The first meeting of the book group reading Evicted, by Matthew Desmond, was on July 30th. We are asking the following as we meet together this summer.
- What needs to happen in our society to address deep poverty?
- Why isn't housing a basic human right?
- Why is public education compulsory, but we evict the same children from their homes on a regular basis?
- Why do we make people suffer, as a society, when we have so much?
- What is the role of institutionalized racism in the housing crisis?
- How can we fight against the privatization and profit making that is rapidly taking over public facilities (i.e. housing, schools, prisons, etc.)?
- What can be done to better regulate the housing industry and how?
- How can we empower people to get to the point of being able to take personal responsibility?
We began our discussion talking about the author's perspective and presence (or lack thereof) in the narrative. The author is Harvard sociologist, Matthew Desmond. Some in the group thought that the white characters were described more sympathetically in the book and more back story was given about their lives; others did not find this to be true. Overall, we agreed the author successfully removed himself from the narrative in order to produce a somewhat unbiased report of the housing crisis in Milwaukee. However, we also discussed that bias is always going to be somewhat present in any story told through the "lens of another." We also questioned if the author could have done more to be a "political agitator" about the terrible truths he uncovered. Others believed that was not his role and would have conflicted with the purpose of the book. We also questioned what the people who were featured in his book would think about it, if they read it?
We then discussed the role of the landlord in the narrative. The landlords often had a complicated relationship with tenants. They were not demonized and the author presented a complicated view of their roles in their tenants lives. For example, one landlord bought her tenant groceries and helped her out a few times. The tenant became $800 behind on their rent and was evicted. The same landlord drove the tenant she was evicting to and from eviction court. This scenario led to a discussion about the depths of hopelessness and despair that affect the lives of many people that live in deep poverty. There was a sense of fatalism among tenants about eviction. It was commonplace and inevitable in their lives and not much could change that. We wondered how people can be empowered from the bottom up. A historical connection was mentioned about how people during the Great Depression would band together against landlords to avoid evictions. How can we make this happen today? This led to the point that some neighborhoods are so transient that there are no "community keepers" in them to draw people together. Mixed income neighborhoods tend to be stronger because there is more stability and people are better able to "put up a fight" against perceived injustices.
This idea led to the agreement that rent rates are too high. “In 2013 between 50 and 70 percent of poor renting families spent half of their income on housing and between 25 and 50 percent spent at least 70 percent on it.” In December, Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies released a study showing that 21.3 million households spent more than 30 percent of their income on rent, a 7.5 million household increase since 2001, while those paying more than half their income numbered well over 11 million."(www.slate.com from E
victed) Most in the book group had operated under the assumption that rent rates in poor neighborhoods were lower and housing was more affordable in these areas. We were shocked to learn from our reading that rent rates in poor neighborhoods are just as high as rent rates in any other area of the city. This is true in most large American cities. Also landlords are involved in the nefarious practice of raising rent rates when they discover a tenant has a housing voucher, in order to make maximum profit. Housing vouchers are also known as "the Holy Grail" of housing, with only 1 in 4 people who qualify for one actually getting it. Plus landlords did not bother to do much to make properties livable for tenants and most lived in squalid conditions. In the book it mentioned that the worst properties in a landlord's portfolio made them the most money! Why is this allowed? Why is the housing industry so unregulated? We also talked about the huge monetary judgments landlords can receive against poor tenants, that can collect an interest rate of 12 percent a year. It makes it impossible for people to ever come out of deep poverty because even if they receive money or become gainfully employed, their wages are garnished to pay huge debts to landlords. The system is set up to keep the poor down and the "haves" profit off their misery. The housing crises is also becoming big business. Moving companies, sheriffs, lawyers, judges, the landlords themselves, everyone is making money off of evictions. There needs to be more protections for tenants, they need to know their rights and be empowered to stand up for them. But how?
The role of personal responsibility in housing was addressed. It was mentioned how conservatives often harp upon the fact that one one should be able to work hard to succeed in life. Others mentioned that stories of exceptionalism, often touted on the news and in society, are very damaging to the poor. The American ideal that one should be able to pull themselves up from their boot straps is just not true for everyone. The myriad of factors that cause deep poverty make it a situation that is very hard to get out of. Hundreds of years of institutionalized racism and structural inequalities has made it very difficult for people living in deep poverty to escape the system. Serious reparations in our society, such as making affordable housing for all, need to take place. We also discussed how the constant instability of people who are regularly evicted makes it very difficult for children to achieve in school because they have no consistency in their neighborhoods or schools and are constantly in flux. This makes it hard for them to cultivate meaningful, supportive relationships with others outside their family unit.
Related readings sent by members to the blog:
What An Affordable Housing Moonshot Would Look Like (cited above)
business/moneybox/2016/07/it_ s_time_for_universal_housing_ vouchers.html
How A House Can Shape A Child's Future
Thank you to everyone who came out! Our next meeting is Thursday, July 14th at 6 PM at the Philadelphia Writing Project (42nd and Spruce).
(by Liz Walls-Asto)