Vailey Oehlke, director of the Multnomah County Library, has picked seven books for the library's annual Everybody Reads program.
But none has landed so squarely in the Portland zeitgeist as Matthew Desmond's "Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City," which follows eight low-income Milwaukee, Wisconsin, families whose pursuit of stability is upset time and again as they're kicked out of their home.
The reading program selection was announced as Portland's housing crisis comes to a head. The city has reached a new level of unaffordability, particularly for renters, and mass evictions have grabbed headlines.
"This really hit the mark," Oehlke said. "It strikes a chord with the sort of thing our community is facing in terms of challenges and aspirations."
Desmond, a Harvard sociologist who speaks in Portland on March 9, spoke to the The Oregonian/OregonLive about his immersive reporting and offered his thoughts on Portland's housing crisis.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity. It refers to characters by the pseudonyms Desmond used in "Evicted."
Q: You come from an academic background. But when you decided to write a book about poverty, instead of starting with a study or survey, you moved into a trailer park, and then an inner-city rooming house. Why?
A: I come from a specific tradition of sociology, which is urban ethnography. The way I've always started out with a problem is trying to understand it from the ground level. In college, when I was kind of confronted with facts and figures about inequality in America, a big impulse I had was to go hang out with homeless people around my university and hear them out and understand their situation from their perspective.
That's how I started out with "Evicted," too: what does eviction look like from the sidewalk view? And I built out from there. When confronted with questions about the problems of eviction, the consequences, there wasn't very good data. So I built out some more statistical stuff. (Desmond designed a first-of-its-kind survey of 1,000 Milwaukee renters.) Those different methods kept each other honest.
Q: Did you know that eviction would be the focal point for your book when you started?
A: I wanted to write a book about poverty that wasn't only about the poor. I was looking for some sort of narrative device, a phenomenon that would allow me to draw in a lot of different players. I was like, shoot, eviction does that.
When you look into eviction records in Milwaukee, you learn that one in 14 renter households in the inner city is evicted within a year, which is insane, and that's only court-ordered evictions. When we did a survey to capture all these formal evictions and other involuntary moves -- like when your landlord pays you to leave or takes your door off -- you learn that every two years in Milwaukee, one in eight renters in Milwaukee is evicted. That blew me away.
Then, there's the multidimensional consequences. You have studies that link eviction to depression. Eviction causes families to move into worse neighborhoods, Neighborhoods with evictions have more crime the next year, so it's destabilizing neighborhoods. There are studies that show eviction leads to job loss more than the other way around.
Q: You wrote that, "If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women." At the same time, you wrote about a wide array of people facing eviction. How are they experiencing it differently?
A: It's true that eviction affects the young and the old, the sick and the able-bodied. It affects white folks and black folks and Hispanic folks and immigrants. If you spend time in housing court, you see a really diverse array of folks there.
But the face of our eviction epidemic is really moms with kids. Until recently, the South Bronx housing court had a daycare inside of it, there were so many kids coming through.
African American women, and moms in particular, are evicted at disproportionately high rates. In Milwaukee, one in five black women reports being evicted sometime in her life, compared with one in 15 white women. That should trouble us as we talk about gender and racial inequality.
Q: You also spent time shadowing landlords, who I assume knew who you are and what you were working on. Their portrayal isn't always flattering. Why do you think they agreed to that?
A: A landlord like Shereena, she sort of considers herself a charitable businesswoman. She's proud of her work. She sees herself as providing a necessary service that a lot of folks wouldn't provide housing to. She's right about that.
It was really surprising to see landlords be more than landlords to their tenants, to sometimes be counselors or mediators. There's this little scene in the book where Shereena is interacting with one of her tenants that has one leg, and they're in eviction court. Like, she's taking him to court! But it's this loving, kind of flirtatious interaction with him. It's not just as simple as antagonism all the time.
For going forward and designing policy, one take-home is that landlords have to be at that table. We house most of our low-income families in the private housing market. If landlords aren't part of the solution, we're not going to get very far. I think we need to understand what landlords' gripes are.
Q: You also showed renters in a less than flattering light at times, making decisions that are difficult to understand.
A: To kind of show fullness as much as I was able. When folks read the book and parts of the book they might have regretted, they still had this sense of integrity for the work.
Q: Portland has begun to craft a response to the rental housing crisis, including new affordable housing mandates, new funding sources and new renter protections. To what extent will such policies address the issues you wrote about?
A: I'm a social scientist, so part of me says we need evidence. The root cause of the problem, the lack of affordable housing in our cities, is the thing we need to go after to really make a difference.
Portland is one of the nation's leaders in addressing this issue. I'm looking forward to learning a lot from this city. You've changed the narrative and made housing a platform for antipoverty efforts. Housing being a top-order issue for cities is something that's not trivial. You go to Portland and Seattle, and this is a conversation that a lot of people are having. That's not the case in a lot of other cities.
Q: You've suggested a universal voucher program as a major piece of a solution to the housing crisis. How did you land on that?
A: The problem for me is always the unlucky majority. Only one in four households that qualifies for housing assistance gets it.
The most efficient way to help the unlucky majority is through a massive expansion of the housing voucher program, which works pretty darn well. We don't need to think of a new design for a program, we need to look at the dosage.
Families, when they get a housing voucher, they move a lot less. They move into better neighborhoods. Their kids go to the same school more consistently. Their kids have more food, and they get stronger. There are massive returns.
Q: When you were doing your field work for this book, the world was paying a whole lot of attention to the foreclosure crisis. What did you think about that at the time?
A: At the time I don't think I gave it a lot of thought. I got into this work, and the bottom fell out of the housing market. But even at the height of the foreclosure crisis, there were way more evictions than foreclosures nationwide.
This isn't just a 2008, 2010 story. This is a story about stagnant wages and rising housing costs that had been going on for two decades.
Q: What do you want people to think about as they read "Evicted"?
A: I think we're good at talking about policy and solutions, and goodness knows we need to have that conversation.
But I think it's important to sit with these stories and become acquainted with the sadness and trauma of poverty, and just see the raw human side of it, and all this talent and ability and brilliance that we're wasting because we're allowing families to face this crisis in such a brutal way.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 9
Where: Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 S.W. Broadway, Portland
-- Elliot Njus
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