The promise of housing for all is one of the essential values we hold as Americans. In Evicted, by Matthew Desmond, this is explored through vignettes about the lives of private market renters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. All of the tenants followed in Evicted are below the poverty line, and all are either single parents, minorities, or addicted to opiates. Because the system has failed them, and renters as a whole, these obstacles make it harder for them to rent a home. An eviction can lead to job loss, homelessness, and can negatively impact mental health. Evictions are a serious yet solvable issue in America.
Arleen Bell is a black single mother whose life is detailed in Evicted. She has 4 children, and has difficulty renting an apartment. She struggles to find housing throughout a majority of the book, and is the “poster child” for subjects of eviction as, “Black women are evicted twice as likely as men in north Milwaukee, and 1 in 5 black women have been evicted in Milwaukee as an adult, compared to 1 in 15 white women.” (Desmond 299). With the most common reason for eviction being late rent, one could think that it’s the tenants fault, and that they just don’t manage money well enough to make rent on time each month. However, this isn’t usually the case. More than half of all renting families below the poverty line spend a majority of their income on housing, and “at least one in four dedicates over 70 percent to paying the rent and keeping the lights on” (Desmond 4). In Arleen’s case, because she chose to feed her kids instead of paying her rent, she could be evicted at any point in time (and she was, multiple times, throughout the course of the book).
A supposedly simple solution, and one that is in the news a lot lately is rent control. Rent control, simply put, is a price ceiling on rent. In a rent-controlled property, a landlord cannot raise the rent suddenly, and the monthly payment cannot exceed a certain amount. This helps renters by stabilizing the amount they pay in rent; and, because rent control cannot work unless the rent is lower than the actual market value, it would lower rent as a whole (which is also good for renters).
In cities, this is usually a fine solution. In one study, rent control helped mid- to long-term tenants in San Francisco move, “10-20% less frequently than a control group” (Diamond et al.). However, for tenants who had only rented a property for a couple of years or less (like Arleen), the “effects of rent control were negative” (Diamond et al.)—and according to an independent research group, “these effects are especially large for racial minorities, likely indicating that minorities faced greater displacement pressures in San Francisco than whites” (Diamond).
The real failure, and the biggest issue concerning renters below the poverty line, has to do with public housing. Another large metropolitan area, New York City, has a public housing waiting list with “a 1 percent vacancy rate and more than 270,000 families waiting for a spot” (Madden). Even in more suburban areas, across the U.S., “Only about 1 in 4 families who qualify for housing assistance get anything”(Gross). Because of the lack of public housing in the U.S., many poor families are forced into the less-regulated private housing market. Tenants often cannot or are barely able to afford the market rate of a safe living space and are therefore often evicted. An eviction record then makes it harder for the tenant to find another home. The cycle of eviction almost never ends. Tenants in Evicted regularly spend weeks looking for apartments, and some make calls to up to 70 different landlords, just to find one that will ignore a previous eviction or a criminal record.
The promise of equal opportunity has left American renters hopeful for a taste of the American dream of homeownership and housing security. And yet this promise remains tantalizingly out of reach for many amid our current system of income inequality.
Desmond, Matthew. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. B\D\W\Y Broadway Books, 2016.
Diamond, Rebecca, et al. “The Effects of Rent Control Expansion on Tenants, Landlords, and Inequality: Evidence from San Francisco.” Cato Institute, 13 Apr. 2018, https://www.cato.org/publications/research-briefs-economic-policy/effects-rent-control-expansion-tenants-landlords.
Diamond, Rebecca. “What Does Economic Evidence Tell Us about the Effects of Rent Control?” Brookings, Brookings, 18 Oct. 2018, https://www.brookings.edu/research/what-does-economic-evidence-tell-us-about-the-effects-of-rent-control/.
Gross, Terry. “First-Ever Evictions Database Shows: ‘We’re In the Middle Of A Housing Crisis’.” NPR, NPR, 12 Apr. 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/04/12/601783346/first-ever-evictions-database-shows-were-in-the-middle-of-a-housing-crisis.
Madden, David. “Five Myths about Public Housing.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 11 Sept. 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/five-myths-about-public-housing/2015/09/11/2e55a57e-57c9-11e5-abe9-27d53f250b11_story.html.