MADISON - Eviction is such a common occurrence in the lives of Milwaukee's urban poor that one renter-occupied household in every 20 is evicted each year, according to research based on an analysis of court records and a year's worth of sociology fieldwork from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In neighborhoods in which the majority of residents are black, the number jumps to one in 10 renter-occupied households evicted every year, Matthew Desmond, who is expected to receive his doctorate in sociology in May.
The hardest hit are women and their children, whose lives are severely disrupted by such mobility. Eviction, in fact, can be thought of as the feminine equivalent to incarceration, Desmond says. Nearly 60 percent of the 50,538 tenants evicted in Milwaukee County between 2003 and 2007 were female, his research finds.
"The odds of a woman being evicted in black neighborhoods is twice that of men," Desmond says. "It's not like that in white neighborhoods. It's quite stunning."
Timothy Smeeding, director of the Institute for Research on Poverty and professor in UW-Madison's La Follette School of Public Affairs, says Desmond's important research will raise awareness about eviction and the factors that might lead some people to homelessness or instability.
"We know an awful lot about foreclosures, but those are people who are more established and own their own homes," Smeeding says. "We know very little about the same process that takes place with renters, many more of whom are poor... the thing that Matt did is he went in and talked to both the renters and the landlords, and he understands the process very well."
Desmond's research showed that in neighborhoods in which the majority of residents are black, 18,247 women were evicted in those five years, compared with 9,703 men. In white neighborhoods, 7,941 women and 8,246 men were evicted in the same time period; in Hispanic areas, 3,139 women and 2,205 men were evicted.
To be sure, women are also overrepresented among leaseholders, Desmond says, and it's impossible to tell from court records whether a woman who was evicted had children, siblings or a romantic partner living with her at the time. This means that his findings are still quite conservative.
"If you're evicted, you carry this stain and you're pushed to the very bottom of the rental market," he says. "Most landlords won't take you, so you end up with really unscrupulous landlords."
Between May and September 2008, Desmond lived in a trailer park that he says media have dubbed "The Shame of the South Side." After that, he moved into a rooming house in the city's near north side, living there until June 2009. While living in these two high-poverty neighborhoods, he got to know his neighbors and landlords alike. To cover all sides of the issues, Desmond spent time with tenants as they fought their evictions in court or packed their belongings to move, while also shadowing landlords on errands ranging from unclogging pipes in their properties to delivering eviction notices.
Each year, between 2003 and 2007, landlords evicted an average of 8,479 households a year, or about 5 percent of all occupied rental units in Milwaukee each year. The average eviction rate in predominantly black neighborhoods was 9.3 percent, compared with 5.3 percent in Hispanic neighborhoods and 2.7 percent in white neighborhoods.
As the housing crisis of the last year has concentrated more properties into fewer hands, the market will begin to harden, Desmond predicts. This will result in higher rents and high penalties for anyone who has a history of eviction. But the incomes of the city's poorest renters already are stretched to the limit. Fair market rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Milwaukee was $665 in 2008, essentially equal to the $673 monthly stipend for participants in the Wisconsin Works (W-2) welfare-to-work program.
Evictions have accelerated slightly in the Milwaukee area since the start of the national economic crisis as the rental housing market is flooded with tenants who formerly owned their own homes. What's more, until recent federal legislation offered more protection to renters, landlords in financial trouble have had no obligation to tell tenants their properties were being foreclosed. Many tenants found out only after the sheriff rapped on the door and told them they had to go, Desmond says.
He analyzed records from court-ordered evictions in Milwaukee County from Jan. 1, 2003-Dec. 31, 2007, looking, in part, to find out if women were overrepresented in the eviction records. Desmond's research team assigned a gender to each record based on the tenant's name. Such records don't capture informal evictions that occur outside the court system, he notes.
Desmond is continuing his work on eviction and the reproduction of urban poverty. He is the principal investigator of the Milwaukee Area Renters Study (MARS), a random-sample survey conducted through the UW Survey Center that asks tenants living in poor neighborhoods about their housing conditions, communities, social networks and eviction history. The survey will collect information on the causes and consequences of eviction and hopefully will serve as a new data source from which researchers interested in urban poverty will draw.
Desmond's research is funded by grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the National Science Foundation, the American Philosophical Society, UW-Madison's Institute for Research on Poverty, the Horowitz Foundation for Social Policy and the Ford Foundation.