COLUMN: Award-winning author Matthew Desmond explains how being evicted scars families

'We've been way too wimpy'

I watched it happen over and over one morning at the Hamilton County Courthouse.

Families’ lives unraveled in five minutes or less.

Sitting on long, wooden benches, they waited for their names to be called. One at a time, tenants approached the Hamilton County magistrate, admitted they were behind on their rent and begged for more time. They talked about sick relatives that put them behind or new jobs that could help them get back on track.

Nearly every one of them pleaded for mercy. Almost without exception, their landlords said no. Then with the banging of a gavel, the families were evicted.

RELATED: Win in court is still a loss for this family

This is not to say that all landlords are bad or mean-spirited. They are property owners and business people who are trying to make a living and pay their bills.

But if you have never been evicted, you might not realize how much damage that five-minute legal proceeding can cause. An eviction ruins your credit score and makes it much more difficult to find another landlord who will rent to you -- especially one that will rent you decent housing in a safe neighborhood.

As Matthew Desmond told hundreds of people earlier this week in Cincinnati: “Evictions are not just a condition of poverty. They’re a cause of it, too.”

Desmond knows better than most. He’s an associate professor of social sciences at Harvard University and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. The book is an in-depth study of some of the poorest neighborhoods in Milwaukee and eight families on the edge.

But what Desmond learned in Milwaukee applies to cities across the country, he told those gathered to hear him speak May 16 at the Cincinnati-Hamilton County Community Action Agency.

“Eviction comes with a record, which can prevent you from moving into decent housing in a safe neighborhood,” he said. “If you get evicted, your chances of losing your job the following year are 20 percent higher.”

In Hamilton County alone, nearly 12,000 evictions were filed with the court last year, said Stephanie Moes, a housing and education attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio. That total doesn’t count informal or unlawful evictions, she said. But it does include nearly 3,000 “writs of eviction” that were issued last year. Those writs are where families have their belongings put out on the sidewalk, and they often end up losing many of their possessions as they lose their homes.

Snowballs and curses

“As a community we cannot allow these families to continue to live like this,” Moes told the 250 people gathered to hear Desmond. 

But because of Hamilton County’s shortage of affordable housing, the pace of evictions is unlikely to slow.

More than 100,000 Hamilton County households spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, said Liz Blume, executive director of the Community Building Institute at Xavier University.

“That’s one-third of the population in Hamilton County,” she said. “And we know that gap is getting bigger. Incomes between 2000 and 2017 overall rose something like 15 percent. And the cost of housing has gone up more than 50 percent.”

That positions our region to have scores of parents like Arleen, a Milwaukee mom whom Desmond featured in his book.

Matthew Desmond speaking at the Cincinnati-Hamilton County Community Action Agency.

Arleen got evicted after her 14-year-old son hit a passing car with a snowball. The driver of the car stopped, ran after the boy and kicked in the family’s front door. Her landlord evicted her because of the property damage, and her life spiraled into a series of worse and worse homes for her and her two sons after that.

She finally found a place she liked. But by that time her teenager was acting out at school after moving so often. He kicked a teacher in the shin, and the teacher called police who showed up at Arleen’s apartment to question the boy.

The landlord evicted the family because he didn’t want a police presence at his building, and Desmond said Arleen “began to unravel a bit.”

“She told me, ‘It’s like I got a curse on me that won’t stop for nothing,’” Desmond said. “Arleen told me, ‘Just my soul is messed up. I wish my life were different.’”

Arleen wanted to fast-forward to a time when she was an old woman with two sons who had grown into fine young men. She wanted them to be able to look back and laugh about their troubles. But even then, she knew that dream was distant at best.

Evictions, Desmond said, are “making things worse, and they’re leaving a deep and jagged scar on the next generation.”

The courage to demand change

The good news is there are things that we as a community can do.

  • Cities such as New York and Philadelphia have established a right for tenants to have lawyers in housing court, Desmond said. In Hamilton County, many landlords have lawyers who help them through the eviction process. But tenants rarely do, unless they are represented by Legal Aid. Last year, Legal Aid was able to help fewer than 200 families, Moes said.
  • A community court in the Bronx has two full-time social workers that are there to connect families with the help they need so the judge can help negotiate a solution that works for the tenants and the landlords, he said.
  • The city of Seattle has a housing levy, where homeowners pay extra tax dollars to help fund the construction of affordable housing units that are guaranteed to stay affordable for 50 years.
    “If we aren’t going to receive more federal funds, then I think cities need to figure out a way to raise their own revenue,” Desmond said.
  • Inclusionary zoning is another option, and it’s one that both Jeniece Jones, executive director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, and Noam Gross-Prinz, a program officer with LISC of Greater Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky, talked about during a panel discussion after Desmond’s speech.

Under inclusionary zoning, the city would require developers to make a certain portion of new housing units affordable so that community improvements don’t force out all low-income residents.

There are more ways to address the problem on the federal and local level. But the first step is to recognize and care about it, Desmond said.

That’s where the region’s focus on childhood poverty could help, said Ross Meyer, vice president of community impact for United Way of Greater Cincinnati.

United Way has been managing the Child Poverty Collaborative formed in late 2015 to address the region’s shameful child poverty rate.

The fact that 250 people gathered to hear Desmond speak on May 16 -- and that about 600 gathered the night before to hear his presentation at Christ Church Cathedral -- goes to show that there are lots of people who care about this problem and want to help, he said.

A panel of local experts spoke after Desmond's presentation.

“This is the coalition, folks,” Meyer said to those gathered at Community Action Agency. “It’s going to take all of us to focus much more deeply on this issue.”

Maybe even more importantly, it’s going to take courage.

“We’ve been way too wimpy about this,” Blume said. “We’re very wimpy about what we’re willing to ask for and what we’re willing to push for.”

As Desmond put it: If poverty persists, it’s not for a lack of resources. It’s for a lack of something else.

More information about Desmond’s book is available online. Information about the Child Poverty Collaborative is available online, too.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.

To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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