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Eviction Crisis Author Speaks at VCU: ‘Without Stable Shelter, Everything Else Falls Apart’

Author of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize winning book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” Matthew Desmond spoke at VCU about the relationship between poverty and eviction.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City was VCU's Common Book this year. During an event at the school, Desmond talked about the relationship between policies and poverty. (Photo: Brianna Scott)

This story was reported by Brianna Scott.

Author of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize winning book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” Matthew Desmond spoke at VCU about the relationship between poverty and eviction.

"For a long time poverty researchers, journalists like me, we've written sentences like this, low income families exhibit high rates of residential instability, period,” Desmond said in a packed out Siegel Center. “That's a bad sentence cause that doesn't say why. There's nothing inherent about poverty that causes instability. Poor folks are moving so much because they're forced to."

The factors preceding an eviction varies from one resident to the next, but one main reason is falling behind on rent payments. 

Desmond said almost one in four cost-burdened families are spending more than 70 percent of their income on rent. 

“Evictions are not just a condition of poverty, evictions are also a cause of poverty--they are making things worse,” said Desmond. “We cannot fix poverty in America if we do not fix housing.”

Five Virginia cities rank in the top ten for evictions, according to Desmond and the Eviction Lab’s research. Richmond ranked number two. 

Apartment management lobbyist Patrick McCloud says the eviction data is misleading because not all tenants who are served eviction notices end up out of their home. Though housing researchers point out that many people are involuntarily forced from their homes through measures other than formal eviction. 

McCloud, CEO of  the Virginia Apartment Management Association, says one way to prevent eviction is by educating tenants before it gets to that point. 

“Let’s talk about budgeting, let’s talk about your income situation, let’s talk about what you should be able to afford, let’s talk about what quality rental housing is and what you should look for,” McCloud told VPM.

The Eviction Lab founded by Desmond is a database tracking evictions--and the first of its kind. The U.S. government does not currently collect data on evictions. 

Across the Commonwealth, RVA Eviction Lab reports nearly 60 percent of majority African American neighborhoods have an annual eviction almost four times the national average.

Ava Wagner who works in the Wilder School at VCU attended Desmond’s talk. Wagner used to be a housing support specialist who helped survivors of sexual and domestic violence find a permanent home. Many of the clients Wagner helped, which were predominantly black women, had evictions and judgements on their records.

“Richmond needs to start being really mindful and intentional about lifting up people that we have been oppressing for many, many years,” Wagner said in response to how systemic racism impacts black people who are evicted. 

After the New York Times article highlighting Richmond evictions last year, legal and housing experts formed the Campaign To Reduce Evictions and lobbied successfully for some legislation to give tenants more rights. Desmond also said the Richmond is serving as a model for the nation by piloting the first eviction diversion program in Virginia this year. 

The diversion program will include financial literacy education, legal aid assistance and the use of a payment plan for landlords to receive rent they are owed.  

The City of Richmond also announced Wednesday that it is one of six cities selected to receive funds and training to launch a local Financial Empowerment Center. The national initiative is designed to expand financial literacy programs as a regular municipal service, providing residents with free, one-on-one financial counseling.