Dr. Desmond co-wrote “Housing, Poverty, and the Law” with Monica Bell for the 2015 Annual Review of Law and Social Science. In this article, they examine the present state of the research on housing and housing policies, and call for further investigation of the private rental market, where the vast majority of poor families live, and its role in perpetuating poverty.
In the book, Dr. Desmond recounts his embedded field work in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, during which he observed tenants in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, as well as their landlords.
An associate professor of social sciences at Harvard, Dr. Desmond has studied poverty from an angle that has been overlooked in recent years. While factors like jobs, the mass incarceration of black males, and parenting have drawn more attention, he says the issue of housing is central to the creation of poverty.
As U.S. house prices soared and income and public assistance stagnated in the past two decades, Dr. Desmond says that those who can least afford to spend 70 to 80 percent of their income in rent are now the ones most likely to do it. This, he adds, is the “difference between stable and grinding poverty.” Legal and informal evictions, which used to be rare, are now happening by the millions each year. “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women,” Dr. Desmond writes in his book. “Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”