Windows and Mirrors - A Place to Call Home - Florence Sprague - July-August 2021

“Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I would like to see you living in better conditions.” Hafiz, Persian poet, 1315-1390

It’s a long time since I have been a renter. There are plusses and minuses to renting versus owning, both in terms of finances and responsibilities. But those questions and choices are irrelevant to many low-income renters in America.

In 2017, sociologist Matthew Desmond won a Pulitzer Prize, and other recognitions, for his searing study, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Though it was highly acclaimed, it did not make it to the top of my reading pile at the time. This year with pandemic related moratoria on evictions, news of gaps in those leading to loss of housing, the visible challenges of balancing the interests of landlords and low-income renters who may be essential workers, and more, it came to mind again.

Desmond did his study in Milwaukee, following the lives of multiple individuals and families, white and black, and two landlords. He did his research by living in the same poor neighborhoods and dilapidated housing as his subjects. These people came to poverty and repeated evictions from multiple directions—job loss, illness, addiction, family breakup. Just reading about the struggles of the people generous with their lives to Desmond was draining; I can’t imagine living it.

We often hear that housing expenses shouldn’t run more than about 30% of one’s budget. For many living on severely limited incomes in severely substandard housing, rent runs at 70% of income. Families that begin with little are left with hardly anything, and the children live lives of incredible instability due to multiple, unplanned moves.

Looking for a new place to live can be stressful for anyone, but when one’s options are reduced by low income, eviction records, criminal records, children in the household, and more, it becomes impossible, and the quality of the choices is abysmal. Dozens of calls may lead to nothing. And yet, even apartments with no appliances, bad plumbing, broken windows, and other problems are not cheap. Rent does not decrease in proportion to the decline in quality of the housing. Landlords make money in even the worst neighborhoods; there just isn’t enough housing to reduce demand and rent. Poverty is a relationship between rich and poor, and while neither side may be blameless, there is exploitation.

Evictions also destroy communities. The constant churn of residents reduces the cohesion of a neighborhood making it more vulnerable to bad actors and less able to create a supportive network for residents. A home gives a family stability. It is the basis for healing and growth. When the repeated loss of home and search for a home consumes all of a person’s energy, what is left for parenting? For learning? For working? Children tossed about by repeated evictions cannot develop a sense of safety, security, control.

Federal housing assistance reaches only a small fraction of those eligible to receive it. While some landlords don’t want to deal with the requirements it imposes, others learn to milk the system by increasing the rent—knowing that the portion paid by the tenant will stay the same and the government will pick up the increase. Dollars spent on affordable housing can prevent larger, more costly problems for society. Can we learn to think for the long term?

There are remedies to the eviction problem. More public attorneys for tenants who have good defenses would help, but mostly we need to address the shortage of housing. For more analysis, read the final chapter with Desmond’s reflections on what his study revealed. Desmond is convinced that this country could afford to fix this problem if it chose to. Why doesn’t it?

“Windows and Mirrors for All” has been a regular column in the Voter since 2004. The title is derived from an essay by Emily Style, “Curriculum as Window and Mirror,” found in Seeding the Process of Multicultural Education. Style states that “education needs to enable the student to look through window frames in order to see the realities of others and into mirrors in order to see her/his own reality reflected.” People of all ages need both mirrors and windows with which to view the world, but too often we only have mirrors.