How high eviction rates are shaking the country

An eviction team member removes furniture
An eviction team member removes children's furniture from a house during a home foreclosure in Milliken, Colo.
John Moore | Getty Images 2011

Matthew Desmond was awarded a 2017 Pulitzer Prize for his book, "Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City."

When people think of a time of devastating poverty in the United States, the Great Depression usually comes to mind. There was massive unemployment, widespread hunger and evictions.

Those eviction numbers, though, are nowhere near what they are today.

'Evicted' by Matthew Desmond
'Evicted' by Matthew Desmond
Courtesy of Crown

"We are evicting a lot more people now than we did during the Great Depression," Matthew Desmond told MPR News host Tom Weber. In the 1930s and 40s, evictions could be counted in the hundreds. Now, Desmond said, they can be counted in the millions.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR's budget year comes to a close on June 30. Help us close the gap by becoming a Sustainer today. When you make a recurring monthly gift, your gift will be matched by the MPR Member Fund for a whole year!

Desmond's new book, "Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City," is arguably the most comprehensive study of eviction across the country. Desmond, a Harvard professor and a MacArthur Genius grant winner, embedded himself in low-income neighborhoods in Milwaukee, Wis., for more than a year to understand the emotional and economic impact that comes with losing your home.

He stood on the street with Arlene, a single mother of two boys, in January's freezing temperatures, trying to move her stuff before the sheriff arrived.

"They would have given her two options: truck or curb," Desmond said. "'Truck' means that her possessions would be taken by movers [who would bill her for storage], and 'curb' means that all of them are piled on the sidewalk, and I mean all of them: the mattresses, the food in the freezer, the shower curtain. It's something that is a violent and very destabilizing event, and it's something that happens a lot."

That was just one of Arlene's many evictions.

"When I met Arlene, she was spending 88 percent of her income to live in a really run-down, two-bedroom apartment in a poor neighborhood in Milwaukee, which at the time was the fourth poorest city in the country," Desmond said. "Under those conditions, evictions are not the result of irresponsibility as much as inevitability."

An eviction is only the beginning of economic trouble

That first eviction can quickly send a family into a housing spiral, due to the stigma attached.

"Eviction comes with a record. We know a criminal record can have an effect on your life — an eviction record is the same, "Desmond said. "An eviction record can bar you from safe neighborhoods and decent housing because many landlords will turn you away. Evicted families are pushed deeper into the inner city, into worse housing and worse neighborhoods. A lot of public housing authorities count evictions as a blemish, a mark against a record, which means we're systemically denying public housing from families who most need it."

The waiting list for public housing can be measured in decades

"I think many Americans still believe that the typical low-income family still lives in public housing or receives some sort of government help for their housing costs, but the opposite is true: Today only about one in four families that qualify for housing assistance receive it," Desmond said. "The waiting lists for public housing in some of our big cities is not counted in years, it's counted in decades. It means that young parents that apply for housing today might be grandparents by the time their application comes up."

"Housing costs have risen: In the last two decades, low-income families have seen their incomes stagnate or even stall, but their rent and utility costs have gone up and up, to the point that today, most poor renting families spend at least 50 percent of their income on housing. One in four spends over 70 percent just on rent and utilities."

The emotional impact of eviction is real

"There's the effect eviction has on your soul, your spirt," Desmond said. He saw this firsthand in his year in Milwaukee, as he accompanied tenants to eviction court, to shelters, to churches and to funerals.

"We know that moms that get evicted have higher rates of depression 2 years later. We know that suicides attributed to evictions doubled between 2005 and 2010."

Women and children are disproportionately affected by eviction

The high rate of incarceration for African-American men has spurred demands for change across the country. In "Evicted," Desmond draws a parallel to eviction:

"If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of the women. Poor black men were locked up, poor black women were locked out."

"We need to recognize that the face of America's eviction epidemic is moms with kids," Desmond said. "There's so many kids that are affected by eviction. Until recently, the Bronx housing court had a day care inside of it because there were so many kids coming through the door."

"In Milwaukee, most homes that get evicted have children living in them ... We can't hope to give kids a shot to reach their full potential if we are demanding their parents spend most of their income on housing, and that we treat eviction as something that's commonplace and ask kids to bounce from neighborhood to neighborhood and school to school."

For the full discussion with Matthew Desmond on "Evicted," use the audio player above.