Home is the core of a person’s identity, a place of safety and certainty. Proper participation in society starts at home; a good home life makes people better citizens. Feeling a sense of belonging and ownership of one’s community is vital to being a good neighbor. It is basically impossible to improve oneself without stable housing. Once Scott received secure, affordable housing through the Guest House, he was able to find and keep a job and stay off heroin. He is still sober today. The Hinkstons, meanwhile, found a pleasant three-bedroom in Brownsville, Tennessee, and once there Patrice earned her GED and was named “Adult Learner of the Year.” She hopes to become a parole officer and help those caught up in the criminal justice system.
Thus far most of the book’s arguments have been made indirectly, conveyed through the presentation of the tenants’ stories. In the epilogue, Desmond explicitly articulates his thesis. At this point, it is clear that having a stable home is not just the result of a stable, successful life; rather, it is perhaps the essential factor determining whether it is possible for a person to have a stable, successful life.
If Arleen and Vanetta had been able to find secure housing that didn’t use up 80% of their income each month, they likely would have been able to make similar improvements in their lives. As it is, their existence was consumed by the struggle to make rent and avoid eviction. There is actually a broad consensus that people should not have to spend more than 30% of their income and rent, but this conviction is not reflected in the current reality. The result is millions of people being evicted each year.
Despite there being a consensus that people should not have to spend more than 30% of their income on rent, people who are spending 80 or 90% of their income on rent are still blamed when this means that the rest of their lives fall apart. It is thus vital that society’s principles when it comes to housing are actually implemented in policy.
Until recently there was a dearth of research on the topic of eviction. Researchers have long known that poor people move frequently, but haven’t figured out why. The truth is that forced moves aside, poor people move at the same rate as other groups—yet their rate of forced moves is staggering. Housing instability causes unemployment, loss of possessions, hunger, interruption of welfare, and many other forms of “material hardship.” Eviction also leads to more eviction, creating an endless cycle of housing instability.
This book focuses on eviction not only because it is such a major factor in the continuation of poverty, but also because, up until now, it has been poorly understood. People have not seen eviction as a cause of poverty and, as such, have paid it insufficient attention.
People who are evicted are often forced into more dangerous neighborhoods where crime and drug use is rife. Eviction is known to cause depression, psychological instability, and even suicide. Eviction also erodes community, as tenants move around so much that there is never enough time for strangers to become neighbors. It is partly for this reason that a high eviction rate in a given area corresponds to an increased crime rate. The conclusion of all this evidence of the harm eviction causes is that “eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.”
The final statement of this passage is the book’s thesis statement. It is a remarkably simple argument, yet one that has been too easily overlooked in analysis of poverty so far. Part of the problem is undoubtedly overcoming the belief that poor people are responsible for their poverty through bad choices. In most cases, structural forces are to blame.
Eviction affects all kinds of people, but poor women of color and their children suffer its effects at a disproportionate rate. In Milwaukee, 1 in 5 black female renters has been evicted, compared to 1 in 12 Hispanic women and 1 in 15 white women. Most evictions involve children, and eviction is a central cause of child homelessness. It can ruin the lives of children before they have even truly begun. Poor families live “above their means” in the sense that they are paying far more than they can afford for rent, yet they are renting the very cheapest and least desirable units on the market, as in most cases there is simply no other option.
The fact that eviction affects different populations at such disproportionate rates should be a major cause for alarm. These statistics demonstrate that the housing system is extremely broken. The worst aspects of societal inequality, injustice, and oppression manifest themselves within the housing market, and urgent action thus needs to be taken in order to bring about justice.
The suffering of poor renters is unnecessary, and this means that there exists the possibility of change. If change is to happen, Americans must confront the question of whether housing is a human right. The Declaration of Independence states that every American has the right to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Yet without decent housing, none of these other rights are possible. Housing is obviously a need, and thus everyone in America should be able to secure decent housing they can afford.
Here Desmond makes a compelling argument that the right to housing is implicitly embedded into the very foundation of America. It is not common to think of the Declaration of Independence as having much bearing on housing, but here Desmond persuasively shows that the right to housing is implied in the country’s founding principles.
Some progress has already been made. Yet the public housing that was designed to replace slums has become a kind of slum itself, and the ritualistic destruction of crime-ridden public housing towers is now a frequent spectacle. In addition to public housing, there is the voucher system, which ensures that tenants pay no more than 30% of their income on rent. This program has been proven to help lift people out of poverty by freeing up people’s income to spend on other things. Yet as Evicted has shown, very few eligible renters receive housing vouchers. In 2013, 1% of poor tenants lived in rent-controlled units, 15% in public housing, and 17% received assistance, usually a housing voucher. This leaves 67% with no federal support at all.
There are multiple problems with current federal housing policy, yet perhaps the main one is that it simply does not help enough people. All the flaws in public housing and the voucher system become somewhat irrelevant in light of the fact that so few tenants are actually helped by these systems in the first place. Once support reaches all the people who need it, then it will be easier to assess to what extent different housing assistance programs work.
Housing should be one of the most urgent priorities of the federal government. Beyond housing vouchers, other changes need to be made, too. For example, while 90% of landlords have legal representation, 90% of tenants do not. This needs to change through legal aid to poor people. Good lawyers would help poor people from being unjustly treated by landlords and make it less easy to evict people.
Only changing one part of the system will not result in a positive outcome. Instead, a multi-pronged approach is needed to radically transform all aspects of housing and create a truly fair, successful program of housing assistance.
If housing is a right, then there can’t also be a right to make as much profit as possible from poor people. The concept of exploitation needs to be re-centered in discussions of poverty. Raising wages and welfare payments will only help eliminate poverty if measures are taken to ensure all this increased income doesn’t go straight to landlords’ pockets. It is patently unjust that it is possible to make large profits from the very poorest communities. In order to balance the right to housing with certain important economic freedoms, Desmond recommends expanding the housing voucher program to include all low-income families.
The book has clearly shown that the ability of landlords to make extraordinary amounts of profit from poor tenants has had a severely negative impact on the housing system and society as a whole. It is therefore perhaps a little surprising that Desmond recommends universal housing vouchers as a solution, considering the housing voucher system was invented by landlords.
With a universal voucher program, eviction rates would go down and homelessness would be virtually nonexistent. Neighborhoods would stabilize and flourish. Universal housing programs exist across the developed world, including places like the UK and the Netherlands. Many nations use a voucher system, partly because this is more cost-effective than constructing public (or public-private) housing. Furthermore, placing high concentrations of low-income people in the same blocks or districts stimulates segregation. Some people worry that a universal housing voucher would disincentivize people to work, but as the book has shown, housing instability is actually a far greater threat to work.
Desmond’s argument in favor of a universal housing voucher system is persuasive, yet his optimism about this system is perhaps naïve. After all, the places that he cites as having supposedly universal housing systems still have problems with homelessness. Indeed, the housing voucher system in the UK only worked in conjunction with the widespread building of public housing. Since this public housing has been sold off in recent years, homelessness has skyrocketed.
Discrimination against voucher holders, which is currently rampant, should be made illegal. This would benefit landlords as well as voucher recipients, because it would mean a steady supply of stable and reliable tenants. It would also be vital to stabilize rent, or else the housing voucher program would have an unnecessarily high cost. In 2013, the Bipartisan Policy Center estimated that a universal housing voucher for all renters in the bottom 30% of income would cost an extra $22.5 billion than what is already being spent, brining housing assistance in total to $60 billion. Yet this figure does not account for the money that would be saved through a reduction in current spending on homelessness, healthcare, and other costs associated with housing instability.
Through the universal housing voucher program, Desmond recommends a system that could potentially appeal to both Democrats and Republicans. He argues that expanding housing assistance would actually benefit the country economically in the long term, an argument that could persuade people on the political right to support the program. On the other hand, this may not be enough to fight the stigma attached to this kind of federal assistance among right-leaning Americans.
There is certainly enough money for a universal housing voucher program, especially when you consider how much is currently spent on homeowner benefits such as the mortgage-interest deduction and capital-gains exclusion, which far exceeds that spent on housing assistance. At the moment, most federal housing subsidies go to people with six-figure incomes. A universal housing voucher is only one potential solution, and it is possible that different parts of the country will require different approaches. Yet it is beyond doubt that the suffering caused by housing insecurity is abhorrent and cannot be allowed to continue.
The obstacle to federal housing assistance has not really been a lack of money, even though this is what many politicians will argue. Instead, it is an ideological opposition to the prospect of helping poor people and to the idea that there is a right to housing. Furthermore, the politics of housing has also been disproportionately influenced by wealthy landlords and other property owners who want their own interests advanced at others’ expense.