This Exhibition Uses $586 to Tell the Story of American Eviction

The amount is around what one of the subjects of sociologist Matthew Desmond’s book ‘Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City’ made in one month

Evicted - an exhibition at the National Building Museum

For his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, the sociologist Matthew Desmond followed eight families living in Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods in 2008 and 2009.

One of the Desmond’s subjects, Lamar, who is a black single father, a Navy veteran and a double amputee, was making $628 a month (roughly $7,500 a year). With his monthly rent at $550, he had just $2.19 budgeted per day to spend on his family.

When Lamar fell behind on his payments, he became one of the faces of an estimated 3.7 million Americans who have experienced an eviction, according to an analysis by Apartment List last year.

In the new exhibition Evicted, the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., brings that story of American eviction to the forefront by turning Desmond’s book into an installation.

As Kriston Capps reports for CityLab, the house-like structure, erected with particleboard purchased at Home Depot, cost $586 to build—approximately the amount Lamar made in one month. As Capps explains, the curatorial interpretation of Evicted “distills the policy analysis of Desmond’s book to three critical points: Incomes are stagnant, rents are rising, and the government is not filling the gap.”

The installation uses infographics from the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, audio interviews, photographs, and excerpts from Evicted to drive those points home.

According to Apartment List’s findings, more than a quarter of renters whose income falls below $30,000 weren't able to afford to fully pay their rent at least once over three consecutive months surveyed. The report also found that evictions disproportionately affect African Americans: About 12 percent of black respondents answered that they had faced an eviction compared to just 5.4 percent of white respondents.

“What I want people to get out of this exhibit is an introduction to the affordable housing crisis and the eviction epidemic,” Desmond says in a promotional video. “For folks that have been evicted, I want them to recognize that they’re not alone, that their story is part of a larger pattern happening all across America; and for those of us that have never thought about eviction, I want them to realize what it’s doing to our families and our children and our communities and how it’s leaving a deep and jagged scar on the next generation.”

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition “no state has an adequate supply of affordable rental housing for the lowest income renters.” Eviction isn't just directly causing homelessness, either. "Housing instability threatens all aspects of family life: health, jobs, school, and personal relationships," the Building Museum's website explains. And it makes it that much harder to rent in the future, since landlords are weary of past eviction records.

Unsurprisingly, eviction can also lead to mental health issues, like depression and stress, as sociologists at Rice University and Harvard University found in a 2015 study, the first to examine the effects of eviction from nationwide data.

On his end, Desmond is hard at work continuing to study evictions, now with a project called Eviction Lab, which, for the first time, is tracking formal evictions nationwide.

Desmond said the scope of the epidemic in America remains unclear. "[T]he estimates that we have are stunning, but they’re also too low," he says in a recent interview with Fresh Air's Terry Gross. There is no data on informal evictions, for instance, he says, like when a landlord pays a tenant to leave in order to rent out the apartment at a higher price, as has become common practice in places like New York City, or when a landlord threatens deportation.

As Desmond puts it in the video for the new exhibition, evictions are part of a larger American problem: “If you care about high healthcare costs, racial inequality, children's futures, fiscal responsibility, whatever your issue is, the lack of affordable housing sits at the root of that issue."

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