Logo of Legal Aid's Luncheon
Logo of Legal Aid's Luncheon with keynote speaker Matthew Desmond

Matthew Desmond tells Nebraskans the importance of supporting tenants since evictions are increasing across the nation

Matthew Desmond said he was not surprised to see a mother with two sons accepting a house without water for it was their only living choice after being evicted in the middle of a housing crisis. 

“They found this place, but there was no water. (They) had to bucket out what was in the toilet, but Arleen Bell told me…’It was my favorite place,’” he said.

This is how Desmond, professor of sociology at Princeton University and principal investigator of The Eviction Lab, described his interaction with Arleen after she had been evicted from her apartment. Desmond is the author of the book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” where he interviewed and explored the lives of tenants evicted in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, like Arleen. 

Desmond talked about the nation’s housing crisis through Legal Aid Of Nebraska’s virtual conference on Oct. 8. Desmond used his experience interviewing tenants and data from his lab, the first national database of evictions, to explain the shocking reality of the housing crisis in the country. 

“An average year in America, about 3.7 million evictions are filed. Seven evictions filed every single minute,” Desmond said. “That number is far higher than the number of foreclosures, even at the height of the great recession.” 

Desmond said evictions affect tenants in rural and urban towns across the country. The biggest issue related to evictions is the large gap between one’s income and renting costs, which has doubled over the last 20 years. Desmond said the majority of families under the poverty line spend at least 50% of their income on housing costs. As for Arleen, 88% of her income was spent on rent. 

“Under those conditions, you don’t need to make a huge mistake to get evicted,” Desmond said. “For folks like Arleen, eviction is much more a result of inevitability than irresponsibility.” 

Even with governmental assistance options, Desmond said for every four families that qualify for any federal housing assistance, only one family receives the help. He said that leaves the remaining 75% of families in need without support from local, state and federal governments. 

“Imagine if we turned away three out of four families who applied for food stamps. That’s exactly how we treat struggling families looking for affordable shelter today,” Desmond said. 

Even then, these numbers and percentages only reflect on court-ordered evictions. Evictions that don’t go through the courts- informal evictions- are the more common form of evictions. These informal evictions may include landlords giving money to tenants so they move out by a certain day or simply removing the tenant’s apartment front door. 

With the economic effects of the pandemic and increase in unemployment rates, eviction rates and the country’s housing crisis have only increased. 

“Home is a center of life; it’s our refuge from work and menacing streets,” Desmond said. “Right now in this global pandemic, it’s our refuge from a virus, from death.” 

Desmond said the recent increase in evictions across the country brought more awareness to the housing crisis in the nation. He referenced Houston, which allocated $15 million in rental assistance in May 2020, and the money was claimed within two hours. 

“Before September, evictions increased by over 200% above normal levels in cities like Richmond, Virginia, Fortworth, Texas,” Desmond said. 

The only reason the country is not seeing a homelessness crisis due to the increase in evictions is because of the CDC’s moratorium, according to Desmond. However, this moratorium will only last until the end of this year, and the pandemic doesn’t have a set expiration date. Desmond said the best way to help with the current housing crisis is by supporting organizations that provide free housing assistance. 

“In this moment, stopping evictions is so supercritical,” Desmond said. 

Megan Moslander, chief of development and external relations at Legal Aid, said Legal Aid had already selected Desmond to speak during their annual conference before the pandemic. However, selecting Desmond to speak about his housing crisis expertise and knowledge worked out perfectly with the current eviction crisis in the state. 

“Having Matthew Desmond draw attention and making evictions such a personal issue really helps. Nebraska is definitely in an eviction and housing crisis,” Moslander said. 

Moslander said Desmond explained how the housing crisis in the country is not only an issue alone, but it is intertwined with unemployment and education. She said Nebraskans can help by educating themselves about the issue and educating each other. 

“Regardless of who is getting evicted, they’re still our friends and neighbors,” Moslander said. “Everybody deserves a chance at having a stable home and access to housing.”