Published in the Oct 18, 2018, edition of the Lyons Recorder.
COMMENTARY: What’s the future of affordable housing in Lyons?
Evicted author Matthew Desmond advises expanding housing vouchers
by Amy Reinholds
“A problem as big as affordable housing problem needs a big solution,” Matthew Desmond, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, told the audience at the Lory Student Center at Colorado State University on Oct. 10. “Let’s take a solution we already have that is working like the affordable housing voucher program and just expand it to everyone below the poverty line.”
Desmond, a Princeton University professor, and also a MacArthur Fellow “genius grant” recipient, wrote the book after living in Milwaukee, both in a trailer park on the south side and in a boarding house on the north side, following eight families through the process of evictions, in court and in their search for places to live. He learned and told the stories of tenants and landlords, both black and white. His talk at CSU was sponsored by the university and several organizations. The event raised money and awareness for Neighbor to Neighbor, a non-profit in Fort Collins and Loveland that provides a wide range of services from preventing homelessness to rental assistance, housing search programs, and home buyer education.
When families have a Section 8 voucher, which subsidizes their monthly rental costs, data shows they move less often and their kids do better in school, Desmond said. The problem, he said, is that there aren’t enough for all the people who need them. There are lotteries that are only open a few time, and there are long waiting lists for publicly funded affordable housing. “The unlucky majority receive nothing.”
About his idea of expanding vouchers to everyone below the poverty level, he said there are two main questions people ask about this idea. First, would it be a disincentive to work? “There is some data that people would work less, but maybe they would spend more time with their kids,” Desmond said. “But I think the status quo is much more a risk. Think of the brainpower and creativity that we just squander.”
For people who have a high school education or less, income has stayed flat, but the cost of rent has increased, Desmond said. “Under these conditions you don’t need to make a huge mistake to find yourself out on the street.” And when you are evicted, or forced to leave, he described a long list of losses: “You lose your neighborhood. your kids lose their school. Sometimes you lose your stuff. An eviction prevents you from finding another home, including public housing. It can cause job loss.” He said data shows families move to poorer neighborhoods with more crime after an eviction. A woman he wrote about in his book was paying more than 80 percent of her income on rent after an eviction. “Evictions seem to push families deeper into disadvantage.”
The second question Desmond said people ask him about expanding the housing voucher program for all low-income families is if it would be expensive for the American taxpayers. “The bipartisan Princeton Foundation estimated it would cost an additional $22 billion,” he said. But he pointed out that currently the homeowner tax subsidies cost about $40 billion. “It’s an entitlement, too, just not for poor people.”
The reality is much more complicated than “tenants are just lazy, and landlords are just greedy,” Desmond said. “We have to listen to landlords and tenants and understand their perspectives,” Desmond said. He gave an example of the complexity of what the City of Portland found about vouchers – 60 percent of vouchers were returned because tenants could not find landlords who would accept them. “We have to understand why,” Desmond said. “Is the inspection process too onerous? Is the voucher too little in a hot market?”
“This is a bipartisan problem,” Desmond said. “Whatever issue you care about, affordable housing is somehow at the root of it,” he said, bringing up data about how well children do in school, and depression in mothers who have been evicted with their children, showing up at a higher rate two years later. Desmond said that the data also shows that “Most white families in this country own their own home. Most black and latino families in this country do not, because of the legacy of racial discrimination.” And finally housing is connected with hunger and children’s nutrition. “When families do get rental assistance, they do one consistent thing with their money,” Desmond said. “They go to the grocery store.”
“If we don’t fix the housing problem, we won’t be able to fix the other problems,” he said. “This degree of inequality and level of social suffering… This doesn’t have to be us. There’s no ethical code, no holy scripture, that can support what our country has become.”
Desmond and his team’s work at www.evictionlab.org include eviction data from all parts of the country that are available for download. For example, he cited that the state of Colorado averages 50 evictions per day, which is more than our neighboring states of Utah, Wyoming, Kansas, and Nebraska.
The housing crisis is affecting rural and suburban areas, he said, as well as expensive communities in the north and poor communities in the south. “And it’s a young person’s issue whether you want it to be or not,” he said, describing how many young people can’t afford to move out of their parents’ homes after college.
After all this, does it sound bleak? Desmond also related success stories. “There are organizations around this country doing good work,” he said, and his organization justshelter.org aims to amplify that work.
He said some cities have held votes that passed raising taxes, like Seattle, where $270 million will be spent on creating affordable housing over seven years. He also said that in Laurence Kansas, “a bunch of nuns got together and got a sales tax passed” for affordable housing.
Desmond also cited innovations in the court system for evictions. In Cleveland, the judge in eviction court asks the tenants why they didn’t pay their landlords the $500 or whatever amount is owed, and tenants often answer because they lost their job or had unforeseen medical expenses. Full-time social workers in the courtroom match up services to help the tenants, and a situation is worked out so the landlords go home with some money that day, and the eviction is avoided.
And local laws have changed. Desmond said that in Milwaukee, 80 percent of domestic violence calls resulted in evictions for the women who called police because of a “nuisance” code where police notified landlords when a property had a certain number of repeat police reports. But after Desmond and his team worked with the police department, the laws and the policy changed so that domestic violence was not counted in the nuisance reporting for addresses, and the survivors of domestic violence didn’t also face eviction.
“The issue we could all consider is how much skin in the game do we have?” Desmond said. He described a proposal in Houston that could have built a larger number of homes in a poorer neighborhood, although HUD told the city they shouldn’t segregate low-income families in the poor part of town. The city looked at building affordable housing in a middle-class neighborhood where tenants could benefit from being near well funded schools and job opportunities, but because of building and land costs, fewer homes could be built there. And then residents of that middle-class neighborhood successfully campaigned their elected officials not to build affordable housing there because they didn’t want it near them.
Desmond summed up the quandary of choices. What would have been better – more rental homes in a poor neighborhood away from well funded schools and job opportunities, fewer homes where there were more opportunities for a better quality of life, or what actually happened – no affordable homes were built at all?
“Our safe neighborhoods are not just better, they are intimately tied to the neighborhoods with lower quality housing and schools,” he said. “Another way to look at it is there are winners and losers, and there are winners because there are losers. Are we OK with that?”
He noted that the landlord of the trailer park in Milwaukee where he lived while writing the book made $400,000 a year.
Amy Reinholds served on the Lyons Housing Recovery Task Force from December 2013 through its end in February 2015. She is currently a member of the Lyons Human Services and Aging Commission and served as a liaison to the Special Housing Committee during its existence from April 2015-April 2016. She has lived in Lyons since 2003 and in the surrounding Lyons area since 1995. For a history, you can read previous columns from both Lyons-area newspapers posted on her blog at lyonscoloradonews.wordpress.com. If you have any questions, comments, or complaints about this column, please contact her directly at areinholds @hotmail.com.