apartment building
BrightFarm Systems/ Wikimedia Commons

On Thursday, June 9, Georgetown Law hosted a forum on Eviction: Housing, Poverty, and Policy. The morning began with a presentation by Harvard associate professor Matthew Desmond, whose books include the highly praised bestseller, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.”

Desmond stated that the United States is the richest democracy on the planet and the one with the greatest poverty. He said that after eviction, families move from poor and dangerous conditions to circumstances that are poorer and more dangerous; and that the typical low-income family does not get government housing assistance. After moving to Milwaukee, Desmond wanted to know how often eviction happened and what the consequences were. In addition to becoming familiar with poor renters by living in the same environments, he collected data by surveying households in affluent and poor neighborhoods alike.

Desmond’s findings revealed the unfairness of a policy to declare locations as nuisance properties after 911 calls have been made from a property. A serious unintended consequence of that practice was to inhibit women from reporting domestic violence because they feared they would lose their homes if they called for help. After Desmond drew attention to the consequences of nuisance property citations, the Milwaukee Police Department stopped identifying properties as nuisances based merely on 911 calls.

Using some of the proceeds from his book, Desmond started an organization, Just Shelter, to help people locate resources in their communities for housing assistance, legal aid, tenant rights and education/advocacy.

A panel discussion, moderated by Barbara Sard from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities followed Desmond’s presentation. Panel members, in addition to Desmond, were New York City Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks; Pamela Hughes Patenaude, president of the J. Ronald Terwilliger Foundation for Housing America’s Families; and renowned Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson.

Wilson stated that housing instability is associated with childhood behavior problems and lower average childhood reading and math skills. Evictions force people into environments where sexual and physical abuse is more likely. In addition, eviction makes it harder to find employment and affects job performance. Furthermore, it’s harder for an employer to get in contact with a job seeker or worker that does not have a permanent residence

Banks said the government has policy tools that can help. For example, when New York City consolidated Legal Aid and the Department of Social Services, evictions decreased. He said there is no one-size-fits-all solution that applies to all cities.

Patenaude questioned whether landlords would accept housing vouchers and Banks responded that in New York, it is illegal for landlords to discriminate on the basis of source-of-income, adding that this law is enforced. He said that city-funded rental assistance (vouchers) is an improvement over no assistance. He said that legal services must be widely available to the poor.

Wilson raised the subject of employment and put in a plea for public sector jobs in areas with the highest unemployment. Most people in the audience seemed to agree with him. He added that there will be problems as long as welfare programs are implemented on a state level and he called for greater involvement of the federal government in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Again, there was audience agreement.

Patenaude commented that a focus on minimum wage is a distraction. She did not elaborate or explain.

Desmond brought the discussion back to housing instability and said it’s important to “stop the bleeding for poor families who are absolutely crushed by this problem.”