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First-Ever Evictions Database Shows: 'We're In the Middle Of A Housing Crisis'

Apr 12, 2018
Originally published on April 17, 2018 9:58 am

For many poor families in America, eviction is a real and ongoing threat. Sociologist Matthew Desmond estimates that 2.3 million evictions were filed in the U.S. in 2016 — a rate of four every minute.

"Eviction isn't just a condition of poverty; it's a cause of poverty," Desmond says. "Eviction is a direct cause of homelessness, but it also is a cause of residential instability, school instability [and] community instability."

Desmond won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for his book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. His latest project is The Eviction Lab, a team of researchers and students at Princeton University dedicated to amassing the nation's first-ever database of eviction. To date, the Lab had collected 83 million records from 48 states and the District of Columbia.

"We're in the middle of a housing crisis, and that means more and more people are giving more and more of their income to rent and utilities," Desmond says. "Our hope is that we can take this problem that's been in the dark and bring it into the light."


Interview Highlights

On why eviction rates are so high

Incomes have remained flat for many Americans over the last two decades, but housing costs have soared. So between 1995 and today, median asking rents have increased by 70 percent, adjusting for inflation. So there's a shrinking gap between what families are bringing [in] and what they have to pay for basic shelter.

And then we might ask ourselves: Wait a minute, where's public housing here? Where's housing vouchers? Doesn't the government help? And the answer is, it does help, but only for a small percentage of families. Only about 1 in 4 families who qualify for housing assistance get anything. So when we picture the typical low income American today, we shouldn't think of them living in public housing or getting any kind [of] housing assistance for the government, we should think of folks who are paying 60, 70, 80 percent of their income and living unassisted in the private rental market. That's our typical case today.

On the effects of eviction

Eviction comes with a mark that goes on your record, and that can bar you from moving into a good house in a safe neighborhood, but could also prevent you from moving into public housing, because we often count that as a mark against your application. So we push families who get evicted into slum housing and dangerous neighborhoods.

We have studies that show that eviction is linked to job loss. ... It's such a consuming, stressful event, it causes you to make mistakes at work, lose your footing there, and then there's just the trauma of it — the effect that eviction has on your dignity and your mental health and your physical health. We have a study for example that shows that moms who get evicted experience high rates of depression two years later.

On how landlords go about evicting tenants

It varies a lot from city to city. In some places you can evict someone for being a penny short and a day late and the process is very efficient and quick. In other cities it's a lot longer and laborious and it's much more work. We're only also talking about formal evictions, too. These are evictions that go through the court and there are 101 ways for landlords to get a family out. Sometimes landlords pay a family to leave. Sometimes they change their locks or take their door off, as I witnessed one time in Milwaukee. So those evictions aren't even captured in these numbers that we have — which means the estimates that we have are stunning, but they're also too low.

On the benefits of stabilizing families and decreasing evictions

The more I think about this issue, the more I think that we've really had a failure of our imagination — and maybe it's linked to a failure of our compassion. ... When we ask, What can be done if a tenant doesn't pay rent? Doesn't that tenant have to be evicted? A thousand things can be done. There's so much better ways of dealing with this issue than we currently do. ...

Stabilizing a home has all sorts of positive benefits for a family. The kid gets to finish school. The neighborhood doesn't lose a crucial neighbor. The family gets to root down and get to understand the value of a home and avoid homelessness. And for all of us, I think [we] have to recognize that we're paying the cost of eviction because whatever our issue is, whatever keeps us up at night, the lack of affordable housing sits at the root of that issue. ...

We know that neighborhoods that have more evictions have higher violent crime rates the following year. You can understand why — it rips apart the fabric of a community. We pay for that. The top 5 percent of hospital users consume 50 percent of the health care costs. Guess who those people are? They're the homeless and unstably housed. And so I think we can spend smart or we can spend stupid, and so I think addressing the affordable housing crisis is a win for families, for landlords and for the taxpayer.

Roberta Shorrock and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Middle-class people complain about how expensive it's become to live in cities. But for the working poor, city housing is often unaffordable. The majority of poor people spend over half their income on housing, leaving little money for everything else. And their lives often spiral further downward because of eviction.

My guest, Matthew Desmond, won a Pulitzer Prize last year for his book, "Evicted: Poverty And Profit In The American City." He was also awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called genius award. Now he's created a new project, called The Eviction Lab, which is based at Princeton University where he's a professor of sociology. The lab has done something that's never been done before. It's gathered eviction records from across America so that we can better analyze the causes and consequences of eviction. The lab's website just went up a few days ago. You can look up your city and see the eviction rate there. As part of Desmond's research, he lived in a rooming house and in a trailer park in Milwaukee to be with and write about people who struggled each month to pay rent and faced dire consequences when they couldn't.

Matthew Desmond, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, you write people think of eviction as being caused by poverty, but that you came to see it as a further cause of poverty. Explain how eviction itself is a cause of poverty.

MATTHEW DESMOND: Sure. Yeah. Let's just put ourselves in a family's shoes that's getting evicted. Let's just be there in the apartment with them and think about how that would affect our life, you know, to lose our home, but often all your things, your neighborhood. Your children often lose their schools. And so eviction is a direct cause of homelessness, but it also is a cause of residential instability, school instability, community instability. Eviction comes with a mark that goes on your record, and that can bar you from moving into a good house in a safe neighborhood. But it could also prevent you from moving into public housing 'cause we often count that as a mark against your application. And so we push families who get evicted into slum housing in dangerous neighborhoods.

We have studies that show that eviction is linked to job loss, and, if any of your listeners out there have been evicted, they know exactly why that is. It's such a consuming, stressful event. It causes you to make mistakes at work, lose your footing there. And then there's just the trauma of it. You know, like, the effect that eviction has on your dignity and your mental health and your physical health. We have a study, for example, that shows that moms who get evicted experience high rates of depression two years later. And so I think when you step back and take a look at that and really try to feel that, we have to conclude that eviction isn't just a condition of poverty. It's a cause of poverty.

GROSS: So if a landlord wants to evict a tenant, how easy is it to do that?

DESMOND: It varies a lot from city to city. In some places, you can evict someone for being a penny short and a day late. And the process is very efficient and quick. In other cities, it's a lot longer and laborious, and it's much more work. We're only also talking about formal evictions, too. These are evictions that go through the court. And there are a hundred and one ways for landlords to get a family out. You know? Sometimes landlords pay a family to leave. Sometimes they change their locks, or take their door off, as I witnessed one time in Milwaukee. And so those evictions aren't even captured in these numbers that we have, which means the estimates that we have are stunning, but they're also too low.

GROSS: So would you describe for us this new project that you set up with the new website, The Eviction Lab? What questions do you want to be able to answer with all the data about eviction that you've been collecting?

DESMOND: I published my book in 2016, and I went around the country talking about evictions. And I'd go to Houston, or Baton Rouge, or Kansas City and people there wanted to know, what's our eviction rate? You know, how are we doing? You know, where are evictions happening in my city? And I couldn't answer. You know, we don't have a national database of eviction in America. We have no idea how many Americans get evicted every year, where evictions are going up and down, what this problem is doing to our towns and our kids, and even just what works. You know, what laws and policies are really effective?

And so I founded something at Princeton called The Eviction Lab, and we set out to build the nation's first-ever database of eviction in America that covers 48 states. It covers the District of Columbia. We were able to secure 83 million records related to eviction going back to 2000. And our hope is that we can take this problem that's been in the dark and bring it into the light. And community council members and high school teachers, concerned citizens, whoever you are, can engage with these data, learn about eviction in your own backyard and really start a conversation about housing and security in our communities.

GROSS: So what's an example of something you can say now based on the eviction records that you've gotten that nobody could have said before?

DESMOND: I can tell you that in 2016, there were about 2.3 million evictions filed across America. That's four evictions filed every single minute. And let's just put that number into perspective. That's how many foreclosure starts were happening in 2009 at the height of the crisis. So it's as if renters are facing foreclosure-level crises every single year in this country. Now, not all of those evictions filings result in an actual eviction judgment.

So how many do? So our estimate says about 900,000 do. That affects 2.3 million people or about 6,300 Americans evicted every single day. So that's twice the number of Americans who die in car accidents every day. That's twice the number of people that get arrested for drug offenses every year. We heard a lot about the opioid crisis last year, and for good reason. It's an incredibly important topic. There were around 63,000 overdose deaths in 2016, and about 2.3 million people evicted. So for every tragic overdose, there are 36 people that are pushed into the street. This is a problem of enormous scope and consequence.

GROSS: And there's more evictions now than there used to be, right?

DESMOND: From what we can tell. You know, when you read the historical record, you're left with this impression that evictions were rare and scandalous. You know, people protested sheriffs. Families and neighbors sat on furniture and wouldn't let the eviction take place. You get this impression that it didn't happen a lot. And we've moved from that place to a place where, you know, if you live in a struggling community, you've grown quite used to the early-morning knocks on the door and the effects on the curb. You know? Eviction is now something that is transforming the lives of Americans of modest means.

GROSS: Why have we witnessed that change from something that was relatively uncommon to something that's very common in poor neighborhoods?

DESMOND: So we're in the middle of a housing crisis, and that means more and more people are giving more and more of their income to rent and utilities. And so there's three ingredients to this crisis. Incomes have remained flat for many Americans over the last two decades, but housing costs have soared. So between 1995 and today, median asking rents have increased by 70 percent, adjusting for inflation. So there's just a really shrinking gap between what families are bringing in and what they have to pay for basic shelter. And then we might ask ourselves, why, wait a minute. You know, where's public housing here? And where's housing vouchers? You know, doesn't the government help? And the answer is, it does help, but only for a small percentage of families.

You know, only about 1 in 4 families who qualify for housing assistance get anything. So when we picture the typical low-income American today, we shouldn't think of them living in public housing or getting any kind of housing assistance from the government. We should think of folks who are paying 60, 70, 80 percent of their income and living unassisted in the private rental market. That's our typical case today. Most poor renting families spend over half of their income on housing, and that is bringing millions of Americans incredibly close to eviction.

GROSS: Right 'cause like most financial advisers say, you should be spending no more than 30 percent of your income on your rent. And you're talking about people who are spending, like, 50, 60, 80 percent of their income on rent, which means one thing goes wrong that you need money for, you're done. You can't afford your rent.

DESMOND: Exactly. And, you know, when I was living in Milwaukee, I met folks like Vanetta. She was a single mom trying to raise three kids. She was working at Old Country Buffet, but her hours got cut back, you know? And she wasn't able to meet the bills, and that eventually ended her up in a homeless shelter. I met a grandma named Lorraine (ph), who was my neighbor in the trailer park that I lived in, who was paying over 70 percent of her income to rent a mobile home in a place that has so many code violations the city literally condemned the mobile home park. And so this is the face of many Americans today, 1 in 4 of all poor renting families are spending 70 percent of their income just on rent and utilities. And when you are in that position, it doesn't take a lot to get evicted.

GROSS: So as part of your research for your eviction project, you rented a place in inner-city Milwaukee, a predominantly African-American neighborhood. Would you describe the apartment that you rented?

DESMOND: Sure. I rented a rooming house from a landlord that I profiled in the book named Sherrena. And it was a duplex in inner city Milwaukee. I had a wonderful roommate named Officer Wu (ph) who worked many jobs as a security guard all throughout the inner city. And it was a small place. It was fairly shabby, but everything worked. Below us was also a rooming house, and it was - there was a lot more transient folks through there. So there were kind of new neighbors every week, every month coming through that place. People were friendly. We supported each other and cooked for each other, but there's often a bit of drama too. So there were two shootings on the block, for example, one time that the rooming house was hit. But I generally - I really loved the people I lived with. And I really enjoyed their company.

GROSS: Just to clarify, what's the difference between a rooming house and an apartment?

DESMOND: A rooming house is an apartment where you rent a room and you don't rent the entire unit. So I paid $400 for a bedroom every month. And Officer Wu also rented a bedroom. And we shared the bathroom, living room and kitchen.

GROSS: So $400 to share a rooming house. And this was back in 2008 because that's when you started your research.

DESMOND: That's right.

GROSS: Was considered a lot of money for what you were getting?

DESMOND: Right. That's a great point. And so what we can think about is why are rents so expensive in poor neighborhoods? Because they generally are. One thing that you learn when you look at the data is that rents in poor neighborhoods aren't that much lower than rents in other neighborhoods. And so poor families actually are paying more and getting less. And the rooming house that I lived in was bought for - I think it was under $20,000 the entire property.

And so that meant the landlords could recoup the costs with that level of rent in a very short amount of time. We now know from looking at national data that property owners in low-income neighborhoods almost everywhere in the country had bigger profit margins than those in middle class or affluent neighborhoods. And the reason is very simple. Your mortgage and your property bills are lower, but your rents aren't that much lower.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Matthew Desmond. He's author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Evicted" and founder of the new project The Eviction Lab which is based in Princeton University, where he teaches. The Eviction Lab website just went up. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEFF BABKO'S "NOSTALGIA IS FOR SUCKAS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Matthew Desmond. He won a Pulitzer Prize last year for his book "Evicted." He's created a new project called The Eviction Lab at Princeton University, where he's a professor of sociology. The project has collected data on formal eviction records from 48 states and Washington, D.C., in order to help document the prevalence, causes and consequences of eviction and to evaluate relevant laws and policies. And the website just went up a few days ago.

So I think looking at landlords in poor neighborhoods is a very interesting thing to do - which, of course, you have done. And you talk about how powerful landlords are in poor neighborhoods. Can you elaborate on that?

DESMOND: One thing that I wanted to know when I started this research was, you know, why would you buy property in some of the poorest neighborhoods of your city? Like, why would you see that as an investment? And when I finished this research, I asked, why wouldn't you do that? You know, you could make a pretty significant profit. You can make a profit that's significantly more than your competitors in better neighborhoods. And so I think that raises significant policy questions for us and moral questions for us. How much direct inequality should we tolerate? The landlords are also the ones that get to decide, do I kick you out and spare you? Should I let you in? Should I evict you when you get pregnant?

So they do have a lot of control over tenants' lives. It's also an imbalance power structure in eviction court. And I just welcome your listeners to spend a day in eviction court and just see for yourselves. You know, in many places around the country, 90 percent of landlords have attorneys and 90 percent of tenants do not. There is no right to an attorney in eviction court except in New York City, which just passed recently. And so there is a certain imbalance there, too. But we have to listen to landlords. You know, we have to understand their perspective as well. We are housing most poor families in the private rental market. We have to understand what makes landlords tick and what policies they can work with and what suggestions they have about how to solve this crisis going forward.

GROSS: You must have a high tolerance for pain if you're a landlord in a poor neighborhood because you must know going into this that your tenants are going to have trouble paying. That's why they're renting from you in the first place because they don't have much money. And you know you're going to have to find ways of forcing people who are poor to give you money that they don't necessarily have. So the landlord who you rented from in the rooming house, who you name Sherrena - because you changed the names of everybody in the book.

DESMOND: Correct.

GROSS: So she said to you, the hood is good. There's a lot of money here. So what did she own in addition to this rooming house?

DESMOND: Sherrena owned 36 units all throughout the inner city. When I met her, she had been a landlord for four years. Before that, she was a public schoolteacher. She rented almost exclusively to poor people in inner city Milwaukee, and she netted about $10,000 a month after expenses. So that's more than most of her tenants made an entire year. And she was proud of her work. You know, she lived comfortably. She had a five-bedroom house. Her and her husband vacationed in Jamaica every year.

And so I just - I think that raises certain questions for us, you know, about, you know, is this working? And what it helps me understand is poverty isn't just the result of low incomes. It's also the result of extractive markets. And it's rather irrelevant if she was a good or a bad landlord. Some days she was compassionate and a great listener. And some days she could be hard on her tenants. But in the end, they still had to pay that rent. And her affluence and comfort was directly related to their poverty.

And I think Sherrena has a lesson for all of us. And I think some of us - it could be easy to judge a landlord or judge the tenants. But I think that we, as a nation, need to ask ourselves how our safe neighborhoods or our kids' schools are directly related to unsafe neighborhoods or failing schools in other parts of the nation or how our tax benefits are directly related to the lack of benefits of some struggling families today. I think we're all implicated in poverty, and Sherrena just helps us see that better, I think.

GROSS: She would make it clear to her tenants that she had bills to pay. The landlord had bills to pay. So like, if you don't pay your rent to her, she can't pay her bill. So like, if you can't pay it, she's going to have to evict you. So she was pretty tough. Did she ever let somebody stay even though they couldn't pay?

DESMOND: Absolutely, you know. Absolutely, you know. She bought tenants groceries. She worked with tenants. She was hard on some and soft on others. But, you know, the more I think about this issue, the more I think that we've really had a failure of our imagination. And maybe it's linked to a failure of our compassion. It shouldn't be obvious to us that eviction is the natural result of a family not paying their rent. It's not like the landlord gets it back after they evict a family. And some evictions are for pennies.

You know, even looking at eviction data from Virginia, for example, 1 in 10 evictions in Virginia in 2016 are for less than $335. You know, $335 is separating a lot of families from being housed and homelessness. And so I think that when we ask, you know, well, what could be done if a tenant doesn't pay rent? Doesn't that tenant have to be evicted? A thousand things can be done. There's so much better ways of dealing with this issue than we currently do.

GROSS: Give us some examples.

DESMOND: For example, if you go to Cleveland's Community Court, you go in the court and the judge says, why are you behind? That might not sound like a radical question to you. But for folks that have been in eviction court, you know how radical it is because many times the judge just says, are you behind? And if you say yes, your case is basically over. But in a community court, this judge says, why are you behind? And you say, my kid got sick or I relapsed or my hours got cut or whatever. You know, it was the source of you falling behind.

And then there's several full-time social workers in the court. And the social workers get on the case immediately. And the judge and the social worker and the tenant work together to see if they can arrive at a compromise that helps the landlord get his or her payment. It helps the tenants stay in the home and addresses the fundamental issue. Stabilizing a home has all sorts of positive benefits for a family. The kid gets to finish school. The neighborhood doesn't lose a crucial neighbor. The family gets to kind of root down and understand the value of a home and avoid homelessness.

And for all of us, I think we have to recognize that we're paying the costs of eviction because whatever our issue is, whatever keeps us up at night, the lack of affordable housing sits at the root of that issue. Let me just give you a few examples. You know, we know that neighborhoods that have more evictions have higher violent crime rates the following year. And you can understand why. It rips apart the fabric of a community. We pay for that. The top 5 percent of hospital users consume 50 percent of the healthcare costs. Guess who those people are? They're the homeless and unstably housed. And so I think we can spend smart or we can spend stupid. And so I think addressing the affordable housing crisis is a win for families, for landlords and for the taxpayer.

GROSS: My guest is Matthew Desmond, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book "Evicted." And he founded The Eviction Lab, a new national database of eviction records. Their website just went up a few days ago. After a break, we'll talk more about evictions and hear how his parents' home was foreclosed on years ago. And Ken Tucker will review John Prine's first album of new songs in 13 years. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HUNTER'S "LOW BRIDGE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Matthew Desmond. We're talking about the lack of affordable housing, especially for the working poor who risk being evicted when an unplanned expense leaves them unable to pay the rent. Desmond has a new project called The Eviction Lab that's created the first national database of evictions in America. Their website just went up a few days ago. The lab is based in Princeton University, where he's a professor of sociology. He won a Pulitzer Prize last year for his book "Evicted: Poverty And Profit In The American City." It's based, in part, on his research living in a rooming house and in a trailer park in Milwaukee.

Did you witness any evictions?

DESMOND: Oh, dozens and dozens. I witnessed evictions in the trailer park I lived in, in the neighborhoods I lived in. But I also went along with a sheriff many, many times on eviction moves. One is hard to shake. This was in Milwaukee, and it was a cold spring day. It was raining. And we went up to this house, and there were just kids living in the house. And we are all confused. The sheriff and the movers were confused. We eventually got in touch with the landlord, and we learned that the mom had died, and the kids had just gone on living in the house. And, you know, the sheriffs deliberated a little bit, but then they carried through the eviction like this was their job. And the movers piled the children's things on the wet sidewalk. The landlord drilled a new lock, and we were off to the next move.

GROSS: What happened to the children?

DESMOND: I don't know. The landlords don't know. The sheriff doesn't know. It's not their job to know.

GROSS: Were the children just left there with the possessions on the sidewalk?

DESMOND: That's right.

GROSS: How old were the children?

DESMOND: They were between - like, I think the oldest was a teenager. I remember she had these piercing gray eyes, and she was hard, you know, hardened. And the youngest, if I recall just from memory, you know, I'd put them at 7, 8, something like that.

GROSS: I wonder if the sheriff contacted Child Services right afterwards or what.

DESMOND: It could be possible. But, you know, I mean - you know, that's an example that's extreme, but, you know, most families that get evicted in Milwaukee have kids living with them. The average age of a homeless person in America is 9. And so when we think of this crisis, we should recognize it like the eviction crisis is a crisis borne by our children. Until recently, the housing court in the South Bronx in New York City literally had a day care inside of it because there were so many kids coming through its doors.

GROSS: So just taking the landlord point of view for a second, when a family knows they're going to be evicted, do they ever kind of, like, sabotage the apartment in anger, in protest, against the landlord?

DESMOND: Sure, yeah. Sure, that happens. Many landowners that I spoke with have the same story, and it starts like this. I used to be nice, but then, you know - and then - but then, you know, the tenants stuck socks down the sink and turned the water on, you know, things like that. You know, I think that those things do happen. And in my experience, those are rare but very meaningful occurrences, and you can look at this in the data actually. And if you look at landlord profit margins in low-income communities, you can see that a small number of them incur big losses, big risks but most of them don't.

GROSS: One of the recommendations you make after having studied eviction in the U.S. and looking at how some other countries handle housing for the poor - you've looked at how other countries handle housing vouchers, and you recommend we try a similar system. What's the system that you think is working in other countries?

DESMOND: So the good news is the systems that are working here work pretty darn well. You know, when families finally get a housing voucher after years and years on the waiting list, when they get this ticket that allows them to pay only 30 percent of their income on rent instead of 50 or 60, they do one consistent thing with it. They buy more food. You know, their kids become stronger and less anemic. They move to better neighborhoods. They don't move as often. They stay in the labor market longer. They work. But the problem is it's only for the lucky minority of poor families today, and the vast majority of our low-income families, they're not so lucky. And their kids, like, literally don't get enough to eat because the rent eats first. And so the good news is we don't need to go looking for programs elsewhere, but we do need to dose the problem bigger. We need to have a deeper investment in affordable housing in America.

GROSS: So, you know, in terms of the playing field being unequal in housing, something else you point out - which other people have mentioned as well - is that homeowners get this great advantage right now that renters don't get, which is that you can deduct your interest. Now, the amount that you can deduct was limited by the new tax bill, and I think everybody's still confused about what the new rules are about that. But nevertheless, there's a tax advantage to ownership that, you know, renters don't get any kind of break like that.

And I thought that was, like, supposed to be an incentive for people to buy homes because of the stability it brings to the homeowner and to the community. And you say, no, that's not what it was about. This law goes back to 1913. What was the law about when it was started, the law that allowed homeowners to deduct their interest from their taxes?

DESMOND: It was a law that just started because it allowed business folks to deduct certain expenses. And it kind of caught the country off guard when mortgages were included in those deductions. And then when America started building its middle class through the G.I. Bill after World War II and expanding homeownership to middle-class families for whom it would never - it had never been a reality for those families by ensuring private mortgages and decreasing down payment sizes, you know, then we suddenly realized, oh, this is kind of a runaway deduction. But by that time, it was baked so deep in the kind of financial planning of many Americans that it was seen as kind of a third rail. You really couldn't touch it.

So let's just back up - what are we talking about here? It's tax time. So the mortgage interest deduction is something that homeowners can take for their first home and even for their second home, their RV or their yacht or their ski cabin. And until recently, you could deduct up to a million dollars - a mortgage interest deduction - for your first home. And now it's capped at $750,000, so it still has a really big cap on it. And that is one of the sweetest deals in the tax code that matters a lot to homeowners. And just to give you a perspective about how huge that benefit is - so the year that Arleen was evicted from the apartment that I studied with her, we as a nation spent about $41 billion on direct housing assistance to the needy, things like public housing, housing vouchers - $41 billion. But that same year, we spent $171 billion on homeowner tax subsidies, with things like the mortgage interest deduction taking up a bigger share of the pie. That's a tremendous number. That's a colossal number. That's equivalent to the entire budgets of, like, the Departments of Education and Agriculture and the Interior and Department of Justice combined.

And the thing is, most of that benefit goes to families with six-figure incomes because if you have a bigger income, you can get a bigger home. And you get a bigger home, you could take a bigger deduction for your mortgage. Most white families in America own their home. And they're eligible for this really sweet cut out in the tax code. Most African-American and Latino families, they don't because of our history of racial discrimination. So, I mean, to me, it's really hard to think of a social policy that does a better job of amplifying our economic and racial inequality than our current housing policy does. We give most of our housing benefits to families that need it the least. And we give nothing to families that desperately need it the most. And so if that's going to be our arrangement, Terry, I just feel like let's just be honest about that, you know, and own up to it instead of repeating this idea that the richest country on the planet can't afford to do more.

GROSS: Well, let me introduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Matthew Desmond. He's author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Evicted" and founder of the new project The Eviction Lab, which is based in Princeton University where he teaches. And their website just went up a few days ago. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARC BROUSSARD'S "INNER CITY BLUES (MAKE ME WANNA HOLLER)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is Matthew Desmond. He won a Pulitzer Prize last year for his book "Evicted." He's created a new project called The Eviction Lab. It's based at Princeton University, where he's a professor of sociology. The project has collected data on formal eviction records from 48 states and Washington, D.C., in order to help document and understand the prevalence, the causes and the consequences of eviction.

So your family was never evicted, but they were foreclosed on. And so before we get to your family story - it's maybe an obvious question here - but what's the difference between eviction and foreclosure?

DESMOND: An eviction happens to renters, and a foreclosure happens to homeowners. So in a foreclosure, the bank or the lending institution seizes the home. And in an eviction, the landlord forces renters to leave.

GROSS: OK, so your family was foreclosed on soon after you went to college. What happened?

DESMOND: We had run into some financial trouble. We were unable to kind of get back into the block with the bank. And the bank started foreclosure proceedings on my family. I must have been a sophomore or junior in college. And so we went through foreclosure, you know, before it was, you know, all the rage. We were trendsetters.

GROSS: (Laughter).

DESMOND: And, you know, I don't remember a lot about that moment. But I do remember experiencing it with a lot of embarrassment, you know, and shame. And, you know, I blamed my parents for decisions that I didn't fully understand at that point in my life. And, you know, that's exactly how folks experience an eviction. You know, they think it's their fault. And they think that they're in it alone. And I remember talking to Arleen after my book came out. And, you know, Arleen's really...

GROSS: She's one of the tenants that you wrote about.

DESMOND: Yeah, she's a single mom and trying to raise two young boys. You know, and when I first met her, she was paying 88 percent of her income to live in a really run-down inner city apartment in Milwaukee. And we read the book together. And she said, you know, I see a lot of my strength in here, but I also see a lot of my mistakes. She was so hard on herself.

And I was hard on my parents, you know, after that. And one thing I've learned - and I think that one thing that Arleen has come around to a bit - is to say, look, this is not just us. You know, we're part of a broader story here. If this is happening to millions of people, it's not something that can just be thrust on us as an evidence of our irresponsibility or missteps. There's something bigger going on.

GROSS: If you don't mind saying, what kind of financial trouble did your family run into?

DESMOND: My dad was between jobs. He was a preacher. And, you know, that's not a super lucrative career in a small town. And he left the church and was in between jobs and ended up finishing his career as a prison chaplain. And my mom just held down whatever job she could get in a small Arizona town where I grew up.

GROSS: What did your parents do when they were foreclosed on? Where did they go?

DESMOND: So my parents and my younger sister moved into a small rented home in the middle of town. We had before been a bit out of town. And they lived there for several years until they finally were able to move out by us on the East Coast.

GROSS: What did it mean to you to lose the home you grew up in?

DESMOND: Whenever we went back to visit them in our small town, we'd often drive by our old home. And we'd look at it. We'd criticize people's painting jobs, you know, because it still felt a bit like ours - you know, that it had been taken from us. And I remember that home fondly. I remember feeling safe in it. I remember Easter egg hunts and Christmas in it. And so there was something beyond just a financial hit. There was something about losing those memories in a way and that sense of place. We didn't lose it on our own terms.

GROSS: Is that foreclosure one of the reasons why you've studied evictions?

DESMOND: I don't know. I don't think so. But it's something that I felt I had to write about. In fact, I wasn't going to put that detail in the book, and my brilliant editor Amanda Cook made me because, you know, she's - you know, how could you not? And she was right, as she is about everything. And I don't know. It might have got in there somewhere. But, I mean, what I remember is going to college thinking that America worked a certain way, thinking that America was fair and that there was an even playing field. And if you worked hard, you could get ahead. And, you know, I thought I might want to be a lawyer. And I started taking classes in history and justice studies and was confronted with a set of facts that really flew in the face of my story. You know, is this how much racial inequality we have in this country? You know, is the American dream so blunted?

And that's when I started spending, you know, when I wasn't working, you know, spending time in the library really trying to get after those questions. And I started spending a lot of time with homeless people that lived around my campus. And that's kind of how I got started in just like this curiosity about poverty in America. Why does this land of riches have so much poverty? Why are we the richest democracy with such severe levels of destitution? And that's the question that still propels me today.

GROSS: I want to point out that when you say your editor insisted that you put your family's foreclosure in the book, it's in the epilogue and there's maybe a paragraph (laughter). You're not going into a lot of detail about it.

DESMOND: That's right, yeah. Maybe I should say she nudged me to do it.

GROSS: Yeah. OK.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So one of the things you can do on your Eviction Lab website is to look at the city where you live and see rates compared to other cities when it comes to eviction. People usually like to be in the top 10. You don't want to be in the top 10 in this particular listing. I was glad Philly was (inaudible) somewhere in the 80s. But Virginia had five cities in the top 10. What's going on in Virginia?

DESMOND: That's right. So I'm not going to let Philly off the hook so easily, though. You still have way too many evictions than you should. It is surprising to me that a fairly big low-cost city like Philly has so many evections. But you're right. If you look at the map, you see evictions concentrated in the Southeast. And this was surprising to us, you know. And when we talk about the housing crisis, we often usually talk about the coasts or most-expensive cities where rents have skyrocketed. But what this unveils is that eviction has this huge effect in fairly low-cost cities and communities all across the Southeast - 1 in 9 renter homes in Richmond are evicted every single year. In Norfolk, Va., it's about that rate as well.

It's a state that is hosting a tremendous amount of evictions every year. And the thing is I don't fully understand why. We don't know. And so what this eviction data allow us to do is ask questions that we couldn't ask before, look at patterns that were invisible to us before and really ask city planners, students, parents, everyone to come around the table and really try to kind of look at this problem in their community and get to the bottom of it.

GROSS: Matthew Desmond, thank you so much for talking with us. And congratulations on all the work you've done.

DESMOND: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: My pleasure.

Matthew Desmond is the author of "Evicted" and the founder of The Eviction Lab based at Princeton University, where he teaches. The lab's website just went up a few days ago, offering us access to its national database of evictions throughout America.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, and in a previous Web version, it is incorrectly implied that there are about 3,000 traffic fatalities per day in the U.S. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports there were 37,461 fatalities caused by car crashes in 2016, or about 103 per day.]

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