For Pulitzer-winning author Dr. Matthew Desmond, surveys and numbers weren’t enough to get a clear picture of what eviction does to a poor family in the Midwest. For the book, he moved into a trailer park in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and watched individual victims of the 2008 housing crisis move from squalid house to run-down apartment, trying to scrounge together enough money to keep ahead of the landlord.
“The data shows that eviction pushes families deeper into poverty. The experience shows me how people live it,” Desmond shared with more than 300 Syracuse attendees at Henninger High School Oct. 23. The event was hosted by Legal Services of Central New York and sponsored by the Syracuse University’s College of Law, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics.
Desmond is the author of “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Award. The book follows the stories of eight families who spend over 70% of their income on rent, placing them at constant risk of eviction. The book was the city of Syracuse’s book club choice this summer. Mayor Ben Walsh, who read the book with the club, said that the stories Desmond told were the same ones he hears from his constituents weekly.
“When I read the books, the specific stories were from people in Milwaukee but they could just as easily have been from people in Syracuse,” Walsh said. “It really hits home.”
One of the issues Desmond discussed in detail at his presentation was the nuisance ordinance, which allows landlords to evict tenants if their apartment is the site of police calls, even if the tenant is not at fault. Desmond’s work while writing “Evicted” led the American Civil Liberties Union to launch the movement “I Am Not A Nuisance,” which collected cases of eviction due to these ordinances from several states.
When asked about similar building ordinances that can affect residents in Syracuse, Walsh cited the city’s water shutoff policy, which the Common Council voted to end this month. The former policy shut off tenants’ water if their landlords failed to pay the bill. The change came after a legal settlement after a tenant sued the city in April. Walsh said after listening to Desmond’s talk that he would continue to look into legislation that could harm vulnerable city tenants.
“We have a nuisance abatement law; we have a disorderly houses law,” Walsh noted. “As I sat and listened today, it pushed me to look at those laws and others and make sure that we’re not causing any unintended consequences.”
Desmond saved some time to discuss his ongoing project, the Eviction Lab at Princeton University. The online database is the first of its kind to report on evictions and contains records that go all the way back to 2000 and span almost every state in the union.
However, not all states have complete data. Notably, Eviction Lab’s section for New York notes that the 2016 eviction filing rate of 7.15% is too low. According to LCSNY’s Director of Development and Communications Wendy Rhodes, eviction data is not publicly available unless a plaintiff or landlord pays to have it placed there. When LCSNY builds cases for evicted tenants, it is forced to use alternate routes to get their clients the help they need.
“We know the rates are higher than what’s reported,” Rhodes said. “But without the data, we’re usually forced to go with anecdotal evidence on evictions.”
Walsh said that Syracuse’s open data portal, DataCuse, will be working with Desmond to help provide some form of eviction data for the city.
Desmond ended his talk by taking questions from the audience. Asked what citizens who don’t face the threat of eviction could do to help their at-risk neighbors, Desmond responded by asking every member of the crowd who worked with evicted or at-risk tenants to raise their hands.
“Talk to them,” Desmond said. “And to you social workers and legal experts. Make yourselves available. Show people who are comfortable what their neighbors might be dealing with and how they can help.”
— Article by Jishnu Nair, The Stand Staff Reporter