Lee Dillion, executive director of Tompkins Community Action and Prof. Matthew Desmond, social sciences, Harvard University, emphasized the increasing problem eviction in the low-income rental market plays in worsening U.S. poverty in a lecture, Wednesday.
Tompkins Community Action is an umbrella agency that helps low income residents achieve self-sufficiency, emphasizing housing’s ability to enable success. Over the last 30 years, Dillion said he has seen the positive effect housing can have on people’s lives.
“I’ve seen people who are addicted, uneducated and tied up with the judicial system become employed,” she said. “They go back to school, stop using drugs and alcohol, regain custody of their children, reunite with their family and sometimes become house owners.”
Desmond detailed the prevalence and consequences of eviction in the United States.
“America is weird,” he said. “We are the richest democracy with the worst poverty. There is no advanced society that has the level poverty we do or the kind of poverty that we do.”
As part of the Milwaukee Area Renters Study at Harvard, Desmond said he examined court records and conducted extensive fieldwork in the poorest areas of Milwaukee to construct a picture of how eviction has disrupted the lives of low-income Americans.
Although a general consensus in America for the past 100 years shows that families “should spend 30 percent of income on housing,” Desmond lamented that “times have changed.”
“In the last two decades, about one fourth of low-income families spent 70 percent of their salary just on rent,” he said. “Eviction has become the result of inevitability rather than irresponsibility.”
Desmond cited three reasons for the increasing financial burden of housing on the most vulnerable: stagnant incomes for the bottom of the market, increasing median rent costs and lack of public housing.
“As low income families watch their salary flatline, housing costs have soared,” he explained. “Between 1995 and today, median rent has increased by 70 percent and the cost of utilities has increased by 52 percent.”
Desmond added that eviction is not only a condition of poverty, but also a cause.
“The private rental market plays a vital role in eviction and therefore poverty,” he said. “What happens to renters after they are evicted? They move to much worse housing than they were in before. Eviction is leaving a jagged scar on the next generation.”
Desmond ended his lecture on a positive note, urging policy changes that aid in cutting U.S. eviction rates. He suggested that by expanding housing vouchers to everyone below the poverty line, homelessness would significantly decrease, as two million people would be lifted above the poverty line.
“Shouldn’t access to a decent affordable home be part of what it means to be American?” Desmond asked. “This degree of inequality and this whole denial of basic rights and unnecessary amount of suffering isn’t us. This doesn’t have to be us.”