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Are High Rents a Major Cause of Poverty in Milwaukee?

‘Evicted’ author Matthew Desmond makes the connection

Nov. 8, 2016
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How much did you pay toward your housing this month?

Longstanding conventional wisdom recommends that you pay about 30% of your income toward rent or your mortgage.

But that 30% target is a fantasy if you’re a low-income renter. The reality is more like 75% or 80%. 

That leaves precious few dollars left for food, health care, clothing and transportation. It also leaves these renters vulnerable to eviction, poor health, homelessness and individual and community instability.

“Whatever our issue is, the lack of affordable housing rests at the center of it,” said Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, which detailed the low-income housing crisis in Milwaukee and nationwide. “If we want to make Milwaukee safer, we have to give communities stability.”

Desmond, a Harvard University sociologist who was awarded a MacArthur Foundation genius grant in 2015, spoke last Wednesday at the Live in Hope reception for Mercy Housing Lakefront, which is expanding its affordable rental units in Milwaukee, Kenosha and Racine. Its Greenwich Park project, currently underway on Farwell Avenue, will include 53 mixed-income units, including 14 permanent supportive housing units for those who need additional services to help residents re-integrate into the community.

Desmond applauded the mission of Mercy Housing and encouraged supporters to make affordable housing a priority, not only because it’s good public policy, but because it’s the right thing to do.

“Evictions used to be rare in this country,” Desmond said. “They used to draw crowds in cities like this one. They’re not a condition of poverty. They are a cause of poverty. They make things worse. They leave a deep and jagged scar on the next generation. You can’t fix poverty in a city like Milwaukee without fixing housing. So why don’t we fix it?” 

Living Among the Victims of Eviction 

To understand the high cost of rent in Milwaukee, Desmond lived among those whose lives are upturned by Milwaukee’s lack of safe, stable, affordable housing. Renters featured in Evicted include Arleen and her two sons, who were forced to live in worse and worse housing on the North Side after an eviction.

Arleen’s monthly welfare check was $628; a full 88% of that was spent on her $550 a month rent—utilities not included.

Arleen’s eviction, granted during a sub-zero cold snap, blemished her record. She had to call 80 potential landlords before she found one who would take her on. But that apartment didn’t last long and Arleen and her sons were uprooted again and again into shockingly substandard yet unaffordable housing. 

Desmond got to know the constantly on-the-move renters, as well as their landlords, moving and storage companies that specialize in evictions, and court officials who make these life-changing decisions. What he found is that the lack of stable, affordable housing is a crisis that has a devastating impact on low-income families, especially those headed by African American women like Arleen, and undermines the city’s ability to thrive.

In addition to telling the renters’ stories in Evicted, Desmond also conducted groundbreaking research on Milwaukee’s eviction crisis through data analysis and the help of a team of interviewers trained by the University of Wisconsin Survey Center, who spoke with 1,100 Milwaukee renters between 2009 and 2011. 

Desmond’s Milwaukee Area Renters Study found that one in eight Milwaukee renters, or 12.5%, experienced at least one forced move in the previous two years. Half of those moves were informal evictions that didn’t go through the court system. The rest were split between formal, court-ordered evictions and landlord foreclosures. 

When looking at the data from 2003-2013, Desmond found that almost half of the city’s court-ordered evictions occurred in Milwaukee’s predominantly African American neighborhoods. Women were twice as likely to be evicted than men in those neighborhoods. Having kids in the home, like Arleen, increase the odds of being evicted and becoming homeless. That puts stress on families, schools, neighborhoods and the social safety net.

There’s a lot of money to be made from low-income tenants. In fact, in many ways it’s more lucrative for landlords to rent in the city’s distressed neighborhoods. Desmond found that from 2009-2010 the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods was $575. In its safest neighborhoods, it was $600. Yet the purchase price of rental properties in the city’s high-crime, under-served neighborhoods was far less than those in more stable, attractive areas. Landlords can get a quick return on their investment when they buy low and rent high—even when there’s a high turnover of tenants due to eviction.

Finding Hope 

Desmond offered a number of policy proposals to help alleviate the shortage of affordable housing nationwide, including increasing funding for housing vouchers, which allow renters to pay a third of their income on rent, while the government pays the rest to the landlord. But just a small fraction of low-income renters actually receive vouchers or live in public housing. Desmond suggested that tweaking the housing voucher program could free up funds to help more people. 

In addition, the quality of affordable housing must improve. Low-income, eviction-prone renters typically live in substandard housing and don’t contact inspectors, fearing retaliation from their landlord.

That said, Milwaukee’s stock of high-quality affordable housing is growing, thanks to the investments made by the Chicago-based Mercy Housing Lakefront, part of the national Mercy Housing network. Mercy Housing, launched by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy in the early 1980s to address housing insecurity in Omaha, Neb., is now one of the largest providers of affordable housing for low-income residents in the country. 

Mercy Housing Lakefront will operate about 900 units in Wisconsin by the end of the year, including Johnston Center Residences on the Near South Side, the St. Catherine Residence and McAuley Apartments on the East Side, and the upcoming Greenwich Park on Farwell. It’s also taking over the housing overseen by Franciscan Ministries. The properties include a mix of services for those who need them, from educational supports for kids to senior care.

Mark Angelini, Mercy Housing Lakefront’s president, told the Shepherd that the service component is critical to his organization’s mission.

“My mantra is, ‘Housing is literally our middle name,’” Angelini said. “But the housing is a means to an end. It’s not where we stop. We see our business as being a catalyst to people in need to be able to get stable housing. But if you stop at housing, you may not be providing the final lift that these folks and families need to move on to a more independent trajectory in their lives and to be more economically stable.”

Wednesday’s event featured testimony from Tamara Wilder, who lives at Mercy’s St. Catherine’s Residence, the home to more than 200 women and their families. Wilder lost her job in 2012, fell ill and struggled to raise her daughter while in an abusive relationship. She left her relationship but battled housing instability, depression and anger. In 2014, St. Catherine’s accepted Wilder’s application. She and her daughter, a Rufus King High School graduate, are thriving.

“St. Catherine’s has saved my life and I am very grateful,” Wilder said.

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