In Evicted, Matthew Desmond challenges the widely held belief that housing is not a human right, but rather something that people must earn through work. He shows how this perspective is related to the principle of property ownership, whereby wealthier members of society are made more wealthy by owning property, while those who are too poor to earn property remain in a cycle of poverty and instability due to rising rents and the constant threat of eviction. Desmond argues that in order to stop this cycle, we must start thinking about housing as a right, not something that people earn through work. Doing so will enable people to rise out of poverty and consequently allow them to contribute to society more easily, as their focus will no longer be on meeting their most basic needs and merely surviving.
Throughout the book, Desmond compares the experiences of property owners and tenants, highlighting the drastic inequality that exists between these two groups. To emphasize this inequality, he focuses on the class of “professional landlords” that has exploded since the 1970s. In the past, most landlords managed property part-time and likely did not own multiple properties. As a result, they usually did not make a substantial amount of money from property ownership. However, this has all changed now, as more and more people make huge profits as full-time property managers. Desmond explains: “As more landlords began buying more property and thinking of themselves primarily as landlords (instead of people who happened to own the unit downstairs), professional associations proliferated, and with them support services, accreditations, training materials, and financial instruments.” As this passage shows, the crucial difference between part-time and professional landlords is the fact that professionals overwhelmingly approach property management for its profit-making possibilities. This is dangerous, as—according to Desmond’s argument—professional landlords are now turning something that should be a human right into an unfeeling, profit-making machine.
The result of this is that while property owners get richer, tenants suffer from substandard housing, high rents, and frequent evictions. The more wealth and power that property owners have over tenants, the less incentive there is to provide tenants with fair and decent housing.
Desmond argues that one reason why evictions take place is simply to convey the control that property owners have over their property: “The most effective way to assert, or reassert, ownership of land was to force people from it.” While evictions increase the power (and often profit) of property owners, they make tenants poorer and more vulnerable. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that eviction worsens poverty, makes people more likely to accept substandard housing, contributes to practical, financial, and psychological instability, gives people less control over their lives, and contributes to the degradation of neighborhoods as communities are destroyed by constant reshuffling. Desmond ties high eviction rates to higher rates of crime, drug use, suicide, incarceration, poverty, poor school performance, and—crucially—subsequent eviction. While evictions heighten the power of landlords, they leave tenants in a cycle of powerlessness and suffering.
In order to combat the problem of eviction and that massive gulf between property owners and tenants, Desmond argues that we need to rethink housing as a human right, not something earned through work. He cites the Declaration of Independence to suggest that America is founded on the idea that housing is a human right. If people have a right to life and the pursuit of happiness then they must have a right to housing, because neither of these things are possible without stable shelter. Indeed, this idea is reflected in the words of one of Desmond’s interview subjects, a poor, elderly tenant named Larraine, who argues: “I have a right to live, and I have a right to live like I want to live.” According to Desmond’s logic, Larraine is here also arguing that she has a right to housing.
Part of this understanding of a right to housing emerges from thinking differently about work. Many people believe that housing is not a right but something to be earned through work. Yet as Desmond shows, most of the tenants in the book do work, and still do not receive stable, quality housing. He gives many examples of this, such as the manual labor certain tenants perform in exchange for reduced rent, or the work of caring for children and other vulnerable members of the community performed by several other tenants. Other tenants, meanwhile, have wage-earning jobs in the more traditional sense but still spend 80 or 90 percent of their income on rent, are repeatedly evicted, and/or end up homeless. Meanwhile, those who own property are able to make money simply through property ownership (although, as the book shows, for some property owners who become “professional landlords” this does become a full-time job).
In order to solve this problem, Desmond recommends that all people below a certain income level are given housing vouchers to ensure that they spend no more than 30 percent of their income on rent. While this would certainly help many people escape the cycle of eviction and poverty, it is actually not a full implementation of Desmond’s argument that housing is a human right. Acting on this principle would mean providing every person with free housing and potentially even abolishing property ownership in order to ensure that housing remained a right for everyone rather than a private asset.
Housing as a Human Right ThemeTracker
Housing as a Human Right Quotes in Evicted
When city or state officials pressured landlords—by ordering them to hire an outside security firm or by having a building inspector scrutinize their property—landlords often passed the pressure on to their tenants. There was also the matter of reestablishing control. The most effective way to assert, or reassert, ownership of land was to force people from it.
Men often avoided eviction by laying concrete, patching roofs, or painting rooms for landlords. But women almost never approached their landlord with a similar offer. Some women—taxed by child care, welfare requirements, or work obligations—could not spare the time. But many others simply did not conceive of working off the rent as a possibility. When women did approach their landlords with such an offer, it sometimes involved trading sex for rent.
The power to dictate who could stay and who must go; the power to expel or forgive: it was an old power, and it was not without caprice.
Job loss could lead to eviction, but the reverse was also true. An eviction not only consumed renters' time, causing them to miss work, it also weighed heavily on their minds, often triggering mistakes on the job. It overwhelmed workers with stress, leading them to act unprofessionally, and commonly resulted in their relocating farther away from their worksite, increasing their likelihood of being late or missing days.
Then there is the toll eviction takes on a person’s spirit. The violence of displacement can drive people to depression and, in extreme cases, even suicide. One in two recently evicted mothers reports multiple symptoms of clinical depression, double the rate of similar mothers who were not forced from their homes. Even after years pass, evicted mothers are less happy, energetic, and optimistic than their peers.
Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.
Do we believe that the right to a decent home is part of what it means to
be an American?
The United States was founded on the noble idea that people have "certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Each of these three unalienable rights—so essential to the American character that the founders saw them as God-given—requires a stable home.
Life and home are so intertwined that it is almost impossible to think of one without the other.