Laying the foundation: the private rental market and affordable housing.

Author:Rosser, Ezra
Position:Special Issue on Affordable Housing


The private rental housing market plays a critical, and often overlooked, role in shaping the lives of the poor and the surrounding community. This brief Article presents Matthew Desmond's rich portrayal of low-income tenants and their landlords in his groundbreaking new book, Evicted, which shows how poor housing conditions and cycles of eviction impact poor families. The Article, which also draws upon Courtney Anderson's work connecting housing instability with problematic student turnover at an elementary school, highlights the importance of story-telling. Without some sort of subsidy to cover the gap between the ability of the poor to pay for housing and the costs of construction and maintenance, the private market cannot supply additional affordable housing. Arguably, in such a reality, it is imperative that scholars make the choice Desmond made: to deliberately de-emphasize empirical studies and instead rely on stories to put human faces on the suffering connected to the existing structure of low-income private rental housing.

TABLE OF CONTENTS Introduction 500 I. Tenants and Their Landlords 504 A. The Tenants 506 1. Arleen 506 2. Scott 508 3. Doreen 510 4. Lamar 511 B. The Landlords 513 1. Tobin 513 2. Sherrena 515 II. Anecdotes and Empirics 516 III. Affordability, Conditions, and Spillover Effects 520 Conclusion 527 INTRODUCTION

Most poor people live in private housing, despite the fact that poverty is strongly associated with public housing in the public imagination. The promise and ambition of massive projects in cities like New York and Chicago quickly came to represent dysfunction and unchecked criminality. (1) During the 1980s and 1990s, movies and academic studies alike presented the poor in such projects as living in a dystopia at considerable distance from the experience of ordinary Americans. (2) The focus then as now was on the problems experienced by the poor living in government housing. And the solution--breaking up concentrated poverty so that the poor are less isolated--found policy expression in the mixed housing of Hope VI and, more recently, in the requirement that local housing authorities affirmatively further fair housing. (3) No wonder that many people assume that the poor generally live in public or subsidized housing when in fact most poor people do not receive public support and rely wholly on the private housing market. (4) Whether it is because the narrative that public housing is hopelessly broken has been so powerful or because the focus of policy-makers often is on programs tied to particularly funding streams, work on low-income housing tends to gravitate toward subsidized housing programs. But if the goal is to use research and policy to improve the lives of the poor, it is time to direct more attention to how the poor actually live by ending the neglect of the private low-income housing market.

Fortunately, there are indications that we are entering a period of greater engagement with the struggles of the poor and of tenants dependent on the private low-income housing market. The Great Recession's origins in the housing market and the widespread vulnerability of owners and tenants that the crisis revealed brought increased attention to the housing market, which previously had been largely taken for granted. (5) As inequality in the United States has skyrocketed to levels not seen since the Gilded Age, scholars, advocacy groups, and even the larger public have begun the process of recognizing the significance of class. (6) Whereas prior to the Great Recession politicians on the right were quick to accuse progressives of engaging in class warfare, more recently poverty and the decline of the middle class have been issues taken up by Republican and Democrat politicians alike. (7) Despite its faults--and there were many, especially around matters of race, religion, gender, and immigration--the 2016 Presidential election also witnessed lively debates about the nature of capitalism that were based in part on a growing popular belief that the system was rigged against ordinary Americans by privileged elites. Though there is considerable room for nervousness that we are entering a dark period when it comes to government anti-poverty efforts, (8) it is safe to say that the revealed vulnerability of the Great Recession and the continued rise in economic inequality together are elevating poverty as a matter of national attention and public debate.

Much the same can be said about the private housing market. When the bottom fell out of the housing market and many homeowners found themselves underwater, the clean line dividing public housing policy from the private housing market grew murky. It was not just that the government had to bail out private banks and two government-sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but there were also public calls to extend government bailouts directly to homeowners. (9) The idea that the housing market is independent of government policy eroded further by the observable shifts of housing units from private resident owners to banks through foreclosure where they then either languished on the market because credit for new buyers had dried up or were snatched up at bargain basement prices by investors fortunate enough to enjoy liquidity in a moment of financial contractions. (10) Tenants were not unscathed by the turmoil in the ownership market. Foreclosures and indifferent banks left tenants in a legal limbo as legal advocates struggled to make sense of the crisis. Suddenly the notion that private housing policy could be relegated to a private law backwater seemed naive. That is not to say that courts and politicians previously treated the private rental market as entirely beyond the scope of public interest and regulation. Formal legal doctrines that put a thumb on the scale in favor of tenants--rent control, the implied warranty of habitability, tenant purchase rights, etcetera--show that the rental market has long been about more than just a series of private agreements between landlords and tenants. But the challenges revealed by the housing crisis put an exclamation mark on the public nature of private housing.

This Article focuses on the experiences of the poor at the bottom of the private rental market. It uses the stories of a select group of poor tenants and their landlords--as beautifully told in a powerful new book by Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City--to better understand the ways housing vulnerability impacts the lives of the poor." Though Evicted refers occasionally to the wealth of empirical data on evictions that Desmond collected leading up to the book, the narrative is driven by the stories of individual landlords and tenants. The importance of story-telling in Evicted can also be seen in Professor Courtney Anderson's exploration of the impact of housing displacement on a local elementary school. The hope of Desmond's book, and this Article, is that a better understanding of the housing struggles of particular poor individuals and families will lead to greater political commitment to affordable housing and more empathy for those living from eviction to eviction.

This Article proceeds in three parts. Part I gives a summary of Evicted, presenting the stories of four tenants and their landlords. Part II discusses Desmond's choice to emphasize the experiences of poor individuals over empirics and to limit his extensive empirical study results to a supporting role. Part III links Evicted with Professor Anderson's exploration in You Cannot Afford to Live Here of the connection between problems that affect the poor in the low-income rental housing market and the impact of student turnover on surrounding public schools. Ultimately, Professors Anderson and Desmond are engaged in a similar project of broadening our understanding of housing for the poor to include both public and private housing. Put differently, Evicted and You Cannot Afford to Live Here are helping lay the foundation of understanding that will be necessary for anti-poverty advocates to tackle the poor conditions, power imbalances, and inherent limitations that in many ways define the private affordable housing market.

The story of housing construction in many ways is a story of economics: how much can buyers afford to pay, what infrastructure is there to support such housing, and how much does it cost to build given the costs of materials, labor, and regulatory limits on development. But the story of affordable housing must become the story of people. Given that the poor cannot pay enough to cover the cost of constructing and maintaining even basic housing, the economic story by itself is a dead-end for affordable housing advocates. It is only by listening to the poor--paying close attention to their hardships and the suffering of poor families struggling to put food on the table and a roof over their heads--that progress is going to be made on affordable housing. After all, it is all too easy for the non-poor to opt out of concern for the poor; telling the stories of the poor at the bottom of the housing market is a necessary first step if the country is to recognize the moral demands connected with the shared humanity of poor families.


    At the end of last year, the New York Times named Matthew Desmond's Evicted one of the ten best books of 2016. (12) It was a well-deserved honor. Evicted is both academically significant and beautifully written, conveying in rich detail what life is like for those struggling to afford housing. If anything, Evicted reads less as the work of an academic and more as a journalistic series of intimate, and often heart-breaking, accounts of the choices and pressures that lead to evictions. Evicted is by no means the first book that tells the story of the struggles of poor people, and though evictions represent a new angle, it joins books about the...

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