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Housing Law & Policy

Spiraling: Evictions and Other Causes and Consequences of Housing Instability

The full text of this Book Review may be found by clicking on the PDF link to the left.

Our discussions about the nation’s housing affordability crisis usually begin with challenges in the market: the population of renters is increasing in metropolitan areas across the United States, the supply of rental housing is not keeping pace, and the supply that does exist is increasingly priced out of reach for the typical renter. Changes in income have lagged behind increases in rent, leaving many low-income renters severely rent burdened (paying more than 50% of household income on rent).1×1. Ingrid Gould Ellen & Brian Karfunkel, NYU Furman Ctr./Capital One Nat’l Affordable Rental Hous. Landscape, Renting in America’s Largest Metropolitan Areas 22 (2016), http://furmancenter.org/files/NYU_Furman_Center_Capital_One_National_Affordable_Rental_Housing_Landscape_2016_9JUNE2016.pdf [https://perma.cc/37JN-4QZE]. This report studied the eleven largest metropolitan areas in the United States (Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.) between 2006 and 2014, and found that in all eleven areas the renter population grew faster than the stock of rental units, id. at 6; that the median gross rent rose in ten of the eleven areas, in both central cities and surrounding suburbs, id. at 5; that seven out of the eleven areas became less affordable to the typical renter, id. at 16; that in 2014 one-quarter of all renters in seven metro areas nationwide were severely rent burdened, id. at 21; and that a vast majority of low-income renters were severely rent burdened, id. at 22. Just as we speak of the causes of the crisis in market terms, our policy responses too focus on market interventions. On the supply side, government agencies (federal, state, and local) provide subsidies and tax relief to encourage the private market to develop and rehabilitate affordable housing units.2×2. See, e.g., Alex F. Schwartz, Housing Policy in the United States 6–8 (2d ed. 2010). On the demand side, rental subsidies allow tenants to pay only 30% of their income toward rent, with the government subsidizing the difference between the tenant contribution and the approved rent.3×3. The 30% rule is a conventionally used rule of thumb in public policy for the amount of income that a family can spend on housing and still have sufficient funds for nondiscretionary spending. See Mary Schwartz & Ellen Wilson, U.S. Dep’t of Commerce, Who Can Afford to Live in a Home?: A Look at Data from the 2006 American Community Survey 1–2, https://www.census.gov/housing/census/publications/who-can-afford.pdf [https://perma.cc/6JVY-ZECQ], for a discussion on how this rule of thumb evolved within housing policy.

Cover for Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

By Matthew Desmond. New York, N.Y.: Crown Publishers. 2016. Pp. xi, 418. $28.00.

In Evicted, Professor Matthew Desmond offers an alternative narrative, in which the complexities and path dependence of how housing instability occurs and is reinforced limit low-income households’ access to housing, separate and apart from the dynamics of housing supply. A sociologist, Desmond takes readers into eight tenant-landlord relationships that together reveal the complicated landscape confronted by low-income individuals and families looking to find, and keep, stable housing that they can afford. In so doing, Desmond forces us to step outside the typical market-based policy framework and consider the ways in which housing policy responds — or doesn’t — to the messy, chaotic, and heart-breaking experiences low-income tenants face in searching for a home, choosing a neighborhood, and trying to hold on to their housing.

Many of the realities to which Evicted exposes readers are findings and phenomena that researchers have examined and debated over the past decade.4×4. Much of that literature is cited in this Book Review, but especially important contributions include: Martha M. Galvez, What Works Collaborative, What Do We Know About Housing Choice Voucher Program Location Outcomes? A Review of Recent Literature 9–14 (2010), http://www.urban.org/sites/default/fIles/alfresco/publication-pdfs/412218-What-Do-We-Know-About-Housing-Choice-Voucher-Program-Location-Outcomes-.PDF [https://perma.cc/S7KH-V458]; Margery Austin Turner et al., Urban Inst., Helping Poor Families Gain and Sustain Access to High-Opportunity Neighborhoods (2011), http://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/alfresco/publication-pdfs/412455-Helping-Poor-Families-Gain-and-Sustain-Access-to-High-Opportunity-Neighborhoods.PDF [https://perma.cc/C74Q-U3SN]; Stefanie DeLuca et al., Segregating Shelter: How Housing Policies Shape the Residential Locations of Low-Income Minority Families, 647 Annals Am. Acad. Pol. & Soc. Sci. 268 (2013). The stories Desmond so artfully recounts, in and of themselves, are not necessarily surprising to anyone who follows the literature on mobility, housing policy, or the effects (neighborhood and individual) of concentrated poverty. But by explaining these phenomena through the individual narratives of both tenants and landlords, focusing on the relationships between them, and taking us into the overwhelming stress, trauma, and paralyzing struggles these low-income residents faced as they searched for housing, Desmond is able to shed new light on the causes and consequences of housing instability. His revelations are incredibly important today, as we consider how best to reach and assist low-income individuals and families through different forms of housing assistance. These contributions are particularly relevant to new policies that attempt to address the mobility constraints of low-income families but do not account for the actual experience low-income households have in finding and holding on to better housing in less poor neighborhoods. Desmond helps us understand these limitations while also pinpointing opportunities for further reform.

This Book Review will proceed in three parts. Part I will describe the contributions Desmond’s study makes to our understanding of the market that poor families face when they try to find an apartment, the complex relationships with landlords that affect how those families maintain or lose their apartments, and the consequences of housing instability for individuals and families. Part II will discuss how certain well-intended interventions — for example, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) final rule on Small Area Fair Market Rents (SAFMRs)5×5. Establishing a More Effective Fair Market Rent System; Using Small Area Fair Market Rents in Housing Choice Voucher Program Instead of the Current 50th Percentile FMRs, 81 Fed. Reg. 80,567 (Nov. 16, 2016) (to be codified at 24 C.F.R. pts. 888, 982, 983 & 985) [hereinafter SAFMR Rulemaking]. — ignore, or provide insufficient solutions to, the problems Desmond reveals. Finally, Part III will argue that Desmond’s work points the way to better housing policy and will propose granular, attainable reforms to policies and practices that should be reexamined in light of Desmond’s (and others’) findings about the struggles families face in finding and staying in better housing and more nurturing neighborhoods.


* Commissioner, New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, on leave from New York University School of Law; Chief of Staff, Housing Preservation and Development. We would like to thank Professor Matthew Desmond, along with Dinsiri Fikru, Laurie LoPrimo, Deborah Rand, and Eva Trimble for their thoughtful suggestions about this Book Review.