I first learned about Matthew Desmond’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize winning work Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City from a neighbor who worked with Desmond at Harvard. After telling me about the book my neighbor said, “Hey, I think he goes to your church. Do you know him?”
I would have loved to say yes and enjoy a witnessed brush with fame but I had to confess that in a church of probably one thousand people I hadn’t met him or his family.
A week or two later in a subsequent conversation with the same neighbor he mused to me that he was thinking of bringing his family to church.
“I thought maybe we could try yours sometime. I mean, I figure Matt’s a good guy and you’re great, so maybe the church is okay too?”
I got so excited it took all my self-control not to shout Hallelujah right there.
“That’d be great. We’d love to have you join us.” I told him, keeping my voice even-keel, and promised to send him the service times and a bit of information about the church.
Then I dig some digging to find a connection to the Desmonds. It turned out that one of their sons was in Sunday School with my three-year-old. I got in touch with the wife through the church’s internal network and let her know that we had a mutual friend interested in coming to church. I asked her if she and her family could encourage our friends to attend and to help me in welcoming them. She eagerly agreed, and it was wonderful to run into her on a subsequent Sunday and begin to build a connection.
Of course, as life takes its twists and turns some connections freeze in their paths and end up going no farther. In this case, Matthew Desmond took up a position at Princeton and moved his family there.
But perhaps it was because of this seed planted in my heart for both my neighbor and his former colleague that I was doubly eager to finally read Evicted when I saw it displayed as the Social Justice Book Club pick for October at my local branch library. How could I resist reading something so monumental by someone whose family I had met? How could I resist attempt to revisit this connection that had been interrupted?
I met to discuss Desmond’s work with a small but hearty group of readers early in October where we dissected the trials and tragedies of the women, men and families Desmond describes in his chronicle of housing crisis in Milwaukee set mainly over the course of 2008 and 2009.
To anyone considering reading this great work, don’t be intimidated by its length. Despite details that sat on my soul with deepening sadness, I found the book readable and compelling. If you are short on time (or emotional bandwidth) consider just reading the epilogue and “about this book” sections at the back where Desmond explains his overarching sociological findings as well as how he was able to write such a personal account of several desperate and destitute families. Desmond clearly writes from a place of deep compassion for all people, and in a very satisfying way provides clear and practical solutions for how we might pick up the cause and act in our own communities to support efforts for affordable housing -- such as giving everyone the right to representation in civil cases and expanding the housing voucher program to find stable rentals in the private sector.
I felt personally convicted when I read about the specific mention of how much money homeowners save in tax breaks. Reporting on page 312 of his epilogue data collected from Alex Schwartz's Housing Policy in the United States, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2010), 45-47:
“Over the years, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have restricted housing aid to the poor but expanded it to the affluent in the form of tax benefits for homeowners….In 2008, the year Arleen was evicted from Thirteenth Street, federal expenditures for direct housing assistance totaled less than $40.2 billion, but homeowner tax benefits exceeded $171 billion….Each year, we spend three times what a universal housing voucher program is estimated to cost (in total ) on homeowner benefits, like the mortgage-interest deduction and the capital-gains exclusion….If poverty persists in America, it is not for lack of resources.”
After reading how I might be implicated in what he calls the “exploitation of the poor”, I recalled how frequently I have bragged about my low property taxes and the residential tax exemption we receive in Cambridge. I wanted to give back in some way. I came up with one idea which I posed to a city councillor over email. I asked whether it be would possible to establish a voluntary system where residents could donate back their residential exemption to help pay for housing the poor. I asked her also to forgive me for having no head for politics or policy and thanked her for all she does for the city.
My councillor replied the next day with a description of the affordable housing options available in Cambridge. She pointed out that the evictions that take place in Cambridge do not resemble the ones described in Evicted and that residents here do have many options. She explained that:
“Almost 15% of residents live in subsidized housing either in public housing buildings, the city's inclusionary housing units, or with Section 8 vouchers. There are also some homeownership programs for qualifying first time buyers of moderate means.”
She told me that my particular idea of donating residential tax breaks for a specific cause may not be legal, and although it is possible not to apply for the residential exemption, the funds would be placed in a general tax revenue account.
In the meantime, it was good to learn that property owners “pay a 3% surcharge through the Community Preservation Act, 80% of which goes to fund affordable housing.” I was further heartened to hear her describe the consideration of a voluntary program where property owners could earn a tax abatement by agreeing to keep their rents below market.
My councillor also directed me to Desmond’s current work at The Eviction Lab in Princeton. From there I was able to learn that according to Desmond’s findings, Cambridge ranks down the list quite a ways as number 189 in terms of evictions in cities studied by his lab. Still, I found it hard to read the bottom line:
“There were 332 evictions in Cambridge in 2016. That amounts to 0.91 households evicted every day. 1.06 in 100 renter homes are evicted each year.”
So, in the end? Many people are working in my city to provide affordable housing through a variety of methods. There are ways my taxes are being used to accomplish those efforts. This problem has no easy solution, and I am glad I found out more.
What can you do in your city?
Pick up Desmond’s book. Let it convict you. Let it guide you. Then go out and starting asking questions.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.