Confronted with Portland's rising rents and an increase in homeless deaths, the Multnomah County Public Library picked the book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City for its annual book-club-style "Everybody Reads" events.
This year's series culminates tonight with an appearance by the author, Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond.
WW asked Desmond to weigh in on some of the policy proposals before the Oregon legislature. He says bills to ban "no-cause" evictions and overturn a ban on rent control won't be a cure-all.
WW: Let's start with a central idea of your book. You write that evictions aren't just a symptom of poverty; they're a cause. Why is that?
Matthew Desmond: Evictions used to be weird and scandalous, and people used to come out of their homes to protest them. And [now] one in eight renters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is evicted every two years.
Often, your kids lose their school. You lose your community and your network. You also lose all your stuff. And it adds a record that sticks with you. So evicted families move into worse neighborhoods and worse housing after their eviction.
Public housing authorities often count eviction as a mark against your application. So we're denying housing help to families who most need it.
Related story: What it's like to be evicted, and not know why.
We have evidence that eviction causes job loss, more than the other way around. You add all that up, and I think we have to conclude that eviction isn't just a condition of poverty. it's a driver of it, too.
Most folks that get evicted in Milwaukee live with kids. And so it's leaving a deep and jagged scar in the next generation, too.
Does this also apply to Portland?
There's no clear reason—unless there's a big ol' fluffy safety net waiting for evicted families in Portland—why evicted families in Portland wouldn't experience the same kind of ramifications from involuntary displacement that the folks in Milwaukee would.
The state legislature is weighing whether to heavily restrict no-cause evictions. What do you think of that approach?
If we as a state really feel that someone should have a right to stable housing—and that right should not be revoked from them for no cause—then let's talk about no-cause eviction legislation. But if we care about regular plain old for-cause evictions, which is the bulk of the load, and we care about us having too much instability and loss of housing and all the stuff that goes with evictions in low-income communities — then I think we need a different kind of policy approach.
The state is also considering overturning a ban on rent control. What do you think about rent stabilization policies?
You guys are the only state in the nation that's considering that. There's a lot of economic literature that suggests that rent control does come with a lot of consequences that none of us want, like landlords divesting from property, or abandoning property and that kind of thing.
There's kind of a new, revisionist economic literature, but it's not mainstream. [They] would say, look this isn't your father's rent control. We can design flexible, reasonable regulations and make sure that landlords are entitled to modest price increases, but without these kind of huge increases that we're seeing in some cities like Portland.
I'd love to test it, because the data we have on rent control are from a different era.
I do think we can't fix poverty without fixing housing. And one thing that's attractive to me about this kind of [policy] is that it's big. It's that scale of the problem. Whatever our policies are, we should just keep the problem's scale in mind.
You advocate for vastly expanding programs that provide housing vouchers to help people afford rent. Could that help Portland, in the middle of a housing shortage?
We don't have to choose a single road out of this mess. Where supply isn't the issue, it's more of a poverty story. And in that case, a voucher can go a long way for a family.
You can also think of the state saying, okay, how can we make the voucher program work better in a city like Portland? And that might be saying, "Let's provide more funds so the voucher can be used and so families can move into better neighborhoods," which can have massive returns for kids later on in life.
What do you say to the argument that people who can't afford Portland rent should move somewhere else?
I would ask people who are making that argument to have a catch in their voice.
For some of those families, Portland is home, and a deep spiritual fit, where it means all their family is there, it means what they know is there.
For others, it's an economic argument; it's my job is in Portland, and my kids' school is in Portland. There are these high-cost cities that do have good jobs, so a lot of the families that are rent-strapped, that are paying 50-60 percent of their income on housing, are working hard. And moving to a lower-cost city often means moving to a city that doesn't have such a vibrant economic job market as Portland does.
When I was growing up, we used to talk about the other side of the tracks. And now we're getting to a place in some cities, where we have to talk about the other county. And is that what we want? Economic segregation on that level? That's not the country I want to live in; that's not the city I want to live in.
GO: Everybody Reads 2017, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 7:30 pm.