Research This!

recent study funded by the McArthur Foundation found that in disadvantaged neighborhoods, black women are facing eviction at an “alarming rate.” The author, Matthew Desmond, went on to make a powerful analogy: that eviction is to black women what mass incarceration is to black men. “Poor black men are locked up,” he says, “while poor black women are locked out.”

The numbers are indeed sobering. In Milwaukee, where the author based his research, 16,000 people are evicted from 6000 units every year. That means the authorities forcibly evict 16 families every day. Black women and their children absorb a dramatically disproportionate amount of the trauma that comes from such displacement. Desmond found that “Women from black neighborhoods in Milwaukee represented only 9.6 percent of the population, but they accounted for 30 percent of the evictions.”

Researchers point to various reasons why black women are more likely to be evicted. They often earn lower wages. They often have more responsibility for children, so they need larger apartments, which are more expensive and therefore harder to pay the rent on every month. Being the primary caretaker means they might miss work more often in order to take care of their children, and so risk losing their jobs. Having children means the landlord is legally obligated to meet certain standards, such as reducing the danger of lead paint, and the landlord might find it easier to evict than follow the law.

It may also be true, according to the research, that due to gender training, female tenants have a harder time fighting back against mostly male landlords. They are more likely to “duck and dodge” the landlord’s demands for rent, while men “go directly to the landlord.”

Research like this is important. In our struggles for social justice, it helps to know how different groups are differently affected by the everyday crises caused by capitalism and systemic racism and sexism.

But there is something suspect about this research as well. What is the goal of carrying it out? How will it affect the institutions that give rise to the problem? What actions do we take as a result? Who paid for it and what were they hoping for?


Predictable but Disappointing “Policy Implications”

All of Desmond’s recommendations are worthy, and any person who wants to limit the damage that the housing crisis is causing in our communities would support them:

  • Provide free legal help to people facing eviction. Preventing evictions saves the government money. “Directing aid upstream in the form of a few hours of legal services can drastically lower costs downstream in the form of shelter costs, emergency assistance, and medical bills.”
  • Direct emergency funds to families in need so they don’t end up in eviction proceedings in the first place.
  • Finally, citing statistics about the steep decline in affordable rental units, Desmond recommends that we commit to making more affordable housing.
So if these are all worthy ideas, what’s not to like? There are two main disappointments: 1) They do nothing more than trim the branches of a problem that has deep roots in how our very economy works and how people of color and especially women of color are institutionally denied rights and resources. And 2) They treat the people who are the focus of their research like so many pawns, who should line up for services at this agency or that program and who should then go home without raising their own voice, never defining for themselves what they need, or contributing to the debate about how to fix the problem that got them there in the first place.


Black Women: Visible but Voiceless

Perhaps most difficult to swallow is that the study makes dramatic assertions about how black women are locked out, and then it proceeds to also lock them out. There is no mention of what black women – or anyone – is doing about the housing crisis. You could be forgiven for thinking that no one is doing anything except for researchers and policymakers. There is no mention of the many grassroots organizations all across the U.S. fighting for housing justice in our communities – many of them led by black women.

The only black woman quoted in the document is Larraine, who is mentioned as an example of the gender dynamics between female tenants and male landlords and women’s supposed tendency to “duck and dodge” the landlord. “I was terrified… just terrified,” she says.

When I shared this quote with Melonie Griffiths, formerly a lead organizer at the housing justice organization, City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU), and now working at Jobs with Justice, she said, “I don’t believe the research.” In her experience, Black women are leaders in their families and their communities, often doing the necessary advocating to ensure the family’s needs are met.


Organizing Transforms

Melonie got involved in social justice work when she and her family faced foreclosure back in 2009. At that time, her goal was to save her home. Her life experience had taught her the value of working tirelessly – but usually on her own. “I thought I was supposed to fight for my family. Be strong. Not show any vulnerability.” But that led to stress and panic attacks. And I’m sure that, like Larraine, she was terrified at times. But then she joined City Life and she started to learn more about collective action. In the process of organizing for more just housing policies, taking direct action to prevent evictions, and learning how the banks were responsible for the housing bubble and real estate crash, Melonie discovered that it’s possible for a group of fellow activists to help you hold the burdens that come from facing (and fighting) foreclosure.

Housing justice work, it turns out, doesn’t only provide a solidarity model for keeping people in their homes. It also helps people heal from the trauma of facing the unjust eviction. How? By reminding people they are not alone, by creating supportive community around them, and by providing ways to take action in solidarity with others. Cheryl Semnack, an active member of City Life, came to the organization for help with her case, and she has stayed because she discovered that “City Life is a family. We laugh and cry and share our war stories. We stick together. If you have a court date, you can look behind you and see an army of people backing you up.” Compare that to applying for services.  “When you apply for services,” Cheryl says, “you get the service if you’re lucky, but you’re still alone. But when you’re organizing for social change, you feel solidarity with others.”

When it comes to black women facing skyrocketing rents and increased chance of eviction, consider Rosalind Johnson. She has been working with City Life and helping to organize a tenants’ union at her apartment in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in Boston.

“The corporate landlords that took over my building and tried to raise the rents only cared about their profits,” she told me in a recent conversation. Having been active at her union at work, she applied the same principle to her home: Join with others. Find power in numbers. Tell the landlord he has to negotiate with the whole group. “The landlord knows we mean business,” she says. “He realizes we’re stronger in numbers than we are alone.”

When friends or family members mention that they’ve got a problem with a large rent increase, she tells them about organizing a tenants’ union. “When you’re involved in something like that, you lose your fear in other areas of life too. You learn not to be afraid to speak out. You speak out on the job and in the family.”

This “How Housing Matters” research was funded by the McArthur Foundation, which puts a significant focus on housing. I looked at their website and discovered that this policy brief is part of a five-year, $25 million initiative to explore “the notion that affordable housing may be an essential `platform’ that promotes positive outcomes in education, employment, and physical and mental health, among other areas.”

Who spends $25 million exploring a “notion”? Especially when the notion is basic common sense – that housing “may” be an essential “platform” for “positive outcomes.”

The McArthur Foundation money comes from banking and real estate. Perhaps there is some level at which the members of the foundation care about making life better for people. But they are less interested in giving up power. In fact they spend their money to keep their power intact. They fund the research that points to policy recommendations that leave all the basic institutions in place – such as a for profit housing industry, and racist and sexist institutions that systematically deprive women, people of color, and poor people of resources and basic rights.

If they really cared about black women being “locked out,” they would use their resources to support organizing. Building a grassroots base of people fighting for justice gives regular people a voice; it creates a model for how to rise up together. As Melonie told me, “We need to fight for better short-term policies andfight for deeper change. The more organizing I do, the more I see the bigger picture. The more I ask: What do we want? What are some alternatives to the current structures?”

Imagine if we had $25 million to research that!

Cynthia Peters is the editor of The Change Agent and a member of City Life/Vida Urbana.

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