Forum addresses housing inequality, looking at eviction and its causes

Matthew Desmond shared stories and experiences of families and people affected by the problem

More stories from Elizabeth Gosling


Photo by Kar Wei Cheng

Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer Prize winning book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” addresses housing inequality in the United States.

Eviction is a problem facing America, said Matthew Desmond, the latest guest in UW-Eau Claire’s Forum series.

Desmond, professor of sociology at Princeton University, published the Pulitzer Prize winning book “Eviction: Poverty and Profit in the American City.”

In order to look at the problem with a hands-on perspective, he lived in a trailer park for five months, meeting people going through difficult housing situations and going to eviction hearings with them. He also met people on the other side of the equation — landlords — learning how they collected rent and giving out eviction notices.

“Eviction affects the young and the old. It affects the sick and the able-bodied. The faces of eviction are specifics just like moms and kids just moms and kids,” Desmond said.

In Milwaukee, one in five black women reports getting evicted at least once in her life, compared with one in fifteen white women, he said.

Landlords do not always follow protocol when going through with an eviction either, Desmond said. He said some people break down their doors, give verbal warnings in order to avoid the paperwork that comes with evictions.

After the eviction hearings are officially done, the state puts the eviction records into a database, making it easy for landlords to see if tenants have a history with eviction.

He said when people have a record, landlords will be more likely to deny them for housing even though they have nowhere to go.

“We can’t fix poverty until we fix housing,” Desmond said.

Eviction can happen in different ways, he said. Many times, when employers cut employees’ hours, workers are left with having to find more jobs in order to make their rent payment. Other times, when there are complaints because of children’s behavior, the landlord can push to evict them if they are also late on payments. Then, any source of income goes toward the rent payment, instead of food, clothing or activities for children.

Desmond told the story of Arlene, a mother of two sons, who faced eviction and its effects on her health.

Arlene’s search for housing was like looking for a needle in a haystack. She put in applications to 80 houses, without an affirmative response from any of them.

Desmond said a significant part of the problem was her boys. Landlords, in his experience, do not like kids and reject applicants with kids.

Desmond said Arlene felt she had a curse on her, because of all the stress she experienced while searching for a place to live.

A liberal arts student at Chippewa Valley Technical College (CVTC) in the audience, Olivia Stuttgen, read Desmond’s book and said she is personally affected by the topic.

“There needs to be a change in how, not just the state of Wisconsin but how this country as a whole needs to look at the housing problem that we have,” Stuttgen said. “I think it is very prevalent ‘cause it’s not just myself but I have friends who aren’t renting and still live with their parents because they can’t afford to pay rent even by themselves or with roommates.”

Desmond, along with Eau Claire associate sociology and communication professor Peter Hart-Brinson, attended graduate school together at UW-Madison.

Hart-Brinson, hosted Desmond at his home over the time he was in Eau Claire. He said students at the university may face eviction because of the relationship between students who live off-campus and their landlords.

“Eviction is a symbol of the vulnerability that renters have with their landlords,” Hart-Brinson said.

Hart-Brinson said he is not sure how to deal with housing insecurities. He said Desmond paved the way for people going through eviction and raised awareness of the problem.

“I think Matt has put housing issues on the map, pun not intended,” Hart-Brinson said. “Seriously, I think the book has raised awareness of a problem we tend to overlook and that we tend to just imagine as just something that happens to other people and not to us.”