What inspired you to research housing and poverty?
I’ve always been really affected by the fact that America is the richest democracy with a massive amount of poverty, especially in relation to how much wealth there is. That’s really troubled me. I wanted to understand the role that housing plays in that story, and I thought looking at evictions — looking at people physically thrown from their homes — was a decent way of going about that.
What surprised you most during your time in Milwaukee?
There are things that surprise you on the head level and things that surprise you on the heart level. When I started studying eviction, we didn’t know anything about it. Basic questions were unanswered — like how often does eviction happen, who does it happen to, and what are the consequences of it.
Digging into those questions was incredibly surprising. We crunched the numbers and found that in every two years in Milwaukee, one in eight renters is forcibly removed from their homes. It’s an incredible amount of residential insecurity. I also had no idea how consequential eviction would be for so many different aspects of a person’s life: their health, their mental health, their neighborhood stability, their job prospects. Housing insecurity touches all of that that.
And then there are things I was moved by and affected by just spending time in Milwaukee with tenants getting evicted. You know, acts of generosity and spunk and desperation and brilliance in the face of incredible hardships. Those stories and those moments pepper the pages of Evicted because they show how people refuse to be reduced to their hardships.
There were only kids in the house - just kids - who had gone on living in the house after their mom had died.
Can you share some examples?
One day I was hanging out in this house with this family called the Hinkstons. They were living in a rundown two-bedroom apartment on the north side of Milwaukee. It was really rough in there — the toilet wasn’t working, there were lots of cockroaches. It’s February, and the heat had broken. They asked me to go down in the basement to try to fix it. I didn’t know anything about that, but I went down there and banged around a little bit. I came up unsuccessful but realized it was all a ruse. Their heat was actually off, and they knew I couldn’t help them. They just sent me to the basement to distract me so they could surprise me. They got me a birthday cake, which was not a trivial thing for their family budget.
There’s a guy named Scott in the book who continued to send my kid birthday cards with $10 bills tucked inside, even when he was homeless. There’s this one scene in the book that I’ll always remember. Two homeless women — Crystal and Vanetta — were eating lunch at McDonald’s and this 10-year-old boy walks in. He’s dirty and looks like he’s been roughed up. He doesn’t go to order at the counter. He goes to people asking for scraps. Crystal looks at Vanetta and says, “What you got?” And these two homeless people pool their money to send that boy on his way and buy him lunch. Those moments were profound for me and left a mark on me.
How would you characterize the root cause of what you saw and covered?
The thing that defined the lives of so many families was the fact they were spending 70, sometimes 80, percent of their income on housing costs. Eviction is almost inevitable. We’ve reached the point as a nation where the majority of poor families are spending half their income on housing. That was a defining characteristic of so many of the families I spent time with — how tenuous a grasp they had on the home and their community.
What’s stuck with you the most since your time in Milwaukee?
It’s kind of all stuck. Poverty isn’t pretty, and I think that watching kids get evicted is pretty powerful. I remember an eviction that happened on a cold, rainy day. We went into the house with sheriff’s deputies and the movers, and there were only kids in the house — just kids — who had gone on living in the house after their mom had died. And the sheriffs and the movers just moved their stuff out in the rain, the landlord changed the lock, and then we were off to the next eviction. That kind of thing gets under your skin.
How have the people you write about received the book?
Before anyone else read the book, they did. I went back to Milwaukee or to Tennessee, where the Hinkstons moved to, and I either sat with folks as they read the book or sometimes read every section of the book to them. They’ve had a sense of appreciation for the integrity of the book.
For example, Crystal’s story ends on a real low note. We leave her in the book when she’s going through a really difficult time. I met her in a Mexican restaurant on the southside of Milwaukee and read her the passages where she leaves the book, and looked up, finished. She said, “Yeah, you know I knew there’d be some personal stuff in there, but that’s how it was.”
That’s something I worked really hard to capture — the complexity and honesty of each of their lives. As the book has taken on a life of its own, folks in the book are curious why other people would care about their story. They don’t fully understand why you would care to know them, in a way. That’s something that they’re working through right now.
How did the housing crisis impact your eviction research?
We surveyed about 250 folks in eviction court and asked them why they were getting evicted. The vast majority — more than 90 percent — is being evicted because they can’t pay the rent. In that survey, you see the heart of the matter. The reason they can’t make rent is that they’re paying an enormous percentage of their already low incomes to it and something happens.
It’s important because what’s happened over the last 20 years is that incomes for families of modest means have been flat, but housing costs have soared. There’s a growing gap between what families are bringing in versus what they have to pay for a roof over their head. And then there’s the fact that one in four families who qualify for any kind of help in terms of housing assistance actually get it. Those are the three big ingredients to this recipe.
Do you have an idea how prevalent eviction is in the United States?
This is something we’re trying to get at right now. With the support of the Gates Foundation, I’m building an eviction lab, which will compile eviction records from all over the country so we’ll finally have rigorous data on the scope of eviction nationwide.
We also developed new survey instruments in Milwaukee that were able to capture informal evictions — forced moves that never see the inside of the court. The American Housing Survey is incorporating that module into their national survey, so soon we’re going to have data on eviction nationwide that we’ve never had before. We’re trying to get it locked down in a year, but sometimes the world has a different plan.
Are there promising policy solutions?
The good news on this question is that we have things that are working now. The problem isn’t with their design; it’s with the dose. When families get a housing voucher after years and years on the waiting list, they do one consistent thing with their freed-up income. They buy more food with it. They go to the grocery store.
This is a program that allows families to spend 30 percent of their income on rent and live anywhere they want in the private market as long as their housing isn’t too expensive. It works. Policies like this aren’t perfect, but they work. The problem is they’re only for the lucky minority of families who quality for them.
What keeps you hopeful about this issue?
A lot of people care about this and are coming around the table and saying we’re better than this. These are people from a wide diversity of political persuasions. These are people who care about education because they know you can’t give a kid a shot at reaching their full potential if they don’t have a stable home. These are people who care about keeping families together and really question what a two or three-hour commute does to a family, to a mom’s time with her kids.
The book comes down on a lot of policy solutions, but the bottom line is we have to address the affordable housing issue in a big way. We need clear leadership on this issue because we’re bleeding out. Without stable shelter, everything falls apart.
How do you feel about university students, in particular, reading the book, like here at University of Richmond, where it’s our One Book selection this year?
I’m really excited. It’s a huge honor, and it feels great that the University of Richmond community has chosen this book for the entire campus to look at through different lenses. This issue is one of the biggest ones facing our country today, especially families below the poverty line. We can’t fix poverty without fixing housing. And we need a lot of people on board — we need students who are going into business and law and medicine and economics. We need to address this in a lot of different ways. It’s an honor to be part of that conversation, and I look forward to learning from the experiences in Richmond and taking away your reflections of the book and your responses to it.
What do you hope your book will inspire readers to do?
I want them to hate poverty a little bit more after reading my book — and to see there are people in our communities whose potential is being blunted by the scourge of poverty. And that it’s unnecessary, and because it’s unnecessary, there is hope. We can do better, and this is not us. I’d like them to take away the stories of folks whom I wrote about and realize that someone in their community has been tossed out and had their things piled high on the sidewalk. It didn’t always used to be like this.
Matthew Desmond is John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences and co-director of the Justice and Poverty Project at Harvard University. His primary teaching and research interests include urban sociology, poverty, race and ethnicity, organizations and work, social theory, and ethnography. In 2015, he received a MacArthur Fellowship. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.