A blueprint for housing rights?

August 30, 2016

Owen Hill responds to a Socialist Worker review of a book on housing and the poor.

I'M WRITING to respond to Brian Sullivan's review of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond, which is a very strong contribution in many ways ("Where poverty and eviction meet"). However, the criticisms that Sullivan raised toward the end of his review were overstated.

In particular, Sullivan argues that although Evicted is an excellent resource for understanding the growing crisis of housing today, it has little to say about solutions to that crisis. He argues that Desmond puts forward weak policy solutions, while simultaneously sounding "a hopeless note" about the ability of tenants to build a mass movement. Both of these criticisms have some truth to them, but ultimately miss the mark.

The most important thing that Sullivan disagrees with is Desmond's proposal to significantly expand the current housing voucher system. A knee-jerk opposition to the expansion of a broken system is certainly understandable, but we should be careful to distinguish between today's system and what Desmond is proposing.

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Desmond is not simply proposing to expand today's system--he's proposing to reform it by establishing national price controls implemented locally, barring discrimination, and essentially universalizing the system.

Capping housing costs at 30 percent of income for the vast majority of residents while simultaneously implementing price controls? This would be a huge step forward for U.S. workers--it would dramatically increase our power while simultaneously undercutting the power of landlords. It would be, to borrow a phrase from the real estate industry, "a win."

It's fair to argue that this proposal doesn't go far enough--it doesn't--but we should engage with the strengths and weakness of what Desmond is actually proposing rather than transposing our criticisms of today's system onto what he puts forward.

We should also be attentive not only to the letter, but to the spirit of Desmond's proposals for reform, since for Desmond, this spirit actually seems more important. Thus, the final section of his book argues, "A universal voucher program is but one potential policy recommendation. Let others come. Establishing the basic right to housing in America could be realized in any number of ways--and probably should be."

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So it's wrong to argue that Desmond "fails to imagine a world in which housing is a guaranteed right." He's looking for that world. He may not yet have all the answers, and he may underestimate the challenges that lie ahead, but Evicted reveals an author determined to undo one of our nations greatest injustices.

THE SECOND major criticism that Sullivan makes is that Desmond seems less than hopeful about the possibilities for the revival of a fighting tenants movement.

There is certainly some truth to this, but it also seems hard to fault him for such a belief--after all it has been decades since a national tenants' rights movement existed. But reading Evicted myself, I was struck by how much Desmond bemoans the loss of such a movement--and he weaves its absence into the narrative of injustice today.

Consider Desmond's description of one Milwaukee resident, Larraine, and her last-ditch effort to stop her own eviction by reaching out to every emergency assistance services in the city. Desmond notes that "Larraine did not dial the number to a tenants' union because Milwaukee, like most American cities, didn't have one." Is this a dour note? Perhaps. But it is also, unarguably, an expression of fact.

Where have the tenants' unions gone? How do we rebuild them? Desmond does not directly answer these questions, but Evicted itself points us towards an answer.

By focusing on the human faces behind walls of statistics, Evicted demystifies and de-stigmatizes both poverty and eviction in America today. Moreover, it connects this project both to a modest history of how others have changed their conditions in the past and to a vision for housing as a human right.

The book includes a number of thoughtful policy proposals which will help get us to the goal of real housing rights, but it remains flexible regarding the letter of such proposals while determined in it's spirit to win meaningful change.

These elements are a model for the work that must happen in every city across the country. For this reason alone, Evicted has more to say about the way out of our current crisis than Sullivan gives it credit for.

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