Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

Review by: Steven Welliver, Deputy Chief Executive of Downtown Santa Monica, Inc.

July 2017

In 2008, at the height of the nationwide housing crisis and economic recession, sociologist Matthew Desmond moved into a Milwaukee trailer park on the verge of a court mandated closure. Over the course of the next few years, he followed eight families as they faced eviction after eviction in some of Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods. Desmond also shadowed a handful of landlords and property managers to more fully explore the causes and consequences of eviction and prevent bias toward the tenant perspective. The collective results of his fieldwork are chronicled in Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, for which he was awarded the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in the general nonfiction category.

Already in the evolution of our fairly young industry we have witnessed a shift from a largely business-focused agenda toward efforts to create complete neighborhoods with activity during nearly all hours of the day and night. With the reimagining of downtowns as desirable residential communities rather than just employment centers, many of our organizations have shifted to recognize residents and residential landlords as critical stakeholders in our work. We often speak of the new residents our districts have gained through development of residential units; less often do we examine the number of residents we have lost through formal eviction proceedings and informal tenant removal tactics. In fact, it was the widespread lack of dialogue around eviction as a contributing factor to systemic poverty prompted Desmond’s research. Following are a few key takeaways for urban place management practitioners.

Community Disruption: Evictions cause irreparable damage to the social fabric of our communities. Aside from the direct effects on the tenants (i.e., separation from friends and family, lack of access to supportive services) there are impacts on our work we may not fully recognize. We spend an extraordinary amount of time shepherding the creation and management of public spaces we hope the community will one day claim as its own. Time and time again, we have seen the effectiveness of creating shared responsibility for the wellbeing of public space through invested stakeholders who put eyes and ears on the street as they go about their daily lives. Evictions increase the level of transience among our residents, discourage investment in the social character of a neighborhood that may prove to be merely a stopover, and detract from our efforts to build stable, long-term urban communities.

Homelessness: Many of us work in communities where we combat homelessness on a daily basis. Some of us are fortunate to work in cities with a Housing First model for social services. The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness defines the Housing First model as “a proven approach in which people experiencing homelessness are offered permanent housing with few to no treatment preconditions, behavioral contingencies, or barriers.” In other words, we recognize housing as a basic need that lays the foundation for a stable life and move as quickly as possible to house the homeless with few strings attached. This approach mirrors the central tenet of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: that humans must be able to consistently meet their basic physical needs for food, water and shelter before advancing to social belonging, self-esteem and meaningful contributions to society. For Desmond’s case studies, evictions -- and in some cases the threat of pending eviction -- launched stress spirals that derailed even the most carefully laid plans of impoverished families. Adults lost employment. Children sustained extended periods of absence from school. Serious illnesses went untreated. Incidents of substance abuse and domestic violence increased exponentially. No family profiled could make progress in other aspects of their lives prior to resolving their need for replacement housing. Urban place management organizations should advocate for Housing First as the best practice model for providing service to the homeless in all of our communities.

Affordable Housing: As an industry and as individual organizations, we must diligently support the creation of affordable housing units in our urban neighborhoods. The tools for incentivizing affordable units will vary from community to community, but we must use the tools at our disposal. Our districts frequently serve as the economic engines of our cities and regions, and the economics of our development projects likely support subsidized below market rate units better than those elsewhere in the city. We strive to build complete, inclusive neighborhoods. The importance of valuing economic diversity and creating stable housing for those families at greatest risk for eviction from their homes cannot be overstated.