Welcome, and some thoughts on Matthew Desmond’s ‘Evicted’

Homes in Milwaukee’s North Side. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Paul Sableman.

Welcome to the Poverty Justice Solutions blog! This is a platform for promoting new thinking about housing courts, as well as examining current trends in housing and its intersection with access to justice issues. Frequent contributors will include myself, Ignacio Jaureguilorda, director of Poverty Justice Solutions, the talented Poverty Justice Solutions fellows, and other practitioners in housing law and court administration.

One thing that has been on my mind recently is Matthew Desmond’s new book, which follows eight families navigating the process of eviction in Milwaukee. Evicted would be worth reading simply for its deeply empathetic depiction of how evictions can traumatize low-income people. But Desmond’s work also highlights important opportunities for procedural justice reforms in housing court and suggests a broader framework through which to understand the importance of housing justice in ending inequality.

Desmond makes an interesting point about the problems of housing court—that both tenants and landlords find it unfair and aggravating. While most housing reform practitioners take it as a basic tenet of faith that housing court is stacked against tenants,  Desmond notes “Almost every landlord and building manager in Milwaukee that I met… felt that the court system was brazenly ‘pro-tenant,’ that it resembled an ‘uneven playing field’ tilted against property owners.” Tenant advocates might be tempted to dismiss this idea outright, but it has important implications for those looking to change housing court. Changing the dynamics of housing court might not be a zero sum game–perhaps measures that empower tenants can at the same time make the process more fair for landlords by increasing court efficiency and transparency. Obviously more thought needs to go into exactly how such a change is best implemented, but Desmond’s work serves as an important reminder that taking the views of all sides of a court process can be valuable for reform.

Desmond also lays out an interesting theoretical connection between housing justice and the movement for criminal justice reform. Prominent advocates of the latter, like Michelle Alexander, have argued convincingly that the criminal justice system suffers not just from unintended inefficiency or unfairness, but in fact serves as a system of social control that is fundamentally discriminatory in design. Many advocates of housing court remain siloed from the criminal justice reform movement, but Desmond makes clear that the two share common ground.

“In Milwaukee’s poorest black neighborhoods, eviction had become commonplace—especially for women… If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out,” he writes. The parallel Desmond observes between mass incarceration and eviction has some noteworthy implications for housing justice. For one, it should encourage cross-pollination between those working on civil and criminal justice issues. And it brings a new urgency to housing justice in particular, as well as opening up a powerful new discourse of structural racism and gender inequality.