Evictions in America are frequently considered the result of irresponsibility and poor decision making — something that can’t be solved by social safety nets and government programs.
That narrative has been challenged most recently by Matthew Desmond, a Princeton professor in Sociology who wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City that getting evicted is more about inevitability rather than irresponsibility and that eviction strongly correlates with poverty and economically devastated neighborhoods.
“America is weird, we’re the richest democracy with the worst poverty,” Desmond said at a presentation hosted by Drew University on Oct. 12. “There’s no advanced society that has the poverty we do, or as deep as we have.”
Eviction has increased as housing costs become more expensive.
After the National Housing Act of 1937 was passed, policymakers believed families shouldn’t spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. From 1991 to 2013, the number of Americans spending 30 percent of their income on housing fell from 54 percent to 43 percent.
Since 2013, roughly 30 percent of Americans spend half of their income on housing. Another 25 percent spend over 70 percent of their income on housing.
Desmond’s book looked at the city of Milwaukee. A snapshot of the housing crisis in the United States that focused specifically on how evictions affect individuals and their community. Evicted has been praised for revealing the hellish conditions that low-income Americans endure after getting evicted.
Desmond, who began teaching at Princeton University this past year, has been credited for spurring researchers and lawmakers to take a closer look at the issue of eviction. He’s characterized the issue of access to housing as the core to many other problems in America.
“There’s massive inequality in wealth because of who has a home and who doesn’t,” Desmond said. “If you’re a conservative who cares about fiscal responsibility -- you can pay for housing or you can pay for asthma. We can spend smart or we can spend stupid.”
The panel at Drew University drew the attention of Senator Cory Booker, who attended the event as a panelist along with Desmond.
Combating housing issues has brought together politicians on both sides of the aisle in New Jersey.
State Senators Ron Rice (D) and Jennifer Beck ( R ) co-sponsored the Safe Sanitary Subsidized Rental Housing Bill of Rights that was introduced in June earlier this year. The bill targets landlord’s responsibility to maintain health and safety compliant buildings.
Several other bills have been introduced in New Jersey’s Senate and Assembly. Policy advisors suggested housing and eviction will be one of the first issues tackled by the state in the first session next year.
New Jersey had 161,329 evictions in 2016, roughly 14 percent of all renters in the state. Nationwide, evictions have risen as families pay a higher percentage of their income to rent each month.
Victims of eviction are sometimes seen as unsympathetic and irresponsible individuals who can’t keep up with consistent monthly payments, but Desmond’s work has revealed an unfair structure that disproportionately affects minority groups.
Jersey-based lawyers that work in housing courts have echoed Desmond’s analysis.
“There’s a Nigerian proverb that informs my work, ‘Until the lion has a historian the hunter will always be the hero,’” Professor of Law at Seton Hall University Paula Franzese said.
Franzese, who served as the moderator for the event held at Drew University, does research and empirical inquiries on the topic of eviction cases in the state. Much of the information about the negative consequences of eviction are purely anecdotal, but Franzese said Desmond’s work has inspired researchers to look at the issue more closely.
Last year, Franzese chronicled the story of Esperanza Menendez-Jackson, a mother in Newark who lived in derelict conditions similar to the scenarios described in Evicted and detailed how one eviction can lead down a rabbit hole of misfortune.
Menendez-Jackson’s apartment was chronically infested with bed bugs. Her children went through a daily routine of taking off, bagging and changing clothes in their hallway each time they exited their apartment.
New Jersey state law gives tenants the right to withhold rent if their living conditions don’t meet health and safety regulations. After suffering constant bed bug bites and an embarrassing declothing ritual for over a year, Menendez-Jackson chose to legally withhold her rent. In response, she was evicted by her landlord.
The United States Supreme Court has not recognized a right to counsel in civil cases, so when tenants are wrongfully evicted they’re often tasked with fighting the ruling in a housing court without legal representation.
According to Desmond, most eviction rulings are “default evictions,” which is when a defendant doesn’t show up to court at all. Desmond said that many people falsely assume that “housing court” acts like a court, but he compared it to an assembly line where a commissioner is tasked with whittling down dozens of cases in a day by relying on the default eviction ruling.
Once a tenant is evicted, private businesses collect and sell information to landlords about who has been evicted in the past. The log is seen as a black mark, with no context or reason stated for why an eviction occurred, many landlords deny rental agreements to prospective renters in a practice known as tenant blacklisting.
Blacklisted tenants are forced to repeatedly lower their standards, eventually living in increasingly dilapidated conditions.
Desmond has recommended expanding the federal program for affordable housing vouchers to $22 billion, but for cases like Menendez-Jackson, more money wouldn’t help.
“When it comes to the very poor living in substandard housing, the vouchers can often hurt more than they help,” Franzese said. “A derelict landlord receiving the lion’s share of rent payment won’t have that government subsidy cut off, even when the tenant is able to show that the premises are unlivable.”