Minnesota Nursing magazine

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The price of unaffordable housing

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Matthew Desmond comes to campus
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by: 
Brett Stursa

For more than a year, the Harvard professor lived in a trailer park on Milwaukee’s south side and then in a rooming house on the city’s north side, recording observations of day-to-day life.

This ethnographic field work informed Matthew Desmond’s work in creating the Milwaukee Area Renters Study survey. The result of his research is Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, a book that was published in 2016. The nuanced, intimate portrait of eight families living in the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee drew almost immediate accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, which cited it, “for a deeply researched exposé that showed how mass evictions after the 2008 economic crash were less a consequence than a cause of poverty.”

Learning from the ‘sidewalk view’

Desmond says ethnography requires a thick skin for the rejection you’ll face and a willingness to leave your life behind while immersing yourself with others. “What’s really beautiful about it is that so many people are very open about their vulnerabilities and challenges,” said Desmond. “We can try to do justice to the generosity of people who let us into their lives by writing about them in a way that shows their full humanity and their full complexity.”

He pulls inspiration from ethnographers like Carol Stack and Elliot Liebow, who wrote about poverty in the ’60s and ‘70s. But mostly, he says, he learns from the people he’s observing. “I learn the most from the sidewalk view and I felt that my readers should have the opportunity to do the same,” said Desmond. “It’s kind of flipping the script a little bit about how an academic usually writes books.”

‘Housing is a vaccine’

Desmond notes that the majority of poor renting families spend over half of their income on housing. One in 4 of those families pays more than 70 percent of their income on rent and utilities. That leaves little for other necessities, like food and medicine. “Under those conditions, it affects their health in a lot of different ways,” said Desmond. In Milwaukee, 1 in 8 renters is evicted every two years, which creates instability. “So from a health perspective, when you think of things like treating complex diseases, when folks are losing homes at that rate it becomes very hard to do that in a sustained way,” said Desmond.

Given the acute and widespread nature of the issue, Desmond said hospitals and other health care systems are doing better at trying to mitigate the effects of housing instability on health. Still, he says we can do better. “We need to do a better job looking at the social determinants of health, of which housing is a huge one,” said Desmond. “As my colleague, Megan Sandel from Boston University says, ‘housing is a vaccine.’”

He challenges nurses and other health professionals to speak up about what their patients are experiencing. “Health practitioners can be the carriers of this narrative,” said Desmond. “Nurses are on the front lines of this issue and the more they can share the stories about what they are seeing, the more that they can raise awareness. I think that would go a long way to helping move the public conversation forward.”

Data as the storyteller

Desmond recently left Harvard University for Princeton University and is busy building a large database about evictions, called Eviction Lab. “Right now, we don’t know if the eviction rate in Minneapolis is more than Milwaukee or Pittsburgh. We don’t know which city has the highest eviction rate or the fundamental drivers of this crisis. So there are a ton of questions out there and the research infrastructure is lacking that would allow us to get the answers,” said Desmond. “So our job is to record and publish every single eviction that is recorded nationally and make the data public.”

While Eviction Lab is housed at Princeton University, Desmond says that the data it creates won’t be released in a traditional academic way. Instead he’s creating a user-friendly website, in hopes that the data generates stories.

“We need to do a better job looking at the social determinants of health, of which housing is a huge one.” – Matthew Desmond

Desmond sees Eviction Labs growing on the legacy of Evicted. “The bet that I made with Evicted is that if you show the human wreckage and the cost of the affordable housing crisis in the lives of families and kids, you can elevate this issue in the public discussion. I think that it’s done that. The bet that we are making with Eviction Lab is that you can harness the data to do the same. You can provide citizens, policy makers, journalists and community organizers access to information about evictions in their cities and compare it with other cities and you can create stories with that. Suddenly that’s a story and an issue for your mayor and city council to take up.”

The School of Nursing is hosting an on-campus discussion with Desmond Oct. 20. Desmond accepted the invitation from Dean Connie White Delaney knowing that her nephew was profiled in Evicted. “Matt is not only a brilliant scholar but a compassionate and thoughtful person whose writing conveys the complexity and humanity embedded in society’s great challenges,” said Delaney.

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Matthew Desmond
“We can try to do justice to the generosity of people who let us into their lives by writing about them in a way that shows their full humanity and their full complexity.” – Matthew Desmond