Inspired by the Council’s Rachel Tanur Memorial Prize for Visual Sociology, we ask prominent scholars to select a visual artifact of this time that will help future researchers understand the Covid-19 crisis. In this installment, Matthew Desmond (Maurice P. During Professor of Sociology, Princeton University) spoke with Alexa Dietrich (SSRC program director) about how the pandemic has intensified the US eviction crisis, the ways we can address it, and the activism that gives him hope.

Photo Credit: Jodi Fortino, KCUR

Alexa Dietrich (AD): Why did you select this image?

Matthew Desmond (MD): Covid-19 arrived in the United States when the country was already in the depths of a really intense housing crisis. Incomes for many Americans have been flat over the last 20 years, but rents have gone up tremendously—rents have doubled over the last 20 years and the federal government hasn’t responded. So there’s a shrinking gap between what families are bringing in and what they need to pay for shelter. Before Covid-19, before 15 percent unemployment, the majority of renters below the poverty line were spending at least half of their income on housing. Some of those families were paying over 70 percent of their income just on rent and utilities. That was normal life.

Then, Covid-19 hits and we have an unemployment crisis that’s disproportionately affecting communities of color, particularly Black communities, as are evictions and homelessness. So my fear (a fear shared by advocates around the country) is that there has not been a federal response to the rental crisis, there has been no rent relief. The stimulus checks that went out were $1,200 and median rent in the country today is $1,002. So for a lot of Americans it’s a ticking time bomb. We’re worried about a wave of evictions crashing as the moratorium ends.

AD: I recently saw on Twitter, a man tweeting from an eviction court in Omaha. He was giving snapshots of the sort of evidence discussed in the appeal process. From the perspective of tenants, they know what they know about their own financial circumstances and that seems like that should be evidence. But it’s not enough to prevent eviction.

MD: I’ve been to eviction courts around the country and they’re not like courts in the movies. There’s no right to an attorney in eviction court. Most people who are getting evicted don’t show up, precisely because they don’t have an attorney. For those that do show up, it’s usually a question of, do you owe the landlord or not? If the answer is yes, then it’s up to the landlord. For years, we have come to view eviction as a solution, but eviction is a giant problem. It’s not solving the landlord’s problem, especially during the pandemic.

There is a financial incentive for landlords, during normal times, to evict at really high rates. But when you look at the eviction data, it looks like a market failure. Every year, 3.7 million evictions are filed around the United States. That’s about eight a minute… What’s going on? What I learned when I was spending a lot of time with landlords in poor neighborhoods in Milwaukee is that it’s cheaper to evict than it is to fix up your apartment. Those two things go together because for a family that’s paying 70–80 percent of their income on rent, you move in and the landlord says, “Well, how about we skip the security deposit? And you can just pay me one month’s worth of rent.” With that you’re behind on day one. Because what that means is that if you call the city on your landlord, because the ceiling falls in and the plumbing breaks down, the landlord can evict you. It’s illegal to retaliate against someone like that. But, you can evict someone for being behind any time. So for a lot of families, they’re trading their dignity and their kids’ health for a roof over their head.

In this situation though, with these lockdown orders, the home is our best medicine; the home is our vaccine. It’s very unclear to me that landlords can get replacement tenants. But it is very clear that if we have this wave of evictions, we’ll get more Covid-19 cases.

AD: If you solved the housing crisis, it would go a long way toward improving people’s health, safety, ability to get education, and ability to get a job. Housing itself is a core need at a policy level, and we’re not addressing its intersectional relevance to these other problems.

MD: Yes, that’s totally on point. Whatever social issue we feel most connected to, the lack of decent affordable housing is somewhere at the heart of that issue. Think about health: we know that the top 5 percent of emergency room users consume half of all hospital costs. Many of those folks are homeless people with serious medical conditions. We know that if we want kids to realize their full potential, we have to give them a stable, affordable place to live so they can have a place to study, so they can stay in the same school system, and form bonds with teachers and guidance counselors. If we care about racial inequality, most white folks own their home in America and are buffered from crises like this. Most Black and Latino folks are renters because of our systematic dispossession of people of color from the land. Housing is a fundamental human need.

AD: It’s really a punitive system. You can’t [make rent], so your punishment is to not have somewhere to live and that’s acceptable to us as a society.

MD: The punishment can be felt long after the dispossession. You get evicted, you get a court record that can damage your credit, that can prevent you from moving into a good place somewhere else. It can prevent you from moving into public housing, because many of our public housing authorities see that and say, “No.” This is systematically denying housing help to those that need it most. Studies show that eviction causes job loss, because it’s such a stressful event. Studies have linked eviction to depression years later, to suicide, and to drug use. So it’s not just a discrete kind of sharp pain. It’s something that is driving poverty and health issues. If people are getting evicted for peanuts—one-third of all evictions in the United States are for less than a month’s worth of rent—that’s especially troubling.

AD: Do you have specific policy prescriptions, something that you think is actionable moving forward or that could be, perhaps in another administration? And does this policy need to happen at the federal, state, or local level?

MD: With respect to Covid-19 in particular, our data show that those eviction moratoriums really worked. The problem is they’re starting to expire. We built a tracking system to look at what’s happening with evictions and in cities like Cleveland and Milwaukee, where protections have been diluted, evictions are up 40 percent from where they were last year. They’re up 40 percent from yearly averages, which is really scary.

Elizabeth Warren recently proposed a national moratorium. To me, that makes a lot of sense. There’s a rent relief package in the HEROES Act that passed the House, which allocates a hundred billion dollars for rent relief, and I think that’s absolutely necessary.

And we can think of other things too: Legal aid right now only reaches about 9 percent of all the need in eviction courts. In some eviction courts, 90 percent of landlords have attorneys and 90 percent of tenants don’t. An attorney by a tenant’s side really matters. It gives them a fair shot. So we could expand the funding to legal services, or we could follow the lead of some cities and establish the right to counsel in eviction court. That’s a game changer.

AD: Where do you think the really effective leadership has been, or could be, on this issue? 

MD: I love that question. When we’re seeing these big policy changes, sometimes the media portrays those changes as a good idea that a policymaker had—for example, the right to counsel in New York City. It passed two or three years ago. It was a grassroots organization called CASA that started this movement, in the South Bronx, led by low income people of color, and they would show up everywhere in the city with these orange shirts on, pushing for the right to counsel in eviction court. They want decency and respect if they’re facing homelessness. Along the way the [New York mayor Bill] de Blasio says, “Okay, here’s a lot of money. I’m going to fund more lawyers and legal aid.” And the tenants said, “No, we don’t want help for representation to go from 9 percent to 50 percent. We want the right.”

And they won that right, through a five-year mobilization campaign. Evictions have gone down 40 percent in New York City since then. You can see a level of tenant activism, grassroots activism, that we haven’t seen in this country since the Great Depression, when there were eviction blockades and people were literally attacking marshals with sticks and rocks. I think that we’re seeing the emergence, the resurgence, of rental power. When the Right to the City Alliance started I think it had 10 cities signed up; now it has like 50 cities. And what the “Cancel the Rent” campaign reminds us of is the scope of the problem.

The message is similar to the tenant’s message in New York—”No, we don’t want a little more help. We want all of us to be okay.” And that’s why they’re calling to cancel the rent. I see a lot of leadership there, in the grassroots. I see a lot of leadership from undocumented moms. I see a lot of leadership from folks who have been evicted and are giving voice to their experience. And I see a lot of leadership all over the country. There are some cities that have invested in affordable housing and there’s a culture of that investment.

The people of Seattle have passed a housing levy for the past 35 years, and they pay more taxes. The housing levy goes into affordable housing, it goes into first-time homeownership, and it goes into rentals. They’re going to raise $300 million in seven years based on that levy. Is Seattle a super affordable place to live? No, but is that a commitment to this issue? Absolutely.

In places like Cleveland, you’re seeing the legal system actually transform itself into a system of justice, not an eviction processing plant. The judge says, “Mr. Desmond, are you behind?” And you say, “Yes.” And the judge asks, “Why?” And there are service providers in the courtroom and they get your needs met. They get the landlord paid, they keep the family housed.

There are people in Washington that have been pushing this for a long time. You see people like Representative Barbara Lee, like Representative Maxine Waters—who have deep connections to public housing—keeping this on the forefront. In the Senate, you see bipartisan bills that would prevent evictions, that would expand our voucher system. So I do think we’re seeing real leadership at the federal level now, too. Part of that is a response to the grassroots movement.

AD: Are there other things, prompted by the image that you selected, future researchers of the Covid-19 pandemic should be thinking about?

MD: I hope that people will pull this photo out, years later, and ask, “How could we have been so cruel?” I’ve been on evictions when it’s a lot of degrees below zero. There’s only two cities that have eviction moratoriums because of weather, Chicago and Washington, DC. Not Fargo, North Dakota, not Minneapolis, Minnesota, not Anchorage, Alaska, not New York. I’ve seen moms trying to figure out, “Should I feed my kids, or should I pay the rent?” One of the first things people do when they get a housing voucher and they only have to pay 30 percent of their rent is buy more food.

This is a unique cruelty in the American housing system. I hope—it’s a kind of an optimistic hope, I suppose—that 50 years from now, 70 years from now, we’re not doing this. In Virginia, one in 10 evictions are for less than $335. That’s less than what my students pay in textbooks every semester. This makes no sense. This is an American cruelty.

AD: “How could we have been so cruel?” This seems like something we should all sit with. And not just sit with, but act on…

MD: Yes. And people are acting and it’s encouraging to see them act. We’ve still got so much work to do.

This conversation was conducted on July 2, 2020. It has been edited for length and clarity.