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  • Eileen Zilch

Poverty, Wealth, and Eviction

"I wanted to try to write a book about poverty that didn't focus exclusively on poor people or poor places. Poverty was a relationship, I thought, involving poor and rich people alike. To understand poverty, I needed to understand that relationship. This sent me searching for a process that bound poor and rich people together in mutual dependence and struggle. Eviction was such a process." Matthew Desmond

After analyzing incredible amounts of data on poverty, affordable housing (and the lack thereof), and problems endemic to poverty - residential instability, concentrated neighborhood disadvantage, health disparities, and joblessness - Matthew Desmond concluded that these problems can begin to be corrected with housing that is affordable, safe, and available. As an ethnographer, Desmond moved into the very low income communities in Milwaukee that he wanted to study. He says, "after a while, both tenants and landlords began to accept me and get on with their lives. They had more important things to worry about." His book, Evicted, is the product of his many years of research and analysis.

This book has opened my eyes in many ways to the needs of individuals and families whose income is extremely low. Here is some of what I learned:

The presence of children in a household almost tripled a tenant's odds of receiving an eviction judgement. (Often children do thoughtless things that draw the attention of the landlord in unfavorable ways).

In 2013, between 50-70 percent of poor renting families spent half of their income on housing and between 25-50 percent spent at least 70 percent on it.

In fixating almost exclusively on what poor people and their communities lack - good jobs, a strong safety net, role models - we have neglected the critical ways that exploitation contributes to the persistence of poverty. We have overlooked a fact that landlords never have: there is a lot of money to be made off of the poor.

1 in 8 Milwaukee renters experienced at least one forced move - formal or informal eviction, landlord foreclosure, or building condemnation - in the 2 years prior to being surveyed. The survey showed that nearly half (48%) of those forced moves were informal evictions - as when a landlord hires a couple of heavies to throw you out. In many housing courts in the US, 90 percent of landlords are represented by attorneys and 90 percent of tenants are not. Low-income families on the edge of eviction have no right to counsel.

Behavioral economists and psychologists have shown that "poverty itself taxes the mind". Desmond says of his research, "I learned that behavior that looks lazy or withdrawn to someone perched far above the poverty line can actually be a pacing technique. People....can not afford to give all their energy to today's emergency only to have none left over for tomorrow's."

67 percent - 2 of every 3 poor renting families - receive no federal assistance. This is the reason why most poor renting families today spend most of their income on housing.

So, you ask, what do we do? We have seen since the beginning of "public housing" in the mid 1930's, that concentrating poverty is NOT the solution. Over the last hundred plus years, Americans have fought to enact child labor laws, establish a minimum wage, and develop and enforce workplace safety regulations - because we value human dignity and believe people are worth protecting. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, "Every condition exists simply because someone profits by its existence. This economic exploitation is crystallized in the slum." Is it finally time for this country to take seriously the need for safe, affordable housing? I say yes. Please stand with us as we work to empower Michigan seniors, veterans and the homeless by developing more affordable housing and services for them.

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