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April 21, 2016
“This Is a Nationwide Epidemic”: A Frank but Hopeful Conversation with Evicted Author Matthew Desmond
By Kalima Rose
In Milwaukee, one in eight renters — disproportionately people of color — are evicted every two years, and this alarming trend is playing out across the country. In his eye-opening new book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond documents the devastating consequences for families, communities, and the nation. He argues that housing security must be part of a policy agenda to eliminate poverty and build an economy that works for all.
Desmond, a sociologist and urban ethnographer, spoke with Kalima Rose, senior director of the PolicyLink Center for Infrastructure Equity and co-author of Healthy Communities of Opportunity: An Equity Blueprint to Address America’s Housing Challenges. This report, released today by PolicyLink and The Kresge Foundation, explains how health, housing, and economic security policies must be aligned to achieve equitable housing outcomes.
Q: How widespread is eviction and who is most affected?
A: In Milwaukee, if you look at only formal court-ordered evictions, you learn that about 16,000 people are evicted every year in that city. That’s about 40 people every day. We’ve crunched court-ordered eviction numbers in other cities, and Milwaukee is no outlier. New York processes about 60 marshal evictions every single day.
These numbers are startling and very troubling, but these are just court-ordered evictions. If you add landlord foreclosures and building condemnations, then you learn that every two years about one in eight renters in the city of Milwaukee is evicted. Mothers in low-income African American communities, in particular, are evicted at incredibly high rates. Among Milwaukee renters, about one in five Black women report being evicted versus one in 15 White women. This is a nationwide epidemic.
Q: Why do evictions hit families with children especially hard?
A: Children often are the reason families get evicted. When I started this work, I thought that having kids would shield you from eviction. But families living with kids have three times the odds of receiving an eviction judgment in eviction court, even controlling for arrears. What you’re seeing in that discrepancy is the landlord’s discretion. Some landlords are choosing not to work with families with children — because children can be hard on the landlord’s bottom line. Then kids often prolong the time you're homeless after your eviction because family discrimination is still real. I saw families get turned away quite a bit for having kids.
If we want to give children a fighting chance to realize their full potential, we have to provide them stable, affordable housing. You don’t just lose your home when you're evicted. You often lose your school and your community and your possessions. This massive instability has broad-reaching consequences.
Q: You write that eviction impacts African American women in the same way that criminal conviction impacts African American men. Explain the parallels.
A: We know that when you get out of prison and you have a criminal record, it can really affect your life. It can affect your success in the job market and your access to certain forms of public aid. An eviction record works the same way. It can bar you from receiving public housing, which means we’re still systematically denying housing help to people that most need it. It can bar you from accessing a decent place to live in a safe neighborhood, because many landlords turn away families with a recent eviction. There’s a kind of gender discrepancy that mirrors incarceration.
There’s also a policy story where they move in lock step. We have had massive investment in public housing over the last three decades, but it’s been in the form of prisons. Some governors reallocated money for public housing to build more prisons. So there are more connections than one would think that link mass incarceration and the lack of affordable housing.
Q: Your book draws distinct pictures of neighborhoods — from trailer parks to White, Black, or Latino enclaves in Milwaukee. What are the forces driving segregation in the city?
A: The White folks I spent time with that were evicted from a trailer park didn’t even consider moving to the North Side of the city, the predominantly African American inner city. But even though they amputated a large section of the city from their possibilities, they still had an easier time finding housing than the African American folks that I spent time with. It’s a story about the salience of discrimination. It’s a story about how race still matters, even at the very bottom of the market.
Q. What does this mean for building strong communities of opportunity?
A: Unless we provide families a shot at investing in a community, it’s going to be really hard for them to make a difference on their own streets and their own blocks. There are some neighborhoods in Milwaukee that have a 10 percent or 15 percent eviction rate. Those conditions turn neighbors into strangers. They disrupt the social fabric of neighborhoods. We know from previous research that if neighbors get together and work hard on local issues they can make a huge difference. Programs to stabilize housing would stabilize communities, too.
Q: What policy action would you like to see at the federal level?
A: There needs to be more attention paid to the role that housing is playing in poverty. When most politicians on either side of the aisle are asked about what to do about inequality or poverty in the United States, they usually start with a focus on jobs. That’s only part of the solution though. I don’t think we can fix poverty if we don’t fix housing.
Eviction is not just a condition of poverty, it’s a cause of it. It’s linked to job loss, mental health issues, school instability, loss of possessions, homelessness, and moving into worse neighborhoods. It’s fundamentally recasting people’s lives in a more difficult way. But we also have to ask ourselves a question about who are we as a nation that allows this level of inequality, this level of blunting of human capacity, and this degree of social suffering. I don’t think there’s any American value that justifies this situation.
Visit Just Shelter, an organization started by Desmond, to learn about the work of community organizations fighting to prevent eviction, preserve affordable housing, and prevent family homelessness.
How A Business Accelerator Is Literally Cementing Equity into Cincinnati’s Economy
By Alexis Stephens
“Cincinnati is very behind on inclusion,” according to Albert Smitherman, president of Jostin Construction, a local Black-owned concrete and general construction company.
A 2015 disparity study confirmed Smitherman’s remark. It found “statistically significant underutilization’’ of minority- and women-owned business enterprises (MWBEs) in construction and services contracts with the City of Cincinnati from 2009 to 2013. Blacks make up 43 percent of the city’s overall population and own 21 percent of its prime construction businesses. And yet, less than 1 percent of construction contract dollars went to Black firms during the study period.
While the city is taking proactive steps to improve its contracting process, Cincinnati’s Minority Business Accelerator (MBA) is making sure that its Black- and Latino-owned businesses are at their most competitive — powerfully primed to take advantage of the sea of change toward equity that is taking place.
The MBA was founded in 2001 in the aftermath of race riots that swept through the city’s downtown and Over-the-Rhine neighborhoods. As an economic development initiative of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, it focuses on both accelerating the development of individual businesses and strengthening a regional community of firms. The MBA provides its 36 members with management consultation, networking opportunities, and access to corporate and financial relationships.
“Having been involved in this work nationally for a number of years prior to taking this role, I can tell you [inclusion] is a challenge-slash-opportunity pretty much for every big city across the country,” said Darrin Redus, who became vice president of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber in January and heads up the MBA.
In spite of how divided Cincinnati remains, the MBA is a beacon of real progress in wealth creation for communities of color. Since the founding of the MBA, there are three times as many Black-owned companies with revenues greater than $10 million in the region. Its member companies employ over 3,500 individuals; the average portfolio revenue of a MBA business is $34 million.
The ripple effect of opportunity
A lattice of opportunity stretches from the MBA to the hardest-to-employ Cincinnatians. Jostin Construction was founded in 1999 and became a member of the MBA in 2003. At that time, Smitherman and his wife Liza (Jostin’s vice president of professional development) were finding it hard to secure contracts locally, primarily doing business in places like West Virginia and Alabama. They looked to the MBA to help brand the business closer to home.
Jostin has grown from around 30 employees to close to 100. Sales in their self-performed concrete work have gone from around $6 million to $20 million annually. (They also manage an additional $25 million as a general contractor).
While their industriousness and the quality of the firm’s work has been the primary source of this growth, the Smithermans credit the MBA with helping them build relationships with local financial institutions, encouraging business-to-business connections, and helping them to think strategically about their business. When Jostin initiated a search for someone to facilitate and support them in working on a strategic plan, the MBA responded, “we can be that” and won a competitive interview process for the work.
Jostin Construction has employed formerly incarcerated men and women through their independent connections with community-based organizations like the Greater Cincinnati Urban League and the Cincinnati-Hamilton County Community Action Agency. Some of these organizations provide free apprenticeship training programs and credentials that support the process of hiring people reentering the workforce.
“There’s this whole idea that anyone can do construction,” said Liza Smitherman. “Well, they can’t. But what we find is that folks who have come out of the criminal justice system are sometimes a little more hungry to find a place that will accept them and will provide them with growth opportunities.” One former employee who worked for Jostin after his release from prison has launched his own construction-related business that now manages multimillion-dollar contracts.
Working with goal setters
The MBA’s Goal Setters initiative seeks to disrupt and reinvent the “golf course” style of wheeling and dealing, working with 40 large companies in Cincinnati to identify ways for them to diversify their supply chains. Collectively, the companies, dubbed goal setters, spent more than $1.1 billion dollars with minority-owned businesses in 2014.
“We have a lot of challenges finding qualified suppliers that can afford [contracts with] a retailer of our size,” said Denise Thomas, director of corporate supplier diversity at The Kroger Co. Kroger was founded in Cincinnati in 1883 and is now the largest grocery store chain in America and the third-largest retailer in the world. Kroger was an early MBA supporter and is an MBA goal setter. Thomas also sits on the MBA’s Leadership Council.
“There are a lot of reasons we do what we do,” remarked Thomas. “It’s a business imperative and it’s also a commitment to our communities. When we identify companies that can support the communities where we operate, we know they are creating jobs, bringing back dollars in that community, and [new employees] usually go grocery shopping.”
In order to become a member of the MBA, a business must have at least $1 million in sales and demonstrate scalability. While that fills a particular niche — taking established businesses to the next level — Cincinnati’s new Department of Economic Inclusion, the Cincinnati African American Chamber of Commerce, and the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber are all trying to complement this work through entrepreneurship initiatives, attracting diverse talent to the region, and improving the way the local business community views its existing assets.
“We started a conversation that’s just now gaining steam about how to support the growth of entrepreneurs,” said Mary Stagaman, the senior inclusion advisor for the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, speaking about the chamber’s regional action plan. “There are the people at the main street level and then people who might be above a storefront, but are not at the threshold of the million dollars in sales to get into the MBA.” She pointed to Findlay Kitchen, a new 8,000-square-foot shared kitchen space, as a boost to 35 food entrepreneurs who began using the space in March. Many of the small business owners are women and people of color.
“Probably the biggest thing that needs to change [in Cincinnati] is that you’re lumped together,” said Albert Smitherman, attributing some of the historic resistance to inclusion in the city to the perception that Whites are being forced to contract with and employ people of color solely because of their race, ethnicity, or gender. The Cincinnati MBA and its public and private partners and supporters are chipping away at that resistance, promoting their vision of equity because it’s the right way to do business.
“When it becomes a natural reflex that all people are working together with the best businesses, not based on color, but based on quality of performance, it’s just natural that Cincinnati will grow,” added Smitherman.