Matt Desmond, Author of Evicted, Kicks Off Anniversary Service Series

“The United States is the richest democracy with the worst poverty,” began Matt Desmond in Hall on October 3. Mr. Desmond is the During Professor of Sociology at Princeton and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. In researching for his book—on the fraught relationship between tenants and landlords, and on the eviction epidemic in our country—Mr. Desmond lived in a mobile home in Milwaukee for five months and then in an urban rooming house for ten. He went with families from these communities—who were struggling to keep a roof over their heads—to eviction court, church, AA meetings, and funerals. He ate at their tables and slept on their floors. He also spent time with landlords, which again brought him to eviction court, and to homes across the city to pass out eviction notices. The product of these experiences and relationships is a book that reveals eviction as a cause of poverty rather than just a condition of poverty—a book about the power of a home in security, upward mobility, self-worth, and happiness.

As part of Roxbury Latin’s 375th anniversary celebration we will focus, through various Halls and service initiatives, on the many challenges and potential solutions related to homelessness and poverty. “This year we will be honoring especially a mission characterized by concern for others—a mission that has been fundamental to Roxbury Latin since its founding,” Headmaster Brennan said by way of introduction in Hall that morning. “Each year we—individually and collectively—commit our time, talent, or treasure to organizations or efforts that aim to ease the burdens of others. Through Ave Atque Vale, the Pine Street Inn, Haley House, Norwood Food Pantry and others we play a small part in helping those who find themselves without a stable home or paycheck, without a family to support them, even without friends to lay them to their final resting place.” Our collective foray into the year’s service theme began this summer when students, faculty, and staff were provided copies of and encouraged to read Evicted. Mr. Desmond’s Hall kicked off for us a series that will focus on this theme from a number of angles.

In Hall, Mr. Desmond shared with students and faculty personal stories and grim statistics related to eviction in America. In the United States, for instance, the recommendation is that individuals and families spend 30% of their income on housing (rent or mortgage). But as housing costs soar and incomes remain steady, the majority of poor families are spending as much as 80 to 90% of their income on rent and utilities, Mr. Desmond explained. Three quarters of the renting families living below the poverty line receive no housing assistance; the waitlist for public housing in our major cities is measured in decades, not years. The last time applications for public housing in Boston were open, for example, was eight years ago; they were open for two weeks. There are nearly 2,500 evictions per day in the United States, and the odds of finding stable, safe, comfortable housing after an eviction are slim. As Mr. Desmond described, families in the chaotic aftermath of eviction are desperate to find a home quickly and struggle to find landlords who will lease to them due to their eviction record. They are most often, then, forced to accept appalling conditions: lead paint, no water or heat, unsafe neighborhoods. 

The United States can afford, Mr. Desmond asserts, to make housing a universal right through housing vouchers for all poor Americans—in the same way that we acknowledge and support food and education as universal rights. Currently, however, the majority of federal funding reserved for housing goes to the wealthiest Americans as tax advantages. Mr. Desmond’s presentation was a sobering but rousing call to action, followed by thoughtful questions from RL boys.

Mr. Desmond was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” Grant in 2015 for “revealing the impact of eviction on the lives of the urban poor and its role in perpetuating racial and economic inequality.” In 2015 he received the Stowe Prize for Writing to Advance Social Issues, and in 2018 his Eviction Lab at Princeton published the first-ever dataset of millions of evictions in America, going back to the year 2000.

Joining us in Hall was also RL parent Amanda Cook. Ms. Cook was Mr. Desmond’s editor for Evicted; she is vice president and executive editor at Crown, an imprint of Random House Publishing and has served as editor to a number of award-winning and best-selling authors, including Erik Larsen (Devil in the White City) and Rebecca Skloot (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks).

Both Mr. Desmond and Ms. Cook spent the morning in classes speaking with students about the book; issues and regulations related to eviction—in the United States and abroad; non-fiction research and ethical considerations; and the writing/editing process. Our guests spent time with Mr. Cervas and Mr. Nelson’s English 12 classes, as well as Mrs. Dromgoole’s Contemporary Global Issues class, which had prepared by reading selected excerpts from Evicted related to their unit on homelessness, and in preparation for Mr. Desmond’s visit.