Fro left, Phyllis Chamberlain, Matthew Desmond, Stephanie Flom

When award-winning sociologist and author Matthew Desmond noticed the lack of data on the low-income private housing sector in Milwaukee, he decided to create the Milwaukee Area Renters Study (MARS). The study, which sent a team of investigators to administer in-person interviews at 1,000 households, did not come without incident, however.

“We had one interviewer who was mugged,” says Desmond in a relaxed, soft tone. “One was bitten by a dog.”

He pauses before adding with a laugh, “It was the same interviewer.”

Desmond, a John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University and co-director of the Justice and Poverty Project, relayed the story yesterday while addressing a crowd of about 50 people at East Liberty Presbyterian Church, where he served as the guest speaker during a SWPA Housing Alliance luncheon. It was a rare moment of levity at a gathering of community organizers, landlords, tenants and private developers concerned with the growing housing crisis in Pittsburgh.

Presented in collaboration with The Pittsburgh Foundation, the event also served as a prelude to Desmond’s Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures talk on his New York Times bestselling book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, an in-depth, intimate look at America’s affordable housing crisis as seen through the experiences of eight Milwaukee families and two struggling landlords. He combined years of statistical data with his own experiences living in Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods—one of them a trailer park dubbed “The Shame of the South Side”—to show the regularity and devastating aftermath of evictions.

Photo by Amanda Waltz.
Photo by Amanda Waltz.

The threat of evictions in Allegheny County is reflected in Housing Alliance statistics, which show that many area residents, including working families, seniors and those with disabilities, struggle to afford housing. The organization estimates that 24 percent of households live on $24,999 or less, and nearly half of renters spend at least 30 percent of their income on rent.

Desmond points out how African-American women, especially single mothers, bear the brunt of the eviction crisis, explaining that the eviction rate among African-American women is 1 in 5, compared to 1 in 15 among white women.

During a lively discussion moderated by Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures executive director Stephanie Flom, Desmond fielded questions about issues with public assistance, such as Section 8 vouchers, which are supposed to help recipients pay rent in the private market.

“Vouchers don’t work,” said attendee Ronell Guy, executive director of Northside Coalition for Fair Housing, adding that landlords don’t have to take them.

Ronell Guy of Northside Coalition for Fair Housing. Photo by Amanda Waltz.
Ronell Guy of Northside Coalition for Fair Housing. Photo by Amanda Waltz.

Other topics included encroaching gentrification, the ineffectiveness of anti-discrimination housing laws and the deficit of affordable rental units. One woman explained how she was forced to relocate to West View from East Hills after being priced out of the city.

The Pittsburgh Foundation seeks to provide solutions to these problems, along with others, with a new initiative called 100 Percent Pittsburgh. Rolling out in the coming months, the initiative will address income disparity, poverty and long-term redevelopment in the region. One goal is to help figure out what individuals can do to help those left behind in the wave of new prosperity in the region.

The foundation will also consider ideas outlined in a roundtable discussion on affordable housing presented last spring.

Last year, Mayor Bill Peduto set out to address the crisis with an Affordable Housing Task Force designed to establish housing options for people of all income levels.

To Desmond, efforts to prevent future evictions will enable people to finally attain housing, which he believes is a fundamental right. “The degree of suffering we’re tolerating because of the affordable housing crisis—this doesn’t need to be us.”

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City is available for purchase at Amazon and other retailers. Proceeds from book sales will go toward Desmond’s housing resource organization, Just Shelter.

Amanda Waltz

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.