Evicted by Dennis Carr licensed under Creative Commons.

The threat of eviction is a constant stressor in the lives of nearly all low-income Americans. In DC alone in 2016, more than 12 people were evicted from their homes each day. Once someone is evicted, it becomes exceedingly more difficult for them to obtain safe and stable housing. This pushes already-struggling Americans into states of transience with little to no disposable income, further reinforcing a cycle of poverty.

A few weeks ago, members of our summer book club discussed the harsh and complicated realities facing tenants and landlords at the bottom of the housing market as we read though Matthew Desmond’s award-winning book, Evicted. Want to join us? Sign up here and check out our schedule here.

Unaffordable housing has created this crisis in our American cities

Desmond shows that most cash-poor families spend at least half of their income on rent, and a quarter of them spend around 80% of their incomes on rent. That leaves little left over for expenses like food, childcare, medicine, and emergencies.

Mass eviction is a symptom of the poverty crisis in the United States which has been made increasingly worse with the lack of equitable affordable housing in both the public and private sectors.

In DC, rents have been rising quickly, and affordable housing is becoming harder to find. There is great pressure on a competitive housing market at all income levels, but this is especially true at the lower end of the market.

Image by Fibonacci Blue licensed under Creative Commons.

The District is simply not producing or preserving enough homes at the bottom end of the market. A study from 2013 found there were only half as many affordable housing units in the District than there were in 2002. This trend only seems to be continuing. In 2015, rents for residents with incomes of about $22,000 a year increased $250 a month from 2005 to 2015, adjusting for inflation. All the while, incomes remained stagnant.

In 2016, DC was listed as the sixth most expensive city in the United States to rent in, with the median rate for a one bedroom at $2,200.

As Desmond writes in Evicted: “In Washington, DC, the wait for public housing was counted in decades. In those cities (larger cities than Milwaukee), a mother of a young child who put her name on the list might be a grandmother by the time her application was reviewed.”

That forces many of the District’s lower-income residents to decide between paying more than half of their incomes in rent in the private market, or moving outside of the city.

Rents aren't actually that cheap at the bottom of the market

Nick Sementelli said that as he read Evicted, he realized that the rent prices in poorer parts of Milwaukee were similar to housing in wealthier neighborhoods.

“It just struck me as the root source of so much of this. They are getting so much less for their money — the units are often described as very low quality, but they aren't matched by lower prices. There seems to be a sticky floor to the rental market. Yes, these folks have very low incomes, but also the rent just seems objectively too high,” he said.

In Milwaukee, Desmond noted that just $270 separated some of the cheapest rental units from some of the most expensive. Even more troubling was the realization that in the city's poorest neighborhoods (with 40% of residents living under the poverty line), median rent for a two-bedroom apartment was only $50 less than the citywide median.

Book club member Reshma Holla explains, “…landlords at the bottom of the market actually preferred to keep the rents higher than they should be so tenants would be perpetually behind and they could skimp on maintenance. So even if there were code violations thanks to deferred maintenance, the tenants didn't have legal protection because they were behind on rent.”

Low-income residents are prevented from accessing neighborhoods with greater income diversity and better housing because of poor credit history and/or low monthly earnings. So, concentrations of poverty occur not only because these are the only places low income people can afford, but more because it's the only place someone will rent to them.

Knowing this, landlords like Sherrena, who Desmond followed throughout his work, may take advantage of their tenants by charging unfair prices or skimping on upkeep. Sherrena says that her worst properties gave her largest returns.

This finding is reminiscent of northern cities in the 1920s and 30s where rent for dilapidated housing in black neighborhoods was significantly higher than that of better housing in white neighborhoods, due to racist housing policies on federal and local levels.

“I think this book helps make the case that there needs to be more regulated, government-subsidized housing. There are perverse financial incentives to providing affordable low-income housing, as this book shows,” Reshma Holla said.

What happens when you pay 80% of your income in rent?

Matthew Desmond draws from quantitative and qualitative research, he conducted living in low income communities of Milwaukee. His book, Evicted follows the trajectories of eight people as they struggle to maintain stable housing. Through these stories, it becomes clear just how quickly you can fall behind when well over half of your income goes to rent each month.

Pam, an expectant mom struggling to make rent on the mobile home she shares with her partner and children, was evicted because she was not able to internalize the cost of repairs for her car. Money was tightest in winter as her husband, a construction worker, was out on leave during the colder unworkable months.

Unable to find the cash to repair her car, Pam lost her job at the printing plant where she had worked. Determined to get her job back she shorted her rent, promising the rest to her landlord once she got her job back, and bought a car for $400 so she would be able to make her 7 pm to 7 am shifts. A week later the $400 replacement car gave out, and Pam was forced out of her home.

Image by Thomas Hawk licensed under Creative Commons.

Low income families renting at the bottom of the market find themselves unable to maintain housing without a safety net of savings or disposable income. Negotiation between paying rent and other vital expenses creates a situation where families are set up to fail.

As Joanne Tang explains: “We've discussed underbanked/unbanked people on GGWash before. It's a whole other set of factors, like how it's not fair that our banking system relies on credit history, and how people often make “bad decisions” when there are no good decisions to be made. It's rent a sofa so you have a place to sit and end up paying 200% on it or ….don't sit?”

Even when there are often no good options to choose, many of the renters followed are extremely tactful and resilient when renting at the bottom of the market.

Under these circumstances, other services appear. For example, in Evicted, a woman named Belinda acted as a liaison between landlords and tenants. Every month, Belinda would pay rent from the supplemental security income payments tenants received and it would go to the landlord before tenants received the rest.

“I had no idea that a role like Belinda's exists,” Brina Seidel said. “On the one hand, it seems enormously disrespectful to take away someone's autonomy. But on the other hand, psychology and behavioral economics teach us all sorts of reasons why people might make short term decisions that are clearly a bad idea in the long run, and avoiding those sorts of decisions could really help someone out when they're struggling.”

“The vivid example of the stress of poverty in the book is very affecting,” Nick Sementelli commented. “The descriptions of people navigating difficult financial decisions despite that stress (saving the final rent's money when an eviction is imminent, prioritizing certain bills over others, reserving certain lifelines for only a higher bar emergency) are good examples of why the stereotype that people experiencing poverty are more financially illiterate/irresponsible than average is wrong.”

The stories of the families and individuals followed can be overwhelming at times. “I found it rather tough, frankly. It’s draining to read these stories of privation, turmoil, and resignation,” Rahul Sinha commented. “Obviously that’s just a sign of how insulated some of us are, but this is a book I somewhat have to steel myself for.”

Even so, in just the first six chapters our book club has read, Desmond has supplied us with valuable narratives on about eviction previously overlooked in the discourse of urban poverty.