Matthew Desmond's new book “Evicting” speaks to the heart of a fundamental issue in the US. Rental household instability. Desmond documents how low incomes, high rents, and few rights makes living in rental housing risky for some and hell for others. The book deserves your attention if you are renting or working with renters. Here's the problem. Besides advocating a Universal Voucher program that would provide a flexible subsidy to any income qualified household (no waiting lists!), Desmond doesn't offer activists any suggestions for to geting engaged in a change action.
RHINO to the rescue! Here's how you can get started on eviction reform in your community.
1. Become familiar with the eviction laws and procedures in your community. That's what Desmond did. For 5 years he lived in a manufactured home park in Milwaukee and talked to park residents and low income tenants in surrounding communities about their experiences. In addition to interviews and with the help of some students, he researched what happened to tenants in eviction court...and got information about the aftermath of eviction on the families. You don't have to spend 5 years to do this. Back in “the day” Cleveland Tenants used to assign new employees to sit in the court for a couple days a week to become familiar with the stories and the procedures. Court monitoring and then debriefing with an attorney is a great way to understand how the system works (for landlords).
2. Publicize your findings. Even though Desmond is a Harvard professor, his book focuses on the real lives of real people caught up in a system they can't control...where they can only become victims. The power of this book is that ordinary people can read it and know there's a problem. You don't need to be a Harvard professor to understand these stories. That ability to tell the stories has been critical to the success of the book and the invitations to talk shows and news interview. You can do the same strategy where you live and work. Public Justice Center did a study of eviction outcomes in Baltimore and used their finding to draft a set of reforms that is going to the Maryland legislature (Warning: pop up audio.)
3. Pick a couple issues to focus on. One simple thing would be to train tenants how to cope with eviction. Some tenants may have defenses that they can raise if they have a little knowledge. In the past some Legal Service programs offered eviction clinics where an attorney could teach tenants how to prepare a defense. Desmond recommends a slightly different approach—get your local officials to fund Legal Services to provide legal representation to every tenant in Eviction Court. NY advocates have started a campaign.
4. Modest court reforms could help. Access to pre-fiing mediation could keep cases out of the court and could save landlords the cost of a filing fee. Ohio Supreme Court encourages Alternative Dispute Resolution.