A conversation with urban sociologist Matthew Desmond
Matthew Desmond is an internationally renowned sociologist best known for his bestselling book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016). A MacArthur “Genius” and Harvard Professor who has been featured in The New Yorker and The New York Times, Desmond leverages sociology to highlight disturbing social inequalities in United States society today. Through his study of evictions and the housing market in poor areas, Desmond connects with families and individuals on a deeply personal level, lending a unique tone of compassion and urgency to the fields of sociology and policy.
He also calls attention to the fact that while “poor black men were locked up, poor black women were locked out,” casting a light on the connection between the systematic mass incarceration of poor black men and the systematic mass displacement of poor black women in the United States. More broadly, his work highlights the generational wealth divide today, alongside the frequency with which the little wealth poor people have (in the form of possessions) being stacked on the curb after they are kicked out of their homes.
Desmond joined the Stanford Program in Urban Studies as a visiting scholar this October, during which time I had the opportunity to sit down with him to talk about housing policy, sociology, and social change.
Micaela Suminski: As a sociologist whose work is heavily oriented toward social justice, you’ve mentioned sticking to your mission. What exactly is your mission — what does staying “on mission” mean to you?
Matthew Desmond: I think that we’re in a moment right now where we’re having a real conversation about poverty and inequality in America, and there’s a moment where the interests in this issue in particular — the lack of affordable housing in our cities — is growing more acute and a lot more people are getting around the table.
I was in Pittsburg the other day doing a talk and I met with a lot of folks that are involved in affordable housing. There were the usual suspects, like affordable housing developers and tenant organizations, but surprisingly there were also public sector unions there. When I asked what they were doing there, they told me their members can’t afford to live in Pittsburg anymore. I was also recently in inner-city Phoenix to meet with some teachers who told me that 40% of their students who start on the first day won’t be there on the last day of school. The teachers said they never knew why; it turns out that this research on evictions helps us understand why. So when I think about how there are only 24 hours in a day, and when I think about how to focus this message, building a broad constituency of people who are actively engaged in these issues is important to me.
MS: Who else at this event in Pittsburgh besides public sector unions surprised you?
MD: Young people. 1 in 5 of all renters in America now spend more than 50% of their income on housing. That’s going to hit young people in a big way, and it already is. Folks in Washington, too, on both sides of the aisle, are trying to work out big, bold strategies for this problem.
MS: If you were in Washington, what’s one thing that you’d want to do?
MD: I can tell you one thing we have done already, as a bit of encouragement. Doing this work, I noticed that women were getting evicted at much higher rates than men. When landlords told me to look into nuisance ordinances, I got two years worth from the police department in Milwaukee and found that evictions were having a huge effect on domestic violence victims. Every four days, a landlord gets a nuisance ordinance for domestic violence — and in roughly 80% of domestic violence nuisance ordinance cases, the landlords evict the tenant.
That puts women in these terrible situations. After Elizabeth Warren read the chapter about this in Evicted, she and people like Sherrod Brown (OH) and Al Franken (MN) wrote a general letter to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) asking for guidance for these laws and suggesting that they could be in violation of the Fair Housing Act. HUD then issued broad guidance for cities. We’ve now changed the law in Pennsylvania and Arizona and other places around the country. That’s a big step forward.
But it’s also important to know that we have policies that work. The problem isn’t with the design; it’s with the dosage. Our biggest affordable housing program now is the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Housing Choice Voucher program. It allows families to take a voucher and live anywhere they want, as long as the housing isn’t too expensive or too run-down, and they pay about 30% of their income on housing while the voucher covers the rest. And this really works. It lifts about 2 million people above the poverty line. People use those vouchers to move to better neighborhoods. They’re more stable; their kids are healthier. The problem is that it’s only for the lucky minority. So we could take this policy and expand it for everyone below the poverty line: that would be a game changer.
MS: Can you see that happening realistically?
MD: Yes — why not? It’s well within our capacity. We as a nation have to have a frank and honest conversation about the fact that housing is crushing the incomes of families of moderate means. We need to ask what we’re going to do about that. What are we going to do about a city like Palo Alto, where the folks who are waiting tables are living two hours away? When I was growing up, we used to talk about “the other side of the tracks” as a demarcation between communities; your generation is probably going to talk about the other county or the other town. So we need to ask questions like, “What is that doing to families?” “Are people able to see their families?” “Are commute times fundamentally changing the lives of working Americans?” We need to start there: with a national, informed conversation about depth and extent of the problem.
MS: Something I’ve noticed is that we’re always talking about wage, rather than what we’re spending our income on. How do we flip the conversation to what people are spending their income on, to highlight trends like the fact that people are spending more than 50% of their income on housing?
MD: Talking about wages and decent jobs is crucial to addressing poverty in America — but we also need to think about ceilings, not just floors. A robust, anti-poverty platform has to be two-pronged: it has to focus on incomes and wages, but it also has to focus on expenditures, with housing being the biggest for most low-income Americans. If we don’t do that, any kind of initiative we have to address poverty is going to be watered down. I can give you one example: if you look at eviction rates by month, they always plummet in February. What happens in February? The Earned Income Tax Credit. This is a giant, bipartisan program designed to lift working families above the poverty line — which for some of those families has just become eviction prevention insurance, because the housing market is cut up. So if we don’t address housing along with wages, the programs will have to work a lot harder to make a difference.
MS: In terms of these evictions, you talk about black men being locked up and black women being locked out. What about populations that aren’t black or white? How will evictions affect populations like the Hispanic population, the Asian American population, Latinx population, Muslim Americans, refugees, and more over the next decade or so?
MD: The jury is still out on that one. We need a lot more research and data to answer that question in a rigorous way. I’m working with the Gates Foundation to build the nation’s first eviction database. We’re collecting eviction records from all over the country and we’re merging those with other data sets that will allow us to answer this question in a way that’s empirically sound. Right now, the data infrastructure doesn’t exist.
What I can tell you at least about Milwaukee is that the Hispanic community among renters was hit really hard by the foreclosure crisis. We know that nationwide, the average Hispanic family lost about 41% of its wealth during the 2010 foreclosure crisis; the average Black family lost about 33%; and the average White family lost about 11%. And so that crisis had an acute effect on Hispanic families in America, and if you add up landlord foreclosures with evictions in the city, Latino families are evicted at very high rates. If you take those foreclosures out of the equation, African American families are evicted at higher rates. So I think there’s a story there about the foreclosure there that’s really important.
MS: What are some of the top lessons learned from the foreclosure crisis?
MD: The foreclosure crisis was an incredibly important moment in American history, and in the whole world. I think it’s important for your readers to know that today — in 2016 — a family in your town has been evicted. Their things have been piled on the sidewalk. If you look at evictions throughout the crisis, they were stable. They were high before the crisis, they were high through it, and they were high after. And so I think that if we care about family stability and community stability, we need to think about addressing the eviction crisis, which hasn’t gotten as much attention as the foreclosure crisis did.
MS: So if evictions were stable, is that really bad news about evictions or is that better news about how the financial crisis didn’t affect evictions?
MD: Right, so the financial crisis affected evictions in the form of landlords losing property. So if eviction is just broadly understood as “a tenant having to move,” it certainly had a big effect. I think what you see in that kind of trend data is that this isn’t a story just about 2008 — this is a longer story about the gradual erasure of affordable housing from our cities, and climbing rent, and rising housing costs in the 2000s, and stagnant wages, and the lack of aid to address that problem.
MS: So in terms of addressing the problem, do you advocate for people to read your book and your published work? How do you get your work in front of people? Do you just hope that people will see it?
MD: You have to get ready for the long game with something like this. Changing the public conversation about something like this is going to take a while. I’m thrilled that we’re having this conversation. I’m thrilled that readers who are really interested in this issue are coming around to this book. I’m thrilled that people who have been working on this issue for years and years now have a bit more light shed upon their work. I’m glad the word is getting out and I’ll do whatever is in my power to try and help that, but I also do just love to research.
MS: What role do you see sociology playing in broader political change?
MD: I think that for this issue, we need a lot more sociology. Housing has been kind of neglected by sociologists, especially housing at it articulates to poverty. We need a sociology of housing, we need a sociology of displacement that focuses on the causes and consequences of eviction. We have a unique role in shining light on and bearing witness to the wreckage that’s being caused by this problem and the persistence of deep poverty in this wealthy nation.
MS: Is there anything else you want Political Journal readers to know?
MD: I think that this is an issue that’s going to impact young people more and more. No matter what you’re interested in, whether it’s computer science or urban studies, you have an opportunity to play a role in this issue. You have a responsibility: it’s a personal responsibility and a civic responsibility. So I think that we just need you guys on this one.
To learn more about eviction and to get involved at the local or national level, visit Desmond’s project: http://justshelter.org/.
Micaela Suminski, a senior studying urban studies, is the chief of staff of Stanford Political Journal.
This article appears in the May 2017 issue of Stanford Politics Magazine.