Our First Book Club Meeting: Evicted Raises Questions About Policies to Support Low-Income Tenants
Yesterday we held the first meeting of the TechEquity Collaborative’s book club. This quarter we read Evicted, by Matthew Desmond, the Pulitzer Prize-winning examination of eviction in one American city (Milwaukee). We got to talk for an hour about our take on the book, then we all headed over to the Nourse Theater to hear directly from the author. (Desmond was interviewed by Michael Krasny of KQED’s Forum program; the version of this conversation that happened on Forum earlier that day can be found here).
Evicted was a breathtaking account, one that tells a story of the experience of poverty at the human level — without patronizing, romanticizing, or dehumanizing the people profiled in the book. Desmond’s care and thoughtfulness allowed us to develop informed empathy and understand the way systems and policies reinforce poverty making it almost impossible for people to get ahead. We learn that eviction is an epidemic in poor communities, especially poor communities of color. In Milwaukee, one in five black women is evicted at some point in her life compared to one in 15 white women. Desmond called eviction the black woman’s equivalent to criminal conviction for black men — discriminatorily imposed and devastating to families and the community.
Eviction is often the first domino in a cascade of crises that the poor experience, contributing to health problems, negative educational outcomes for children, and potential exposure to violence and crime. We learned from Desmond during the interview with Krasny that having children actually increases the likelihood that a woman will be evicted by three times.
Though the book was set in Milwaukee, there’s no question there are parallels to the experience of the housing crisis for poor people in the Bay Area. THe housing crisis is front of mind for everyone in the Bay Area, but for those of us who have the relative means to avoid eviction, it’s easy for us to see the crisis as a problem of supply: if we could just build more, the suffering would end. We spent our book club discussion reflecting on the untold story of the housing crisis as it’s experienced by people who are being priced out of existing housing, and how we might change the way we think about the crisis if we center their experiences.
One sentiment that emerged from our discussion was hopeful: many of the challenges highlighted in the book could be solved by changing policy, and by people who have relative privilege and power raising their voice about the way poor people are treated in the housing system. We highlight anti-displacement as a key part of our housing platform and will be prioritizing work next year to enact some of the potential policy solutions mentioned in the book. Those ideas include:
- A universal right to legal counsel for those threatened with eviction. Americans have a right to legal counsel only in criminal cases. In civil courts, like housing court where eviction cases are heard, there is no right to legal services for the indigent. According to Desmond, 90% of tenants in housing court are not represented, while 90% of landlords are. There is data to show that having legal representation drastically reduces the chances of eviction. Earlier this year, New York City became the first place in the country to offer universal right to counsel. We can bring this kind of policy to California as well.
- Lowering barriers for formerly incarcerated people to access housing. At our November event, San Francisco Supervisor Malia Cohen talked about her work to “ban the box” (remove questions about applicants’ criminal past from housing and job applications) in San Francisco. A similar effort passed in Richmond, CA. This policy should apply for all Californians seeking to get back on their feet after a jail or prison term.
- Ending discrimination against housing voucher holders. The Housing Choice Voucher Program (sometimes referred to as “Section 8”) provides vouchers to some (not nearly enough) low-income renters that allows them to pay the difference between market-rate rent and one third of their income. These vouchers have been a key tool to provide stable housing for the poor. Unfortunately, despite laws prohibiting landlords from discriminating against people based on the form of payment they use to cover rent, landlords frequently turn housing voucher holders away. Past attempts to pass state legislation outlawing Section 8 discrimination have failed. With an increased focus on the urgency of the current housing crisis, 2018 could be the year when those attempts succeed.
Desmond also mentions expanding the Housing Choice Voucher Program to cover all eligible families (it currently is only available to about 25% of them; the rest take their chances in the private rental market). Expanding this federal program would be difficult in today’s national political climate but we can start walking that path by tackling some of these other priorities in California now.
If you want to join us in this fight, become a member today. And get excited for our next book club event in early April. We’ll be reading Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, and the author will be joining us to discuss the book!