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Home Matters: Notes on Eviction, Poverty and the Future of Housing Policy

Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, an extraordinary story of housing instability in Milwaukee, has gotten people talking. LISC’s Andrea Ponsor considers the book’s implications for affordable housing policy and why now is the moment to push for legislation to undo the crisis of rent burden.

People are talking about the crisis of housing in America.

While advocates and policy wonks like me spend a lot of time trying to spur those kinds of conversations, much of the recent talk among the general public is thanks to Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Evicted chronicles the lives of families struggling to keep a roof over their heads in two Milwaukee neighborhoods. And through their harrowing stories, Desmond reminds us how, behind all of the data, there are real people.

Indeed, the families Desmond profiles represent just a few of the three out of four American households eligible for assisted housing, but for whom no subsidized units or vouchers are available. They suffer in a chronic state of flux, live in unsafe, deteriorating housing and make heart-wrenching choices between paying rent, feeding their families and keeping the heat on during the bitter Wisconsin winters. Through his extensive research and experience living among these families, Desmond reached some insightful conclusions—truths that many housing and community development advocates have long known but that bear repeating.

First, home matters.  Desmond writes that “eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.” In other words, without shelter, everything else falls apart. The families he profiles tolerate what should be intolerably unhealthy conditions, in order to avoid being evicted.  When eviction comes they are drained by the financial burden of losing household possessions and jobs due to relocation. They also face the added challenge of finding new housing with the stigma of eviction on their records. Compound that with the loss of social connection, and the psychological toll of being unable to pay for basic needs, and you begin to see the tip of the iceberg.

These conditions are especially true for families who have been evicted, of course. But they also hold true for people facing crippling rent burdens and housing instability, but who manage to avoid eviction.  As seen in the lives chronicled in Evicted, and in other research, too, all of these stressors have devastating immediate and long-term effects on the families, and especially children, who endure them. 

Second, eviction and housing instability erode community. When families must leave their homes or move frequently, they can’t develop the connections that make a neighborhood a community. Communities provide support – neighbors may help with child care, share meals and provide connections to employment and other resources. In more than 35 years of working with local community development corporations, LISC has seen the power of neighbors who trust one another and come together to improve their communities. But as Desmond notes, high turnover impairs the efforts of residents and local leaders to establish social cohesion and neighborhood investment.

Third, poverty is a relationship. While Desmond focuses on the intersection between wealthy landlords and poor tenants, low-income neighborhoods cannot be viewed as islands, disconnected from the larger economy and the resources of other locales. Addressing the housing crisis and poverty in general, and developing solutions, demands that we acknowledge how policies and practices have historically contributed to soaring housing costs as well as to disinvestment in the neighborhoods that are home to so many low-income and minority families.

So what can be done? We have to provide homes. Homes are not just shelter, but safe places to live in communities with the supports that equip residents to thrive.

Desmond advances the bold—but not new—idea of a universal voucher program that would make rental vouchers available to all households below a certain income level. The Bipartisan Policy Commission has suggested this approach for all households with incomes below 30% of area median income. A family would dedicate 30% of its income to rent and the voucher would pay the rest. This system would allow families to spend the balance of their income on food, clothing, education and expenses related to work, such as transportation. The cost of such a system is high and the proposal faces significant implementation challenges, but it bears serious evaluation as part of a housing policy agenda.

Vouchers alone, however, won’t create stable, affordable communities. Desmond writes that we can’t build our way out of this crisis with new public and subsidized housing. And for a tangle of reasons, he may be right. But we can't ignore that we desperately need more affordable housing—and that capital investment is required to create it. The National Low Income Housing Coalition recently estimated that the U.S. lacks housing for some 7.2 million extremely low-income renters—those living at or below 30 percent of area median income. America’s demand for rental housing is growing, and much of what is being constructed is targeted to middle and upper income rent levels. Much of the existing affordable rental stock, meanwhile, is in dire need of repair or preservation. 

Construction of new affordable units and preservation of existing stock would make for more quality affordable housing. Units would be available not only to the lowest income families who hold vouchers, but also to those a rung or two up the economic ladder. This, in turn, would help prevent housing costs from driving those low- to middle-income residents further into poverty. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) recently introduced a campaign to increase the allocation of low-income housing tax credits by 50%, based on a Bipartisan Policy Commission recommendation. A policy like that, which would fund upwards of 400,000 new homes, could go a long way towards creating the housing stock this country needs. 

New investment can also address the imbalance between tenants and landlords by increasing the number of units owned by non-profit and mission-driven landlords. Such property owners are not only committed to affordable housing, they also can connect residents to other services within the community.  

Building affordable housing in higher income neighborhoods is also critical. New construction in higher income neighborhoods will increase the total stock of affordable housing and in turn should make it easier for the lowest income families to find a unit that will accept their vouchers. Once settled, families can then take advantage of good schools, jobs and transportation which in turn injects the community with stable employees and taxpayers.

Tackling the housing crisis demands significant investment, but American families and the economy require that we take action. As advocates, our first task is to keep up the momentum sparked by Desmond’s thoughtful and timely book—and convert that energy into policy.

The title of this column is by coincidence the same as Home Matters®, a movement supporting affordable housing in the United States of which LISC is a proud member.

 

Andrea PonsorABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrea Ponsor, Policy Director
Andrea advocates for federal programs that provide support for LISC’s housing and community development programs. She communicates our policy agenda to members of Congress, congressional staff and other federal policy makers and analyzes federal laws and policies, developing policy briefs and representing LISC in advocacy coalitions.

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