The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why losing a home means losing everything

How the housing market exploits the poor — and keeps them in poverty.

(Washington Post illustration/iStock)

First, the kitchen sink stopped up. And when that happened, Doreen's family began washing dishes in the bathtub. Then food scraps clogged the tub, too, which meant that everyone had to bathe with water boiled in the kitchen that they flushed down the toilet. Then the toilet quit working, too.

Doreen, one of the impoverished Milwaukee tenants in sociologist Matthew Desmond's new book "Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City," enters an unwinnable war over the plumbing. Sherrena, her landlord, won't fix it. A couple months go by. Doreen calls a plumber herself and deducts the cost from her rent. Then Sherrena threatens to evict her, because now she's behind on what she owes. The two strong-willed women lock in conflict, one trying to protect her family, the other her profit margin.

The deteriorating scene in Doreen's cramped apartment — later the pots pile up, and the roaches come, and the cooking stops, and the kids' grades fall and the depression sets in — builds up to the central insight of Desmond's research: Eviction isn't just a condition of poverty; it's a cause of it. When stable housing is elusive, everything else falls apart. Tenants preoccupied by eviction lag at work and lose their jobs. Or they have to move farther from work and lose their jobs. Or they miss the welfare appointment reminder that was mailed to an address where they no longer live, and they lose their welfare, too.

Then they really can't pay the rent. And so they're evicted again.

Desmond's research on this grim spiral has already garnered the Harvard associate professor a MacArthur "genius" award. And it has the potential to fundamentally shift how we think about the role of housing in creating and perpetuating poverty. But Doreen and Sherrena's plumbing impasse also gets at another sharp insight that Desmond digs into in the book's final pages: Poverty is a relationship, he writes, involving the poor and rich alike.

There is no slum without the slumlord. No eviction without the sheriff's deputies who carry it out. No extractive market without the government policies that protect a landlord's right to maximum profit on a decaying apartment (in Milwaukee, it's legal to rent out a property that violates "basic habitability requirements," so long as you're up front about it).

Poverty and power are intertwined in ways that leave the poor victim to exploitation — "now there's a word," Desmond writes, "that has been scrubbed out of the poverty debate."

"We have this conversation about inequality today, but it’s mostly about the middle class and the rich, and it’s as if the poor — their lives aren’t bound up with the rest of us," Desmond says in an interview. "I think housing disabuses you of that. You have to understand the role the landlords are playing in shaping neighborhoods, how they potentially expand or reduce inequality, how their profits are a direct result of some tenant's poverty. It’s hard to argue otherwise when you see it up close."

His book, which comes out March 1, follows eight families in Milwaukee, including white tenants in the worst trailer park in town and black renters in the city's North Side ghetto. They're all bound by grinding poverty and the private rental market. Like the majority of poor Americans, none of them benefit from public housing or housing subsidies. In fact, if any of them ever got to the top of the long waiting list for Milwaukee's public housing, their eviction records would disqualify them.

It becomes clear over time — Desmond lived alongside these families in 2008 and 2009, in addition to conducting extensive survey research and records requests — that eviction isn't a one-off consequence that follows a life crisis like a lost job or sudden medical bill. Eviction is the crisis itself, begetting its own dire consequences.

"I viewed eviction in the way that I think a lot of Americans view eviction," Desmond says of his thinking when he started this research. "Eviction is kind of like the period at the end of the sentence: You lose your job, and you get evicted." That story's not wrong, he says. "But it’s half the story."

The families in the book (Desmond has changed their names) get trapped in a nightmare where everything revolves around the procurement of housing. Hunting for it is a full-time job, which makes having an actual job that much harder. The cost of storing possessions after eviction makes it near-impossible to scrap together money for the next deposit. So families choose between housing their stuff and housing themselves. Mothers take their children out of school to help search, because having a home is more important than getting an education, when you have to pick between those, too.

Small unseen expenses, like new shoes for a funeral, cost families their fragile shelter. Calling a building inspector gets them evicted. In one of Desmond's most damning discoveries, women who phone the police to report domestic violence wind up getting evicted, too. That's because Milwaukee has a "nuisance" ordinance that allows the police to penalize landlords when their tenants call 911 too often. The system encourages landlords to resolve the problem by evicting the "nuisances."

Near the bottom of this spiral, families compromise on lower and lower-quality housing, which the rental market readily serves up. Writes Desmond:

Some landlords neglected to screen tenants for the same reason payday lenders offered unsecured, high-interest loans to families with unpaid debt or lousy credit; for the same reason that the subprime industry gave mortgages to people who could not afford them; for the same reason Rent-A-Center allowed you to take home a new Hisense air conditioner or Klaussner "Lazarus" reclining sofa without running a credit check. There was a business model at the bottom of every market.

Doreen's building, as it turns out, is among Sherrena's most profitable. The landlord is a shrewd businesswoman. She sees opportunity in the foreclosure crisis, buying up "other peoples' failures" and converting them into lucrative rentals. She knows that a two-bedroom in Milwaukee's segregated inner-city rents for about as much as a two-bedroom in a nicer part of town. But properties in nicer neighborhoods cost more to buy, so the financial returns on rent in the ghetto are far better.

Sherrena knows she'll get a big payout every February, when desperate families behind on their rent turn over their Earned Income Tax Credits to her (take note, Paul Ryan: "In many cases," Desmond writes, "this annual benefit is as much a boost to landlords as to low-income working families"). She knows that it's often cheaper to evict a family than to pay for the repairs they demand. She knows that when a building is finally run into the ground, she can stop paying the property taxes and surrender it to the city.

Desmond's solution to all of this isn't a new one: We should expand housing vouchers to cover every family living below a certain income threshold. Today, only about one in four poor families who qualify ever receives housing assistance in the U.S., because we simply don't fund enough of it. And we could expand aid to all of these families for less than what we spend on the home mortgage interest deduction that amounts to housing assistance for the wealthy.

Desmond's case for this idea, though, is the strongest yet. "It’s just really clear to me that we can’t fix poverty without fixing housing," he says. A universal voucher program, he argues, would be a jobs program, a public health intervention, a community investment and an education platform all tied into one. Frame it that way, and it might be the most effective thing we could throw at poverty. It's the thing anyone talking about poverty — including Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Paul Ryan — should be talking about.

What's more, a universal voucher program could potentially snuff out exploitation in the private rental market. It would give the poor market power to turn down unlivable housing. And it would force landlords to meet minimum housing standards. Today, many landlords avoid renting to voucher holders because they know the program comes with serious inspections — and because they know there are always more renters without vouchers or options.

"I don’t want to sound Pollyannish about this," Desmond says. "I understand that poverty is never just poverty. It’s often this collection of maladies, this compounded adversity. I’m not naïve about the problem. But I think that stable, steady housing is one of the surest footholds we could have on the road to financial stability."

It's not hard to imagine that Doreen's life might take a different path — picture the roaches retreating and the children's grades rising and a sense of order and worth returned to the home — if the matriarch weren't caught between a clogged toilet and a homeless shelter. Under Desmond's solution, giving her family that foothold would also mean scaling back Sherrena's profit. But isn't that a tradeoff we're willing to make?