On September 5, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford awarded its annual Stowe Prize to writer and professor Matthew Desmond, whose work highlights the impact of evictions on poor people in America. Desmond is the author of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, which follows eight families facing eviction in Milwaukee, WI.
At Princeton, where Desmond teaches, he has founded The Eviction Lab, a data visualization project that aggregates statistics about evictions nationwide, demonstrating their impact in particular areas of the country.
Desmond’s talk highlighted that Hartford has one of the nation’s highest eviction rates. According to The Eviction Lab, in 2016, 5.52 evictions occurred in Hartford each day, resulting in a 5.73 percent eviction rate that year. To put this in perspective, Boston, Massachusetts, which has more than five times the population of Hartford, had only 292 more evictions than Hartford in 2016, for an eviction rate of only 1.3 percent. New York City had only a 1.61 percent eviction rate that year.
To be sure, this heightened rate of evictions in Hartford could reflect the particularly concentrated nature of poverty in Connecticut’s capital city. However, Desmond’s work suggests that we rethink cause-and-effect. As the Stowe Center wrote in its announcement of the award: “According to [Desmond], eviction is a cause, not just a condition of poverty, as eviction’s fallout can lead to loss of a home and possessions, loss of employment, being stamped with an eviction record, and being denied government housing assistance . . . .”
At Greater Hartford Legal Aid (GHLA), where my Housing Unit colleagues represent indigent families facing eviction, we deal every day with the impact of evictions on the lives of our clients and their families. We witness our clients’ anxiety; their struggles to find replacement housing; their children’s school disruptions; and the ways in which they are forced to forego other necessities to try to keep their families housed.
The real genius of Desmond’s contribution (and Matthew Desmond did receive a MacArthur “Genius Award” in 2015) is that it highlights the ways in which the costs of evictions, although brutally imposed on the poor, are also borne by the wider community. These include assistance to those thrown onto the limited social safety net; lost productivity due to disruption to employment and schooling; and additional health care expenses related to stress and poorly managed medical conditions.
It is relatively straightforward to tally property owners’ lost profits when tenants cannot make the rent. It is harder to capture the costs that all of us share in the City of Hartford and the State of Connecticut when our neighbors are evicted. The Connecticut Data Collaborative and Trinity College are now doing work that may help us to measure some of these costs, by looking at the connection between housing problems such as evictions and health issues in the North Hartford Promise Zone.
One solution is to reinvest in eviction-prevention programs that have been closed or significantly limited in recent years, such as the Eviction Foreclosure Prevention Program (EFPP) and the security deposit guarantee program. These programs should be available to more working families. The United Way recently reported that 40 percent of Connecticut’s families struggle to pay for necessities such as housing.
The question raised by the 2018 Stowe Center Prize Winner is whether we want to continue to bear the costs of a high rate of evictions in the City of Hartford, or prefer instead to invest in ending housing insecurity. Will we continue to foot the bill for evictions that could be avoided?
Giovanna Shay is Litigation & Advocacy Director at Greater Hartford Legal Aid.