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To research eviction, Matthew Desmond lived in low-income areas of Milwaukee.

Speakers include Pulitzer-Prize winner Matthew Desmond and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker.

October 2017 – If your rent represents more than half of your income—as it does for so many living below the poverty line—eviction may propel you deeper into poverty, food insecurity, educational deficiency, emotional illness, and for many, prolonged homelessness.

That was a key message delivered by Matthew Desmond, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, at a forum on the New Jersey eviction crisis that took place at Drew University.

The senator provides context.
The senator provides context.

Organized by Monarch Housing Associates, the forum also featured U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ); Felipe Chavana, executive director of Essex-Newark Legal Services; Arnold Cohen, senior policy coordinator at the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey; and Paula Franzese, Peter W. Rodino professor of law at Seton Hall. Drew’s Center for Civic Engagement was among the sponsors.

Grim statistics

To research Evicted, Desmond, now a professor of sociology at Princeton University, lived for more than a year in low-income Milwaukee neighborhoods where residents are vulnerable to what has become a nationwide eviction crisis. At Drew, he shared grim statistics engendered by the crisis, including:

– The majority of low-income renters spend more than 50 percent of their income on rent and many spend more than 70 percent.

Law Professor Paula Franzese moderates.
Law Professor Paula Franzese moderates.

– Since 1995, median rent has risen 70 percent, while median income—especially among the poor—is largely stagnant.

– Across America, only 25 percent of low-income citizens receive government housing aid.

– In inner-city Milwaukee, one in 14 residents is evicted each year.

Side effects

To Desmond, eviction “is not just a condition of poverty, it’s a cause.” It also has pernicious side effects.

For example, being evicted from a home can make it harder to find another, as landlords are wary of renting to evictees—be it in public or private housing. Eviction also can interrupt schooling, as families move into new neighborhoods or temporary housing like homeless shelters. In addition, such moves may trigger job losses or mental illness.

Drew President MaryAnn Baenninger welcomes speakers.
Drew President MaryAnn Baenninger welcomes speakers.

Like Desmond, Sen. Booker has lived in disadvantaged communities and still does, in an apartment in Newark’s Central Ward. At the forum, he pointed out that economic inequalities compound the effects of eviction, noting that for his parents’ generation, the federal minimum wage—now $7.25 an hour—was the equivalent of $25.

For the poor today, he added, “a $100 unexpected expense is often the difference between someone remaining in their house” and being evicted from it.

For years, Booker has worked to provide Newark tenants with legal services to help improve their living conditions, and he continues to fight in Washington, D.C. for access to fair, decent and affordable housing. He recently introduced legislation that would ensure a fair and equitable screening process and protect renters from being blacklisted for asserting their legal rights.

Possible solutions

Each speaker put forth ideas for addressing the crisis. Cohen, for example, mentioned bills before the N.J. State Senate that would enhance tenants’ rights in the face of eviction. And both Desmond and Booker suggested expanding the distribution of housing choice vouchers—a federal rent subsidy now issued to fewer than 20 percent of families at or below the poverty line—to all low-income Americans.

Desmond went further to suggest a higher reason for tackling the problem. “This degree of inequality, this blunting of human potential, this isn’t us,” he said. “This doesn’t have to be us.”