Tuesday, August 29, 2017

SMU Reads: an urgent message for our time

For the third year, I’ve attended SMU Reads, an annual summer event to encourage reading and community awareness among Southern Methodist University students. It just keeps getting bigger (and, if possible, better) with this month’s appearance by Matthew Desmond, author of the 2017 SMU Reads book pick, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.

Evicted had the right pedigree for an “important” book: New York Times bestseller, named one of the best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review, Pulitzer Prize winner for nonfiction. But a book about one of the most degrading aspects of poverty, presented to students at a pricey private university sited in some of the priciest suburbs? And in a metropolitan area struggling with populations who are completely homeless? With a city landowner termed a modern-day slumlord for its dismal low-rent houses that often lack such basic amenities as reliably-running water.

How many people would want to hear about that, much less read a book about it?

I was pleasantly surprised to find a standing room only crowd at SMU’s McFarlin Auditorium and lines of questioners following Desmond’s discussion. The Dallas Morning News aided the university by making Evicted the pick for its own summer book club.

Tall, booted, and briefly donning a cowboy hat, Desmond welcomed the student crowd, some worried about their own future ability to find affordable housing, to deal with a problem that requires “so many brilliant young minds around the table.”

“Eviction used to be rare in this country. It used to draw crowds,” he said. Now, it’s become commonplace. And the more evictions, the more families break up, the worse their economic prospects become because they can’t find replacement housing in the places where there are jobs. It’s an issue that cuts across all ethnic groups, because “without stable shelter, everything falls apart.”

He began his research in a place he already had some acquaintance with – Milwaukee. Starting with about five months of life in a trailer park, then 10 months in a rooming house, he followed eight families of the often-evicted, surveys of 100 renters (with 84 responses), tracked 100,000 court cases, and contacted 250 tenants in those cases (with a 66 percent response rate).

Finding that the majority of the families lived in privately-owned rentals, he also formed relationships with landlords doing the evictions. “I at least know more about what makes you tick – (and) what ticks you off if you’re a landlord.”

“For about a hundred years, we’ve had the consensus in America that we should spend no more than 30 percent of our income on housing.”

Instead, he learned that most poor renting families spend more than half of their income on housing. For families with the lowest education, incomes in recent decades have flatlined while housing costs have increased over 70 percent. And present public housing can’t solve the problem, Desmond cautions.

“Three-fourths of renter families below the poverty line receive no housing assistance. The waiting list for public housing in our large cities isn’t counted in years. It’s counted in decades.”

Not that all the news is bad. “We took on the battle of the slums and we won. We’ve made steps in the right direction. When we as a country want to take on big problems, we come up with big solutions.” Including his recommendation of expanding the housing voucher program to everyone below the poverty line.

What’s the cost of such a solution? About $22 billion worth, Desmond said. “Not a small number, but we can totally afford it. Vouchers have already lifted 2.8 million families out of poverty.” If $22 billion sounds overwhelming, consider, he said, that the U.S. currently loses approximately $171 billion yearly on homeowner tax benefits. With home mortgage interest in most cases fully deductible on debt up to $1 million, how much would even reducing that cap by half save?

“That’s just one idea. Let others come.”

And for those who want more ideas, try the Just Shelter site to help at community and national levels.

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