Sunday, September 23, 2018

Offbeat - Julian Emerson

Discussing poverty, housing

Pulitizer Prize-winning author: ‘Housing should be considered a right’

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During Matthew Desmond’s time living in a trailer park and a rooming house in Milwaukee, he learned firsthand about the difficult, often dire situations faced by people desperately clinging to the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. 

Desmond lived amid Milwaukee residents facing economic challenges, spending time with and learning about families who were evicted from their homes there, and the impacts of that action on them. Those experiences moved Desmond toward a definitive conclusion: Evictions are a cause and not just a condition, of poverty. In other words, evictions make life even worse for poor people. 

During his time in Milwaukee, Desmond, who won the Pulitzer Prize and other literary honors earlier this year for his book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” said it became readily apparent that without a roof over their heads, people will struggle in many other aspects of their lives. Women and children will be especially impacted by evictions, he said.

“Evicted” details the stories of renters and landlords Desmond lived among in Milwaukee. He was in Eau Claire on Thursday, where he addressed UW-Eau Claire students and others before speaking about poverty and eviction at the university’s Forum series that night.

“I wanted to tell the stories of people in poverty,” Desmond said matter-of-factly when asked why he chose to live among people from the other side of the tracks. “To do that well, I felt I needed to live among them to really learn about their situations.” 

Cost struggles

While Desmond recounts the stories of people included in “Evicted” in a descriptive, narrative style, his work includes facts and figures that depict the struggles many face in paying for housing. 

Many poor working families spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing, oftentimes leaving not enough to spend on other life essentials such as food, clothing and transportation. More striking, 25 percent of those families spend more than 75 percent of their income on housing, Desmond said. 

It’s easy to think about those problems as the kind of issues faced by people living in big cities, places like Milwaukee and Chicago and New York. But many people who call Eau Claire home face similar challenges affording housing, statistics show.  

Forty-seven percent of city residents are renters, a fact boosted by the thousands of UW-Eau Claire students who rent their living spaces. More than half of Eau Claire renters pay above 30 percent of their income in rent, and in some of the city’s most economically challenged neighborhoods nearly all residents meet that standard, according to the Eau Claire City-County Health Department. 

Single-parent households in Eau Claire face larger hurdles. Housing and transportation costs eat up 68 percent of the average household income for those families, statistics show. Someone earning $23,600 this year can expect to spend more than their entire post-tax earnings on housing and transportation.   

The cost to rent is rising in Eau Claire. From 2011-15, median rent here was $745, up from a $661 median in 2006-10, figures show. During that same time, incomes of many renters have risen little if at all, local officials said.  

Many people are surprised to learn that safe, affordable housing is an issue in Eau Claire, health department director Lieske Giese said. However, data shows the gap between housing costs and income is higher here than in many similar-size communities, she said, noting the income disparity among Eau Claire County residents ranks third-highest among Wisconsin’s 72 counties. 

“The available housing stock for low-income families is limited, and we know we have many people in Eau Claire that don’t earn enough of an income to afford the prices that exist here,” Giese said.   

‘Do better’

People evicted from their homes face challenging, sometimes life-threatening situations. Desmond said often people who are booted from their homes move into worse housing. Others struggle to find a place to live at all and wind up homeless. 

During the winter of 2013-14 I got to know many homeless people in Eau Claire and lots of others who were barely hanging onto their homes while writing stories about homelessness here. The people I came to know faced all kinds of situations and challenges, but no matter the reasons, a common denominator was a lack of money. I often felt overwhelmed by their daunting struggles and wondered how they held out hope. 

Desmond, who teaches at Princeton University, acknowledged the myriad issues faced by people living in poverty, those on the edge of losing their homes. But he said he is optimistic that progress can be made to address the struggle of affordable housing so many face. 

Since “Evicted” garnered top awards, Desmond has traveled across much of the U.S., discussing housing and poverty with a variety of groups. He has spoken with politicians in Washington, D.C., about those issues and said he has found a willingness among Democrats and Republicans alike to discuss potential solutions. Addressing the situation in a meaningful way will require political will and making the topic a top priority, he said, noting a voucher system capping housing costs at 30 percent of poor people’s income is one potential solution.   

“Housing should be considered a right,” he said. “We have the resources in this country to make that happen. It doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to kick people out of their homes simply because they don’t make enough money to afford housing. I think we can do better than that.”

Contact: 715-830-5911,

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