Princeton Sociologist Talks Housing and Poverty at Campbell Hall


Gwendolyn Wu

“Poverty reduces people born for big things,” Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond lectured to a packed room, filled primarily with an older Santa Barbara crowd. UCSB Arts & Lectures hosted the talk, which took place in Campbell Hall on Thursday evening.

Desmond is best known for his book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” which took home a Pulitzer prize for nonfiction in 2017. In the book, Desmond navigated the streets of Milwaukee following the 2008 global recession, investigating the issues surrounding extreme poverty and housing in the heart of America. Critics praised Desmond’s narrative for changing how ordinary people thought about the toll of evictions on poor people.

Eliciting gasps and murmurs from the audience, Desmond flashed sets of statistics about evictions gleaned from his research as a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and full-time professor roles at Harvard and Princeton.

“Milwaukee evicts about 40 people a day,” Desmond told the crowd. Among the other shocking statistics: one in 29 renter-occupied households are evicted every year, and one in 14 of those households are black. One in eight renter-occupied households were involuntarily displaced in the last two years. Desmond said that a comprehensive database will be released in a few months.

The disappearance of affordable housing is central to the issue of extreme poverty in America, the sociologist said. In Desmond’s studies, he found that these problems disproportionately affected black women, single mothers, in particular.

“Eviction is something like the feminine equivalent of incarceration,” Desmond said. “Eviction records are why people are pushed to poorer areas.”

One of the biggest problems with current eviction practices that Desmond found was that children were typically the most affected by constant moves and housing instability. One child featured in “Evicted” went to several schools between seventh and eighth grades. Kids also seemed to be the deal-breaker for landlords who Desmond met during his field research.

It would be economically sound to devote funding to preserving and expanding affordable housing, said Desmond, who estimated that sustaining such programs in America would cost about 22 billion dollars a year. Although the figure sounds high, Desmond argued that, in comparison to spending to tackle homelessness or other social welfare programs, directing the money towards affordable housing may be a better long-term investment.

“If poverty persists in the U.S., it’s not for lack of resources,” Desmond said.

An even deeper, less tangible problem that Desmond spoke about during his lecture was the link between poverty and long-term mental health problems. He described stories about individuals with unstable housing and the despair they felt when they were repeatedly turned down due to prior evictions, criminal records, or larger families.

“‘It’s like I got a curse on me,’” Desmond read aloud from his notes of a conversation with a Milwaukee resident. “ … ‘Just my soul is messed up.’”

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem, Desmond said, “but it probably shouldn’t be.”

Desmond said that he is using the proceeds from book sales to further his housing injustice awareness organization, Just Shelter, and to help the residents he befriended. While a few of the people featured in the book have since died, there are still several who have since moved into more stable housing situations.

Before the talk, Desmond met students who had attended a pop-up book discussion on housing through the Blum Center for Global Poverty Alleviation and Sustainable Development a day prior. Pacific Standard magazine also sponsored the event.

Thursday evening’s discussion resonated with most of the attendees — the price of living on the Central Coast affects students and long-term residents alike. In 2017, Forbes reported that Santa Barbara County’s cost of living was 23.9 percent above the national average. The average monthly rent price for a one-bedroom in the city of Santa Barbara was $1,728, and vacancy rates hover around 0.5 percent, according to the Santa Barbara Independent.