How We Use Resources

How We Use Resources

One critique of housing first policies is that it would be too expensive for us to provide public housing to everyone in the nation who is currently homeless and needs affordable housing. The nation has too much debt and there are too many homeless people. Those who are homeless or on the brink of homelessness need to step up to support themselves, because we don’t have enough resources to help everyone. The way to end homelessness, this argument suggests, is not to house everyone, but for everyone to take more personal responsibility for their situation.
Matthew Desmond believes this argument if wrong (to put it nicely).
In his book Evicted Desmond writes, “housing-related tax expenditures far outpace those for housing assistance. In 2008, the year Arleen [A low income tenant he profiled] was evicted from Thirteenth Street, federal expenditures for direct housing assistance totaled less than $40.2 billion, but homeowner tax benefits exceeded $171 billion. That number, $171 billion, was equivalent to the 2008 budgets for the Department of Education, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Agriculture combined.” For some additional figures, the total for federal expenditures in 2008 was $2.983 trillion, total revenue was $2.524 trillion, and the deficit was $458.6 billion. The $40.2 billion in housing assistance was 1.3% of the federal expenditures, 1.5% of federal revenue, and 8.7% of the deficit. $171 billion in federal tax subsidies for homeowners was equivalent to 5.7% of total expenditures, 6.7% of revenues, and 37.3% of the deficit. What these numbers suggest, and what Desmond argues, is that we simply don’t prioritize housing assistance. We prioritize giving people who already own their homes a break on their taxes, at a greater financial cost to society, than what we are willing to provide to those who need homes in order to keep their lives on track.
Desmond continues, “most federal housing subsidies benefit families with six-figure incomes. If we are going to spend the bulk of our public dollars on the affluent – at least when it comes to housing – we should own up to that decision. … If poverty persists in America, it is not for lack of resources.”
Yes, our country has a large deficit. Yes, our country carries what seems like an astronomical amount of debt. But that doesn’t mean we cannot help the poor and homeless. Our willingness to accept huge tax exceptions for homeowners paying interest on mortgages demonstrates our willingness to live with the debt and deficit we have. It shows that our fiscal and budgetary concerns are not exactly authentic, and suggests they may be an excuse to avoid doing more for the homeless who are not seen as deserving of our aid and energy. Resources exist to allow us to do much more to ensure that every American has a basic home and doesn’t have to rely on charitable shelters and limited public housing assistance. We have resources, we just don’t use them wisely.
Who Wants Market Regulation?

Who Wants Market Regulation?

“Those who profit from the current situation – and those indifferent to it – will say that the housing market should be left alone to regulate itself. They don’t really mean that,” writes Matthew Desmond in his book Evicted.  In the world that Desmond investigated, the world of low-income housing, the ones who don’t think any government action needs to be taken to regulate or stabilize the market are the landlords and people able to make money from slum housing. The people exploiting market failures and extracting rents say they don’t want any changes in housing policy because they favor a free market, but what Desmond’s quote hints at is that they don’t really exist within a free-market, and they currently profit from existing government action (not just inaction) on housing policy.
The quote from Desmond reminds me of senior citizens who protest changes to Medicare with signs that say “Keep your government hands off my Medicare,” seemingly unaware that Medicare is a government run health program. The line between government and markets is not always clear to people, and what people actually want in terms of government market regulation doesn’t always line up with people’s stated political beliefs or stated beliefs about government intervention. We can have high minded opinions about the proper role of government relative to markets, and we sound better and more impressive when we do, but the bottom line is that we are all likely driven more by our own self-interest than our high minded opinions of governments and markets.
I am currently listening to Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography on audiobook. I am struck by how our nation’s founding fathers quickly broke down into self-interested policy quarrels that were couched in high minded political rhetoric, but seemed to perfectly back the self-interest of the given founding father. Jefferson in particular seemed to be a master of this kind of deception, arguing that America should have a minimal government and reflect a populist standpoint. However, Jefferson owned slaves and had a vast agrarian plantation and his policies seemed to clearly favor his own lifestyle. His actions can be well understood when viewed through the lens of The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson who suggest that most of our behavior is signaling and that we generally (and deceptively) act on self-interest more than we would ever admit.
All of this is to suggest that most people don’t really have any independent and objective views of government regulations of markets. Desmond’s quote about housing markets shows that people are driven by self-interest, that they discount regulations that favor their financial interests, and that they misrepresent government policies that make them better off. When our own self-interest, our own bottom line, and our social status are on the line, we are willing to compromise our high minded positions to adopt the view that is expedient to our own interests. This was true of Jefferson and Hamilton in the first Presidential Administration after the adoption of the Constitution, and it is true today in housing, Medicare, and other government and market areas. Landlords, real-estate agents, and others who currently profit in the housing market are in favor of government tax breaks on mortgage interest, of housing vouchers, and other policies that help ensure people can afford high rents. They view the market as being free without fully acknowledging these interventions and how they benefit from them.
Exploitation & Poverty

Exploitation & Poverty

“Exploitation thrives when it comes to the essentials, like housing and food,” writes Matthew Desmond in his book Evicted. People cannot go without housing, cannot go without food, and cannot go without other basic necessities that can be used against them to extract extra profit by those who control capital, markets, and essential goods. This exploitation is an extra rent (using the definition of profit or return derived from any differential advantage) that doesn’t mean as much to the person profiting as it does to the individuals and communities burdened by exploitation. But we generally don’t focus on this exploitation.
Desmond also writes, “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 are caught up on what ghettos, slums, and worn down neighborhoods lack. We blame individuals for ending up in such poor situations and blame them for being unable to escape, even if we somewhat acknowledge how difficult it could be for anyone to rise up given everything impoverished communities lack. Focusing on what poor people lack brings the scale down to an individual level, highlighting a single case in isolation without consideration of larger structural and systemic forces.
The reality is that poverty doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and neither do any of us. As much as we want to think that poverty is an issue for individuals and defined by what they lack, we all play a part in establishing a society and an economy that can exploit the poor. By neglecting systems of exploitation, we tacitly approve of it, and approve of poverty and everything people in poverty lack. Addressing poverty will mean addressing systems of exploitation, and finding new mechanisms to help people in poverty obtain what they need without being exploited.
Housing Markets, Rent, and Workers

Housing Markets, Rents, and Workers

I don’t necessarily think that heavy handed government control of the provision of goods or services is the best way to organize our society and our resources, but I do think government intervention has a place. I think markets are great mechanisms for providing goods and services efficiently, but I think it is also clear that markets leave out some individuals and even well functioning markets have their points of failure. I also don’t believe there is some sort of dichotomy between government provided services and markets that cannot be breached. I think there is a need for government action when markets break or where markets fail to address people’s needs. Housing in particular seems to be one of those spaces.
There is not much incentive for landlords to provide low rent housing options to low-income renters. In his book Evicted Matthew Desmond shows how this leads to a limited supply of low rent housing options and how that low supply artificially inflates the cost of those options. Low rent, poor quality housing often isn’t actually that much cheaper than more expensive, nicer units which makes life for those in poverty unbearable. The standard advice to middle income renters or homeowners is to avoid spending more than 30% of your monthly income on rent or a mortgage. For the lowest income people in our society, that idea can be laughable.
Desmond also shows that simply raising wages for low-income individuals is not enough to avoid the high cost of rent. The limited supply of affordable housing options doesn’t exist in isolation. It exists within larger markets and forces, and will respond to other factors in the economy. Desmond writes, “when the American labor movement rose up in the 1830s to demand higher wages, landed capital did not lock arms with industrial capital. Instead landlords rooted for the workers because higher wages would allow them to collect higher rents. History repeated itself 100 years later, when wage gains that workers had made through labor strikes were quickly absorbed by rising rents.”
This dynamic between landlords and the wages of renters demonstrates a market failure. Rents can soar to absorb an increase to a worker’s income. People need a place to live, and even if the conditions are terrible, they cannot pass up housing. But as rents take larger and larger shares of their income, they have less to spend on groceries, utilities, and other necessities or enjoyments of life. The government does help people with food and some utilities, but people can hardly engage in our capitalistic society if an overwhelming amount of income is directed toward rent. Government provided low-income housing seems to be a necessity to correct for these market failures. Clearly large, densely crowded housing projects were not the right solution, but when we look at housing across the country we see a lot of different approaches to housing. Dense housing structures are not the only option, and other alternatives for reasonable and affordable government provided housing need to be attempted to help make the housing market work for more people and avoid eating any increase in wages that people earn as they try to escape dilapidated housing.
Good Intentions, Crushing Workloads

Good Intentions, Crushing Workloads

In the book Evicted Matthew Desmond accompanies a landlord who rents several properties to low-income individuals in Milwaukee to eviction court. People who are being evicted have the option to appear in court to defend themselves from unfair evictions and unfair rental agreements. The problem, however, is that almost no renters ever show up to defend themselves in eviction court. Regarding the problem, he writes:
“Courts have shown little interest in addressing the fact that the majority of tenants facing eviction never show up. If anything, they have come to depend on this because each day brings a pile of eviction cases, and the goal of every person working in housing court, no matter where their sympathies lie, is just to get through the pile because the next day another pile will be there waiting. The principle of due process has been replaced by mere process: pushing cases through.”
It is easy to simply dismiss this issue. It is easy to complain that people being evicted are lazy, irresponsible, and should have to show up if they really care about avoiding eviction. It is easy not to feel sympathy for people who make poor decisions, who may use drugs or be unemployed, and can’t keep up with rent payments when the rest of us have to work hard and go to our jobs in order to buy groceries, pay the rent or mortgage, and keep out of debt.
However, what Desmond notes is that this is an issue of due process, a constitutional provision backed up by two Constitutional Amendments. The right to due process is so important that it is in the Constitution twice, yet it is an afterthought for people facing eviction. There are numerous reasons why tenants don’t show up to represent themselves in eviction court, and some of those reasons are technical in nature, the results of unequal power dynamics, or stem from other addressable aspects of human nature. Whatever the reason, the high rate of no-shows in court demonstrates that due process is not being upheld, that people’s constitutional rights are being violated. None of us would find it acceptable if we had to clear numerous hurdles to be afforded a constitutional right, but that is what we accept with the failures of eviction court. Throughout the book Desmond shows that many people truly do care, but that the crushing workload and a never-ending stream of low-income renters being evicted makes the process overwhelming. As the quote shows, this leads to a prioritization of getting the work done rather than upholding the rights of poor people.
Without Stable Shelter, Everything Else Falls Apart

Without Stable Shelter, Everything Else Falls Apart

“Without stable shelter, everything else falls apart,” writes Matthew Desmond in his book Evicted. Throughout the book Desmond shows how eviction, and sometimes just the threat of eviction, has the power to ruin people’s lives. People who are living in poverty and just barely holding on can be pushed over the edge by an eviction, and can find it impossible to get their lives back on track. Far from being a consequence of poor decision-making and poverty, eviction can often drive people to make poor decisions, cause people to lose jobs, and can drive people into grinding and inescapable poverty.
“The pursuit of happiness undeniable includes the pursuit of material well-being,” Desmond writes, “minimally, being able to secure basic necessities.” People who have faced eviction don’t have the ability to secure basic necessities, they are excluded from the pursuit of happiness that Jefferson enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. Homeless shelters limit people’s ability to own items and bring them into a shelter. Storage facilities, where people may hope to keep things safe during an eviction, often become a black hole from which people’s possessions never return. Eviction leaves people with only the things they can carry with them, or perhaps with the things they can stuff in a car.
When people lose basic necessities they are effectively shut out of society. Sure, someone doesn’t need a TV, doesn’t need 5 pairs of shoes, and doesn’t need a coffee maker (that last one is arguable), but people do need things to brush their hair and teeth, enough changes of clothes to keep garments clean, and other basic necessities to avoid being shunned in public. We need small comforts from time to time to enjoy some aspect of life and feel human. We need connections, and that means we need some basic level of material possessions and a way to keep them out of the elements. Eviction takes these things away from people and makes lives fall apart. Housing needs to be a basic right, it needs to be something we make sure people have, otherwise we can never expect people to live the stable and responsible lives we want for them.
Eviction & Poverty - Housing First

Eviction & Poverty

Housing first is a common saying among those who advocate for the poor and impoverished in our nation. Instead of housing being a capstone to a responsible, socially adjusted, and respectable lifestyle, housing is seen by housing-first advocates as a cornerstone to those things. Without a stable place to live, it is almost impossible for people to rise from poverty, advocates of housing first policies argue.
Matthew Desmond shows support for a housing first approach in his book Evicted by connecting eviction with poverty and a downward life spiral. Once a stable housing situation is taken away from an individual, whether due to their own poor decisions or unfortunate circumstances, maintaining any sort of respectable and laudable lifestyle becomes nearly impossible. Desmond writes,
“Losing your home and possessions and often your job; being stamped with an eviction record and denied government housing assistance; relocating to degrading housing in poor and dangerous neighborhoods; and suffering from increased material hardship, homelessness, depression, and illness – this is eviction’s fallout.”
Eviction is a cause of poverty Desmond argues. When you lose your house and have to scramble to find a new place to live, don’t have a safe place to leave your children, and don’t have a place to store your things, you can hardly continue to work or search for a job. By losing your housing, you often lose your job, eliminating any hope of increasing your financial well-being. Evictions may also cause you to lose government housing aid or the support of neighbors and family members, making it even harder for you to get by. Employers won’t want to hire you if you live in a homeless shelter and you may become estranged from children or relatives. All of this only drives you deeper into poverty and despair.
A housing first approach gives people a stable place to live. It gives them an address that they can use on job applications, it takes away the stress that comes from trying to find a place to rent and gives people time to engage with neighbors or search for a job. Housing is necessary to take steps to better ones life, and can’t be seen as a capstone to reach once one’s life is on track.
Denied Housing Assistance

Denied Housing Assistance

In the United States it is hard to build political consensus for any measure. Measures aiding the poor are especially difficult to build a strong coalition behind. As a result, many of the measures that our nation adopts in an attempt to help the poor or address issues for those in need have compromises that make them less effective. This means that sometimes our policies don’t actually end up helping the people who most need assistance.
Matthew Desmond writes about this in his book Evicted. Regarding housing assistance, Desmond writes, “often, evicted families also lose the opportunity to benefit from public housing because Housing Authorities count evictions and unpaid debt as strikes when reviewing applications. And so people who have the greatest need for housing assistance – the rent-burdened and evicted – are systematically denied it.”
It is hard to find political support to provide assistance to people we don’t find deserving of assistance. The things that make people deserving of assistance are things like personal responsibility, a strong work ethic, a good sense of moral and social expectations, and self discipline to bring all these qualities together. Unfortunately, for many people living in poverty, especially those who have suffered trauma, some or all of these characteristics may be missing. We judge these characteristics by people’s level of debt and missed payments, by their history of eviction, and whether or not they have been able to maintain a stable job. These proxies help us determine if someone has the characteristics that would make them deserving of aid, but they also completely miss the point.
People who are deserving of aid usually are not the ones in the most dire need of aid. Quite often people who possess all the qualities to be seen as deserving hit hard stretches and need aid, but quite often people fail, they lose support and struggle to maintain the characteristics that would make them deserving, and are left without aid, making it impossible for them to actually improve their lives and become deserving of aid.
Desmond’s book, and the work of others on housing issues, advocates for a housing first policy. We cannot make housing assistance an incentive, it must be the primary foundation. We cannot expect someone to get a job if they don’t have housing. We cannot expect someone to stay off drugs if they don’t have a safe place to live. We cannot expect someone to catch up on debt payments if they don’t have a house and can’t get a foothold in the labor market. Housing, and housing assistance, has to be a priority, not an incentive or reward that is only provided to those seen as the most deserving.
Individual Costs of Eviction

Individual Costs of Eviction

People who don’t live in poverty often don’t realize just how costly poverty can be. Living in poverty can be very costly in terms of money and also in terms of time, energy, and overall quality of life. While I don’t think anyone would expect the quality of life for those in poverty to be good, I think many would be surprised to see just how bad it can be, and how limiting it can be for maintaining even simple enjoyable aspects of life that are in many ways essential for being human and are necessary for living responsibly and improving one’s situation.
In his book Evicted, Matthew Desmond writes the following to show just how costly poverty can be:
“If Arleen and Vanetta didn’t have to dedicate 70 or 80 percent of their income to rent, they could keep their kids fed and clothed and off the streets. They could settle down in one neighborhood and enroll their children in one school, providing them opportunity to form long-lasting relationships with friends, role models, and teachers. They could start a savings account or buy their children toys and books, perhaps even a home computer. Their time and emotional energy they spent making rent, delaying eviction, or finding another place to live when homeless could instead be spent on things that enriched their lives: community college classes, exercise, finding a good job, maybe a good man too.”
There are a few notable points in this quote. When people hit rock bottom poverty and face eviction, they lose the ability to maintain a job, to keep their kids (or themselves) in a stable location, and run out of energy to take the additional steps they would have to take to improve their situation. Because they are evicted (or otherwise left with no option but to move) frequently, they cannot build strong connections with other people. They cannot find mentors, find additional support and encouragement from caring people, and cannot get an extra hand in paying for groceries or networking for a stable job. Things like human connection are things that all of us want and need in life and that greatly contribute to our overall life satisfaction, but which are denied to those in deep poverty who face eviction.
These deep costs of poverty work against the individuals who have the least among us. Low wages and high rents mean that there is no way to have enough money left over to be responsible and plan ahead for the costs of life. Time spent on busses, time spent searching for another place to live once evicted, and time spent commuting long distances to places to work or receive aid add up on the costs of poverty, making life even more difficult and making escape even harder. It is important to acknowledge and think about all these costs. With such low levels of life satisfaction and no conceivable way to make life better, can we ever hope that anyone will pull themselves up by their own bootstrap to improve their lives? People need support, and they need systems that reduce the costs of poverty, or they can never escape.
Foundation in the Home

Foundation in the Home

For Matthew Desmond the problem of evictions is not just a problem that impacts a few unlucky people here or there. It is not even a problem for just the poorest among us or the most derelict and destitute members of American Society. Eviction is a problem of the nation, because the foundation of the nation, Desmond would ultimately argue, is the home.
“What else is a nation but a patchwork of cities and towns; cities and towns a patchwork of neighborhoods; and neighborhoods a patchwork of homes?” writes Desmond. Homes establish the foundational units which collectively come together to create a nation. Without places to live, people don’t have places to come together and create a society. A nation relies on individuals living together and forging their communities, cities, and nations jointly.
In this way, an eviction is not isolated to just a tenant and a landlord. In a direct sense, police, storage companies, and shelters are impacted by eviction. And in a broader and more indirect sense, local businesses, politicians, and eventually the entire society is impacted by eviction, especially as one eviction turns into multiple evictions and builds into an eviction epidemic. Evictions, being tied to the foundational building block of the nation, impact all of society.
I believe that for Desmond this is what drove him to do the research for Evicted and to share the stories of those directly involved in the eviction epidemic in America. By describing the people facing eviction, the landlords kicking them out, and the entire housing and economic systems that allow for such high rates of eviction, Desmond is helping us better understand the realities and costs of eviction. We have to have a full picture of eviction to appreciate its impact on our nation and to move forward in a way that better supports and integrates the poorest members of our society. We have to support the homes in order to support our communities, cities, and our nation as a whole.