Monday, April 4, 2016
There’s profit in the housing crisis in the United States
Matthew Desmond lived among the people whose stories he tells. Picture: Michael Kienitz
AFTER food, our most basic need is shelter. A roof over our head. Housing can be anything from a mansion to a bedsit. What matters is that it is our safe place, where we can be warm, private, and able to get on with our lives. Children particularly need stable housing in order to develop a sense of security and consistency. To children, home is the centre of the universe.
Vulture funds know this, but this doesn’t stop mass evictions. Why should it, when there’s money to be made? Just ask the tenants of Eden Court or Tyrrelstown.
With the complicity of our Government, the catastrophic individual and social fallout of eviction becomes every day more Americanised. But we really, really don’t want to go there.
Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond has just published Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. It is to homelessness what The Wire is to drugs — prior to his current Harvard role, Desmond lived amongst the families and individuals he portrays in his book so that he might tell their stories with forensic accuracy. What you read is Dickensian, except it’s current, and set against a backdrop of the world’s richest nation. The setting is Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Only the names have been changed.
Meet Arleen and her two small boys. Arleen gets $628 a month welfare, of which $550 goes on rent — bills not included — which leaves her and her children around two dollars a day for food, clothes, and general living expenses. 88% of her income goes on rent. Unsurprisingly, she very often falls behind with the rent, which means that she and her little boys are frequently evicted.
The options are ‘truck or kerb’. Truck means your stuff gets driven away and put in storage, which requires a recovery fee of $350, plus a monthly holding fee. If you are being evicted because you couldn’t make your basic rent, it’s unlikely you’ll have a spare $350 down the back of your sofa.
Which leaves kerb. It used to be illegal to evict people on Christmas Day, but American landlords went to court and got this overturned. So now it’s perfectly possible to be thrown out of your scuzzy low-rent home, the one that takes almost all of your income, onto the snowy pavement with all your belongings – including your children — by armed bailiffs on Christmas Day.
“Fewer and fewer families can afford a roof over their head,” writes Desmond. “This is amongst the most urgent issues facing America today, and acknowledging the breadth and depth of the problem changes the way we look at poverty. For decades, we’ve focused on jobs, public assistance, parenting and mass incarceration.
We have failed to fully appreciate how deeply housing is implicated in the creation of poverty. Not everything living in a distressed neighbourhood is associated with gang members, parole officers, employers, social workers or pastors. But nearly all of them have a landlord.”
Lamar’s landlord is Sherrena, an “inner-city entrepreneur” — a buy-to-let landlady who, fed up with her own previous job insecurity, bought up a series of substandard properties which she lets to city’s very poorest.
Lamar is an ex-serviceman and single parent. He has had both legs amputated, but receives no disability benefit.
“Sherrena was not looking forward to evicting a man without legs,” Desmond tells us.
“I feel bad for the kids,” Sherrena says. “And I love Lamar. But love don’t pay the bills. I got to stop feeling sorry for these people... last time I checked, the mortgage company still wanted their money.”
Matthew Desmond’s book — which reads like a novel, compelling, humane and non-judgemental — shows us how the poorer the people, the more profitable for the landlord; how disproportionately-high rents make the difference between “stable poverty and grinding poverty”.
Scott is a nurse who lives in a trailer park, since his addiction to painkillers caused him to lose his job.
His trailer is unfit for habitation, but his landlord is a multi-millionaire.
Scott doesn’t complain that his trailer is a gutted shell, any more than Doreen complains that her rented property is in such disrepair that her family call it “the rathole”; they are too poor to complain. If they were to raise the issue of their substandard accommodation with the authorities so that repairs would have to be done, they would be evicted. Safer to just put up and shut up.
Zooming out from Milwaukee, here are some real-life rents and selling prices on famous fictional addresses.
The New York apartment in Friends today would be £4,000 per month. Brigid Jones’ London flat cost £125,000 to buy in 2001 — today it would cost £725,000, or about 20 times what someone with a job like Brigid Jones would earn.
The average Notting Hill property has gone from £1 million in 1999 to £5 million today. Yet the incomes of ordinary people — the vast majority, who do not live in mansions — has stagnated as property prices surge.
There used to be tenements and slums. Then there was public housing, for ordinary people who did not have access to mortgages. Now we are back to tenements and slumlords again, as we blindly follow America’s lead towards ever deepening social inequality.