Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2016.
Louis Augustine Herrera, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Matthew Desmond about his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Penguin Random House), which is among the final five selections in the category of Nonfiction for the 2016 NBCC Awards.
Matthew Desmond writes with such clarity, detail, and emotional resonance that, in truth, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, reads as a piece of fiction (if only it were). These are the real life stories of eight American families in crisis, they are heartbreaking and hard to wrap one's head around. What comes to light in this beautiful work of non-fiction is the multiple systems at work which seem to be against the poorest in our country, who need our help so desperately. The people described in Desmond’s Evicted meet disaster and personal demons head on and for most, come through it stronger; but, if depression and suicide can be linked to the act of being evicted, then, for some, heartache is just heartache and pain just pain. It is our responsibility as a nation to help those in need, no matter how they arrive, where they are. The people in Matthew Desmond’s book are all striving to make their lives better for themselves and their families. Eviction is a devastating life event that has unforeseeable and catastrophic effects on people’s lives.
Louis Augustine Herrera: As an ethnographer was it hard to get people to open up to you, trust you?
Matthew Desmond: There is a little line at the end of the book where I say that the hardest thing for any ethnographer or fieldworker isn’t getting in, its leaving. And, I think that’s really true. Getting in, you actually meet more people then you can actually spend time with and write about because you’re just so overwhelmed by just writing about one person’s life, yet alone five or eight folks. And, then, you grow attached to these folks and they really teach you a lot. What you learn is there are so many people that want to share their story, there are a lot of people that are very open about their lives and want people to listen as hard as they can and you try to get it right.
LAH: What I notice most about your work is that you have a real connection with your subjects. What I didn’t realize until the end of the book, is that in some of the cases, when help did arrive, by way of “a friend,” in some instances, you were that friend. You were the only one with transportation which meant so much, in helping them. What struck me is that I wasn’t surprised by anything, it seemed that there was nothing out of the ordinary, which was so strange. Landlords have a way of dealing with people that is sometimes shameful. It’s shameful that they don’t fix things, that they evict them, that they don’t give them a chance to get along.
MD: There are a lot of different kinds of landlords and a lot of different kinds of tenants. And, I think that we let ourselves off the hook a bit if we stereotype one group or the other. And, I think depending on our politics that we might want to say these landlords are really greedy, they’re only after the money or these tenants, they’re just lazy, they don’t pay their rent, they’re trying to gain off the system. And, I think what the book tries to do, is it tries to really complicate that story. But, when you look at the story from the sidewalk level it gets a lot more complicated. So, you see a landlord like Sherrena who turned the book, buying her tenants groceries letting her tenants slide on certain payments and also, not fixing the plumbing and evicting tenants around Christmas time. And, so, a lot of readers leave the book with conflicted feelings about Sherrena and the other tenants too, which suggest to me that I did something right. That I wrote about people in complex ways.
LAH: Yes. The writing of this book is beautiful, it reads like a novel, which helps to humanize the people you write about, it humanizes them in a way when they are just numbers to others. Like, I was really struck by Lamar’s story, and I just can’t imagine being stuck in a building, unable to get out for eight days. You know, I think, what strikes me is that for a lot of these families, it wasn’t that they weren’t working, it wasn’t that they had given up, for a lot of them they were working and they were still struggling to survive. When we are talking about America and American cities, if someone does do everything they are supposed to do, if they go to work forty hours a week, if they are responsible, this idea of the American dream would seem to make many think it would exclude them from encountering eviction. I guess the question is, how do you feel people reconcile this idea, because it doesn’t make you want to do better, when you’re doing everything that you possibly can, when you’re working and then, you still can’t meet your bills. How do you think that effects the human spirit, just from your experience?
MD: Right, so there is a moment in the book where Arleen is looking for housing, she applies to many homes, and she doesn’t get a response from one of them. That’s an incredibly degrading, demeaning experience, where you’re just told no, no, no, no, over and over again. No. You’re too poor. No. You have kids. No. You’ve been evicted before. I think that works over your psyche in non-trivial ways. And, I think that can make you feel very small and unwanted. This also is expressed by the Hinkston family as their house started to deteriorate and they started to slow down and cook less and I think, you kind of see this depressive haze fall over the family, because the house is in such bad condition. Patrice had expressed it to me once like, you know it makes you feel like you’re stuck in the mud and you can’t get out. So, I think that matters not only for things we usually think of that are associated with mental well-being like mold or lead. But, also, for the kind of message a house like that sends to the family. You know you’re spending most of your income to rent this place, that sends a message about self-worth and your station in life.
LAH: Right. Yes, and it reinforces negative feelings about self-worth that you have to be even stronger to come through it.
MD: The Hinkston’s often just talked about caching a break. They moved to Tennessee just because they wanted to catch a break. And, they are doing better…they are in a better housing situation. Patrice is working full-time, Natasha got married. When Arleen finally was in a stable housing situation, she started applying for jobs and she was very proud that her kids could go to the same school for several consecutive years. And, I think that the message for us is that a stable affordable home can be an incredible step toward self-mobility and economic viability. And, that when you don’t have that foundation, everything falls apart.
LAH: Yes. And, it makes me think about the simple things like you just need, food, clothing, shelter. And, you know, many psychologists believe that it is about money, when you don’t have food clothing and shelter, it trickles down to all aspects of your life, including your mental well-being. So, you’re recommending universal vouchers…How do we help?
MD: There are a lot of ways. And, there is good news, actually! And, the good news is that there are programs that we have, in place today, that work! So, kids that grow-up in public housing they tend to do a bit better than kids that grow up in the private market. Families that receive vouchers, they move to better neighborhoods, they don’t move as much as families in the private market. They spend a lot less money on rent so that they can invest in their children. They buy more food. Their kids become healthier, stronger, and less anemic. [Vouchers] work for the lucky number of families that receive them. Now, the vast majority of families that live below the poverty line are not, so lucky. Only, about 1 in 4 of families who qualify for housing assistance, receives it. And, there are kids, like Jori and Jafaris that don’t get enough to eat, because ‘The Rent Eats First’ and so, the formal housing crises can be solved in a lot of ways and probably should be. Like, in New York City, you need a different approach to the crisis, then we do in Milwaukee or Baltimore. But, whatever our way out of this mess, we need to do something in scale. We are bleeding out and we can’t afford Band-Aid fixes. So, that’s one of the reasons that the book advocates for a universal voucher program, because it is the most efficient way to offer housing assistance to low-income families at a scale that matches the severity and scope of the problem.
LAH: Yes. But, there is an aspect in the book where some landlords, they don’t want to accept these vouchers, because then they have to meet all this criteria, you know that they have to keep-up with the up-keep of the property, is there any way around that, or is there any way to encourage landlords to take the vouchers; because they don’t have to take the voucher right, if there was a universal voucher program then landlords would have to take the voucher, because, then people would be protected under anti-discrimination laws.
MD: So some cities, they’re a minority, have Source of Income anti-discrimination laws. New York City has a Source of Income anti-discrimination law, so, it is not legal for landlords to turn away voucher holders simply on account of them holding a voucher. But, in most places, that’s not the case. Landlords’ can turn voucher holders away. And, even in New York City, you know, these laws are often hard to enforce. If, we are going to house the vast majority of our low-income families in the private market, landlords have to be part of the solution. So, we need to figure out what part of the housing code is really essential to human dignity and kids health and what part isn’t. And, maybe we would work with landlords and maybe make the housing code a bit more flexible. Maybe there’s funds that we could roll out, to help landlords bring their housing up to code, a little bit. In other countries, that have universal voucher Programs, the housing code is actually pretty light. And, the reason is simple, the market corrects at the bottom, like if everyone below the poverty line has a housing voucher, you don’t have to live in a rat hole. You have a bit more market power. So, I think that landlords, all the landlords I’ve spoken to around the country, since the book has come out anyways, like this idea, support this idea, and fully recognize that the market itself can solve this problem, on its own.
LAH: I believe its Scott the RN. His story is so interesting, because I don’t think that people really understand addiction in relation to poverty and eviction. There are so many stereotypes that go into actually hurting people.
MD: I think that Scott would describe his as part biological and part moral failing. And, that’s how he would talk about it. It was a hard cross for him to bear, but he eventually, which you see over the course of the book, climbed out of it. Which was striking to me, watching him on that journey was, that you got someone like Scott, He wants to get clean, he’s trying, and you know You wake up at five in the morning, you go to the clinic and you already realize that there is 30 people already in line, for four spots. You know in the richest nation on the planet when we have folks struggling with addiction, that are asking for our help, we can do a better job, right. By providing help for folks that are actively seeking it out.
LAH: Right. And we need to. That just leads to higher rates of crime and all sorts of other things. I think it’s part of our moral responsibility to help people that are less fortunate, that need our help, especially, when they are trying to get help. Because there are people who have given up, waiting.
MD: So, I’ve been around the country since this book came out about a year ago, and I’ve been to the South, to the Middle of the country, and the Coast and what’s been refreshing and inspiring to me is a lot of Americans are interested in a different conversation about poverty and equality. I think a lot of Americans are over easy stereotypes and shortcuts to thinking when it comes to recognizing the brutal ugly fact that we are the richest Democracy with the worst poverty.
LAH: Yeah, It’s incredible to just really wrap your mind around that. And, it’s so true. We have so many resources. We have the ability to help people. You know in your book Evicted, you were saying that, the money in some systems is already there. It will take a reorganization of wealth, a reorganization of financing, but you discuss how a lot of places have the infrastructure already in place.
MD: That’s unquestionably true. And, if you look at our housing policy, you realize we give most help to the people that need it the least. We give wealthy homeowners big tax deduction, middleclass homeowners modest tax deductions, and most renters who are disproportionately poor, nothing! And, it’s really hard to imagine a social policy that exacerbates and spreads racial and economic cleavages in a more unblushing successful way. So, even within just the way we designed housing policy in America, you’ll find it there.
Matthew Desmond is the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University and codirector of the Justice and Poverty Project. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows, he is the author of the award-winning book, On the Fireline, coauthor of two books on race, and editor of a collection of studies on severe deprivation in America. His work has been supported by the Ford, Russell Sage, and National Science Foundations, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times and Chicago Tribune. In 2015, Desmond was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” grant.
Louis Augustine Herrera is an HIV/AIDS activist and writer living in New York’s Historic, East Village. He graduated from East Los Angeles College with an A.A., in Liberal Arts, California State University, Long Beach, with a B.A. in English with an Emphasis in Creative Writing and an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies - English, he is currently an M.F.A. Candidate in Creative Writing (Fiction) at The New School. He is working on his first Novel which looks at Latino/a experiences through the lens of Magical Realism. Louis writes about death, gender, HIV, transformation, redemption, forgiveness, and sanctuary. In his daily life, Louis teaches English Literature at several colleges throughout New York. Find him on Twitter @Louis212Herrera