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Could federal investment prevent an eviction crisis?

While national and state eviction moratoriums have temporarily helped slow a pandemic-induced housing and homelessness crisis, they have a long-term impact. Matthew Desmond, a professor at Princeton University who helped build the first nationwide database on evictions joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the looming crisis and possible solutions.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    National and state eviction moratoriums have been a big part of the economic relief for COVID-19.

    But even if evictions are temporarily halted they can have long term impacts. Are there other solutions to America's housing crisis made worse by the pandemic?

    I spoke with Matthew Desmond, a professor at Princeton University who helped build the first nationwide database on evictions at the university's Eviction Lab.

  • Matthew Desmond:

    So in a normal month in America, 800,000 people, about the population of Seattle, are threatened with eviction, have an eviction filed against them. That's a normal American month. That's an American month when unemployment is below 5%.

    Now, when we have unemployment at levels we haven't seen since the Great Depression, there are millions, by some accounts, tens of millions of families who could face eviction over the year.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And because of the pandemic, there has been some stimulus money. $600 a week, a supplemental income to unemployment insurance that has also expired. How crucial were those $600 to families who are at risk?

  • Matthew Desmond:

    Incredibly important. And we already saw warning signs on the horizon that even with that extra $600 boost, it wasn't enough to shield families from homelessness.

    In May, Houston allocated $15 million extra in rent relief. It was gone in two days. In June, cities like Cleveland and Milwaukee saw evictions spike 30 to 40 percent above normal level when moratoriums expired.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What is unclear to me is, what does a landlord gain by kicking a family out? Because depending on the rental market, it's not like that family is suddenly going to give the landlord the money that they owe if they don't have any money at all. And unless you have another renter lined up, you're not really getting that money that you want if you're a landlord, right?

  • Matthew Desmond:

    Right. And so in this case in particular, eviction solves nobody's problem. It certainly deepens the poverty and the vulnerability of the families. They'll be cast out of their homes.

    And it also doesn't solve the landlord's financial problems. You know, eviction right now, though, is kind of the only tool we've given to landlords, right? We haven't seen a serious investment in housing from the federal government.

    And so when you're a landlord and you're in a pinch, you kind of reach for that pink slip. Some landlords do it grudgingly. And after months of negotiation, some landlords are really quick to do it. But it's not going to solve their problem in this situation. It's only going to solve, it's only going to spread more disease and more poverty.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You have built a database in the Eviction Lab at Princeton, but what kind of transparency exists? How do we know how many people on a state or city basis are getting evicted, if they're getting evicted repeatedly? If there are the same landlords or some landlords are doing it more than others, how do we figure that out?

  • Matthew Desmond:

    We know a lot less than I think we should. You know, I published a book on eviction in 2016 and it was based in Milwaukee. And I went around the country talking about the book. And people in Houston and Baton Rouge and L.A. were saying, what's my eviction rate? How many people get evicted in America? We had no way to answer that question. The federal government does not collect data on eviction. It doesn't even know how many evictions it executes through public housing, housing it owns. And so we did build the first ever national database of eviction in this country.

    We found that, you know, about every minute, seven evictions are filed all around the United States. And this is affecting communities big and small, communities with high housing costs and pretty low housing costs. It's a nationwide problem. But this should be a problem that's at the top of the national agenda and worthy of our attention. We need really hard data on this that's not just collected by some ragtag group at Princeton. You know, that are going after the data.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What agencies should be responsible for this? What can the federal government do to try to lead states in the right direction?

  • Matthew Desmond:

    I'd love to see the Department of Housing and Urban Development take this over and really kind of track, you know, which cities have the highest and lowest eviction rates, which laws work, which laws don't. Bring some accountability to who owns our cities. You know, which property owners are evicting a lot of people in Baltimore in which property owners are not, you know? And what can we learn from them?

    I think this is something that the federal government needs to pay attention to and is beginning to. So in December, there was a bill called the Eviction Crisis Act, a bipartisan bill that was passed in the Senate, or that was introduced in the Senate, excuse me, that would do just this. That would build a national eviction database at HUD. And I hope that it kind of gets momentum and passes.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Are you seeing the spikes now in the number of people who are being evicted?

  • Matthew Desmond:

    We're beginning to see them. We're beginning to see warning signs on the horizon. I think the moratoriums worked very well. The CARES Act helped a lot. And I think there were many property owners that were negotiating with their tenants across the country. But as those moratoriums disappear, as the federal aid stops, I think where we're going to see a lot of evictions right around the corner.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So how do we get out of this?

  • Matthew Desmond:

    We need serious federal investment. That's the best way out of this.

    You know, we need a national moratorium on evictions. We need to say, look, in this pandemic, the home is medicine. The home is safety. And we have to protect that. Americans deserve that level of protection. Property owners need to pay their bills, too. And so we don't just need moratoriums. We also need rent relief.

    We need a serious investment from the federal government with the recognition that everyone needs a stable, affordable place to live in normal times and especially during this pandemic. That's true.

    So I think that the stimulus debate that we're having now is incredibly important. It's literally a life or death issue for American working families.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Matthew Desmond of the Eviction Lab from Princeton. Thanks so much for joining us.

  • Matthew Desmond:

    Thank you for having me.

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