A reflection on Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted”

Home does not exist for the families in “Evicted,” this year’s Reading TUgether selection. This study of the current housing crisis in the United States is an honest and heartbreaking work by Matthew Desmond. His dive in the dark waters of housing insecurity, poverty and greed is astonishingly candid. At times, I found myself hating the book; the words inside scream a truth I wish I could be deaf to, a truth that I was blind to in my time at Trinity.

Desmond pulls us through the struggle of life in the shoes of those evicted in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Much like the lives of the subjects, the book transitions constantly from story to story; we visit the mobile homes and trailer parks, duplexes and inner-city apartments in disrepair; we watch a mother struggle to shelter her children and a well-off nurse’s fall from grace into drug addiction.

We cram together with families, friends or strangers into any square footage that can be afforded, any shelter that can be found. And when we finally catch a break and find that perfect place (after being turned down 89 times by various landlords) we are evicted once again. This time we will bounce in and out of a homeless shelter, while all of our belongings are repossessed as collateral by a storage company we couldn’t pay. We learn the ways of the poor with unparalleled intimacy.

I could not read for more than an hour at a time. I felt sick and angry, even then.

Lorraine Robles, a member of the San Antonio Housing Authority for over 12 years, helped me understand the relevance of eviction, homelessness and poverty in our city. San Antonio currently has 35,000 people on the waitlist for public housing and other forms of housing assistance. The housing crisis is more than just a story.

Desmond conducted extensive research and found that 75 percent of those who qualify for housing assistance will never receive any form of help. One in four poor families spends over 70 percent of their income on rent and utilities. This creates serious material hardship, a fancy term for not being able to afford food, medical care, school supplies, work clothing — you can see the slippery slope. Eviction makes someone 15 percent more likely to be laid off and contributes heavily to student absenteeism.

“Eviction can unravel the fabric of a community,” Desmond writes.  

The business of being a landlord and making profits off of the poor has grown, and is the primary employment for four times as many people today as it was in 1970. A landlord can evict a tenant for being a ‘nuisance,’ which is defined in terms of the number of calls made to the police in a set time period. In cases of domestic violence, many victims of abuse are stuck between the choice of calling the police for help and risking eviction.

Criminal court gives everyone a right to attorney, but in civil court — where eviction cases are evaluated — there is no such law, and as a result, 90 percent of landlords have attorney representation while 90 percent of residents do not. It is up to the judgement of the landlord or property manager who is allowed to rent a house, and even though fair housing policies have existed to protect against discrimination, racism is still a rampant issue. Landlords discriminate against children, as well; they can be denied up to 70 percent of the time in the search for shelter. Where are the checks and balances to this system?

In “Evicted,” Desmond offers a solution: housing vouchers. Also known as ‘section 8’ housing, these are a public subsidy for rent; the tenant is required to pay only 30 percent of their income to rent and the federally funded voucher covers the rest. Currently, the federal budget for low-income housing is less that $41 billion, yet there are over $171 billion of homeowner tax benefits. The federal expense, therefore, is a difference of over four times currently benefitting those who own a home.

By no means is this a perfect solution, though, for a number of reasons; besides the fact that a lot of policies would need to change in order to make this a reality, working in the private market remains a challenge for families.

“Section 8 is a whole different ball game,” Robles said. “If you have been in public housing, you have kind of been taken care of.”  

The San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) provides a number of services to the families living in the units, including payment plan options if they ever get behind on rent.

“A private lender is not going to do that,” Robles said. “SAHA has some leniency. Everyone wants section 8 because then you can move wherever you want, and you can even move into a house.”

Many families don’t realize the tradeoffs of moving from the public to private market for homes, and SAHA also offers financial literacy classes in order to help bridge the gap. But it’s not easy. Not every private lender wants to accept a section 8 voucher. Additionally, one-on-one focus to teach families about real estate financial basics in San Antonio is expensive.

“Our case managers are handling 150–200 residents — there’s just not enough funding for case managers,” Robles said.

The Choice Neighborhood Grant, an initiative by the Obama administration, helped to pay for Case Managers and Neighborhood Revitalization. The East Side was able to improve sidewalks, roads, lighting and business facades.

“That is an opportunity that has never been granted,” Robles said.

Like many of us, I grew up oblivious to my privilege. I understood homelessness as a choice, poverty as a temporary circumstance and racism as a problem solved. My public high school — I am ashamed to say — has an indoor football field. Crime in my neighborhood was when someone didn’t clean up after their dog. These are things I had no idea were such luxuries until I began to study our urban condition. I feel shock and shame. Shock because our society has made it so easy for us to remain oblivious to the struggle of others. Shame because I have never taken full advantage of the opportunities that have filled my life. A loving family, an education, a home — it is easy to take it all for granted. They are gifts. They are chances. I’m taking my opportunities to give back whenever I can.