Home is sacred. Home is safe.
Yet as we heard from Matthew Desmond, author of “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” and Terri Ludwig, president of Ballmer Group Philanthropy at Tuesday’s keynote plenary at the Roots to Rise 2021 Cradle to Career Network Convening, home is, far too often, out of reach for the 3.6 million Americans facing evictions annually in this country. That’s the equivalent to the entirety of my home community of Cincinnati being evicted every month across this nation – a shocking statistic and urgent call to action for those of us working to ensure the success of children and families on the path to economic mobility.
I thought I’d take a moment to capture some of my thoughts and reflections from today’s enlightening conversation.
Connecting data and stories as vehicles for change
When you think of a Pulitzer prize winning author and MacArthur Genius Award fellowship member, you don’t think of someone living in a mobile home park or a low-income community – I certainly didn’t. But that’s exactly what makes Desmond an effective writer and storyteller making the case for change. Spending more than a year living in the circumstances he hoped to change, he leaned into the real lived experiences of those being impacted by the housing crisis in America. In his talk, we learned the heart wrenching story of Arlene, a neighbor of Desmond at this time, and her family’s experience with eviction courts. Arlene called more than eighty apartment complexes in Milwaukee in search of affordable housing before she was accepted as a tenant. We learned tenants that with children are three times more likely to be evicted, and once evicted it’s even more difficult to find shelter.
If Arlene’s story alone doesn’t inspire you to action, Desmond seamlessly weaves the story of impacted individuals with national data and research that extrapolates Arlene’s experience into a massive structural issue facing this country. A few highlights from Desmond’s research include the fact that all public housing programs combined only reach one out of six American families in need. The reality, as Desmond describes, is “The face of this [housing] pandemic is kids.” Moms who experience eviction demonstrate depression two years post-eviction, pregnant mothers facing evictions have higher rates of pre-term birth issues. Eviction leads to trauma not just for the individual but for generations of these families to come. In his own words, “Without stable shelter, everything falls apart.”
We simply cannot achieve the American Dream – the promise of opportunity towards economic mobility – without addressing the housing crisis in America. And Desmond’s approach of combining data and stories is a powerful frame that many StriveTogether communities are embracing and can carry forward to improving outcomes and creating more equitable systems in their home communities and states.
Systemic solutions and individual behavior change are needed for change
Within the StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network we talk often about the systems iceberg. The idea that individual events (like an eviction or an absence from school) are the product of structures and beliefs that underpin the design of a system. In the case of public housing there is a deep and underlying tension in this country. Is adequate housing a human right? While this conversation is growing within the country, nowhere in the U.S. Constitution or in federal law does our country explicitly recognize a right to adequate housing. This underlying belief, or lack thereof, is expressed through the agreements we make as Americans through laws, norms and regulations that fundamentally shape how our national housing system is shaped. Zoning laws, redlining and neighborhood segregation, even school funding sources all flow from an underpinning belief that adequate housing is not a fundamental right in America.
For those who seek to stabilize American families living in poverty and undo the historical oppression of racial and ethnic groups in this country, we simply cannot solve at the level of the individual eviction. We must seek deeper solutions that fundamentally transform our systems, structures and ultimately the beliefs that shape public housing in America.
A message that was hard to hear for me, and I’m sure many on the line, was that those of us with the privilege of home ownership and the tax and resources and wealth creation advantages ownership brings, must also take a hard look in the mirror.
America’s racial reckoning must include individual and group reflection. StriveTogether network members are uniquely positioned to convene and facilitate these conversations using local data and stories that bring this work “home.”
- Who benefits from our housing system as it’s currently constructed?
- What advantages does that system present for the average American and who is disadvantaged by the way our policies have been created?
For the average American, Desmond notes, our housing system works pretty darn well. Home ownership is one of the primary vehicles for wealth creation in the middle class. He even mentioned that approximately 8% of Americans own a second home. The conversation today harkened back to one with another former StriveTogether keynote speaker, Richard Reeves, and his concept of Dream Hoarders – those Americans in the upper middle class – me included – who intentionally or unintentionally hoard most of the opportunities that this country affords while limiting the opportunities for people of color and individuals living in poverty to climb the mobility ladder. How can those of us who benefit from the current system embrace affordable housing, demand zoning changes and school funding changes that create better and more equitable outcomes?
Despite the doom and gloom, Desmond found reasons to be optimistic citing emerging regional school funding models in Michigan and New Jersey as creative, systemic solutions that focus on shared regional identity and equitable investment in schools that have the highest needs. He mentioned efforts around the country to shift resources to eviction diversion programs, policy changes in New York City to provide families facing evictions with the right to an attorney which led to a 40% decline in evictions. Innovative policies in Rochester, New York, that require landlords filing for evictions to use their real name rather than hiding behind an LLC or other legal shelter are another great example. As Desmond said, “The challenge is really deep, but the progress we have made the last fifteen years is incredible.”
The cost of inaction far exceeds the cost of intervention
Desmond argues that eviction isn’t just a symptom of poverty but also a direct cause – an action that can cause a deep spiral for children and families leading to bad outcomes far beyond the housing sector. Eviction not only has devastating and traumatic impacts on the children and families being forced out of their home, but ripples out to teachers and counselors, doctors and nurses, public safety officials and the broader community when neighborhoods with high rates of eviction become areas of concentrated poverty with increasing crime, violence and drug activity.
Investments and policies that stabilize families in turn stabilize neighborhoods. We know from the work of Raj Chetty that stable, inclusive and vibrant neighborhoods have a much higher probability of supporting children to achieve economic mobility.
The Cradle to Career Network is comprised of place-based, cross-sector partnerships that are uniquely positioned to weave together these data and stories in a way that can close the gap between aspirations and outcomes. I’m excited to be on this journey with each of these communities.