across the country, specifically in Milwaukee, WI.

Desmond focused his speech on a low-income family in Milwaukee. The mother, Arleen, and her two sons, Jori and Jafaris face regular eviction and live check-to-check to support themselves.

Arleen and her sons were forced to move regularly as result of their chronic evictions. Because formal evictions are recorded, it became difficult for Arleen to move into a safe location for her sons.

“An eviction can prevent you from moving into a safer area or into public housing,” Desmond said.

Although many evictions are formally documented, many evictions go undocumented, leaving the landlords with the opportunity to evict their tenants anyway they choose.

“Some are more forgiving and offer their truck and $200 dollars to vacate by the end of the week, while some landlords will shut off utilities or take the front door of the house or apartment off,” Desmond said.

Having a family can also affect your chances at finding a place to live after being evicted. Many landlords will decide not to offer their property to a tenant solely because of this reason.

“Family discrimination is illegal in the United States, but it’s a form of discrimination that not many people think about,” Desmond said.

About 30 percent of an individual’s income is a standard amount to pay a rent or mortgage, but impoverished families are regularly paying much higher than that. In the case of Arleen and her sons, Arleen paid 88 percent of her income to pay rent every month, leaving little funds to pay for clothes or food for her boys.

“Kids like Jori and Jafaris don’t eat, because rent eats first,” Desmond said.

Desmond also discussed the statistics of poverty and poverty assistance in the United States. Out of individuals who qualify for public housing and other related welfare programs, only 6 percent of those people receive public housing, about 20 percent receive some assistance for housing, and about 75 percent receive no federal help.

After presenting his research and experiences with Arleen’s family and a few others, Desmond went on to propose some solutions to dealing with eviction and the affect that it has on American families. He brought up the housing voucher program that assists people in finding public housing. The program has been shown to work for families by basing their rent off the 30 percent income standard, but the program only reaches a limited amount of families because of a lack of federal funding.

Desmond proposed that the funds acquired through homeowner incentive programs that directly benefit white middle- and upper-class Americans. Desmond believes that if those funds were allocated properly, they could work to end poverty and eviction in the United States.

“If poverty persisted, America, it’s not for lack of resources,” Desmond said to an applause from the crowd.

The hour long speech and question session seemed to have left the crowd of locals, students, and UW-Eau Claire faculty and staff seemed to be interested in Desmond and his research.

“It was a powerful evening. UWEC is lucky to have the opportunity to have such a distinguished professor of sociology and Pulitzer Prize winning author come speak on campus,” Chancellor of UW-Eau Claire, James Schmidt said. “Desmond’s book was incredibly powerful. He broke down the problem of eviction and humanized it.”

Desmond said that poverty and eviction are synonymous with each other and it is crucial to be mindful of that when working on finding solutions to those problems.

“Eviction is a cause of poverty,” Desmond said. “We can’t fix poverty in America unless we fix housing.”

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