Saturday, April 22, 2017
While at the Texas A&M University Property Schmooze in February, one book title was mentioned at least 10 times: Matthew Desmond's (Harvard) Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016). I knew of the book but, admittedly, had not read it in February of this year. Given that everyone was talking about it, I decided to order a copy while flying back to the Big Easy. To me, the book can be described in one word: powerful. Through his words, Demond gives personality to the housing struggles that are all too real for so many. From the recovering addict tenant to the landlord who views low-income rentals as good for her business to the incarcerated renter to the victim of domestic abuse who is thrown out, Desmond breathes life into the lives of those that far too many have turned their back on.
The Yale Law Journal Forum recently published a set of essays responding to Desmond's book. The collection of essays includes writings by Lisa T. Alexander (Texas A&M), Laurie Ball Cooper (Cohen Milstein), and Ezra Rosser (American).
Alexander uses her essay to pitch the thesis that the right to housing is a human right. Alexander uses her "right to housing framework" to "help cities evaluate the efficacy of their local laws, policies, plans, programs, and housing markets." She highlights how the law on the books does not apply as perhaps it was intended for low-income renters. Alexander then proposes how municipalities can codify superior laws and landlord-tenant regulations that address the issues facing low-income tenants while retaining the tenants' dignity. Finally, Alexander highlights how other programs, such as the Tiny Homes for the Homeless, have offered some solutions to the problems Desmond describes.
Cooper uses her position in practice to focus on what lawyers can do to help individuals in the position of the characters in Desmond's book. Cooper offers a number of suggestions such as special rent protections for victims, more real protections for retaliatory evictions, and better access to counsel for low-income tenants. While Cooper offers a number of legal solutions, she acknowledges that her solutions are only a small part of the puzzle. As Cooper says:
The legal solutions outlined in Parts II and III of this Essay can only be part of the picture. As Desmond’s sociological study makes clear, any solution to the housing crisis that those living in poverty face requires an interdisciplinary approach. Laws to protect tenants threatened with eviction and tenants seeking safe, affordable housing—and lawyers to ensure that tenants can realize those legal protections—are a critical part of the solution. But they are only part of the solution. Other important areas for further inquiry include the way “affordable” housing is defined for people with extremely low incomes, the dearth of subsidized and/or genuinely affordable housing for individuals in poverty, the way rent is calculated in the voucher program, and the effects of that formula on both voucher tenants’ mobility and on market rents for other tenants in high poverty neighborhoods.
Finally, Rosser focuses on the aspect of low-income tenants that no one likes to talk about: exploitation. A central claim of Desmond's book is that poor renters are exploited and Rosser applauds Desmond for bringing that issue to the forefront as opposed to dancing around it as many are want to do. Rosser categorizes the types of exploitation that low-income tenants face into deliberate exploitation and market-driven exploitation. The former, while morally reprehensible, is in many respects less concerning than the latter. As Rosser writes, "The market, combined with a legal structure that largely supports the interests of landlords in collecting rent over the interests of tenants in adequate conditions, exploits the inability of the poor to make meaningful demands on landlords."
Just like Desmond's book is a powerful piece, so too are the essays in the Yale Law Journal Forum. If you have not had a chance to read the book or the essays and have any interest in housing, landlord/tenant issues, or just human dignity, they are well worth the read.