Eviction has become a prominent topic of academic research, public debate, journalistic investigation, and artistic expression in recent years, spurred largely by the 2016 publication of sociologist Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted. Set in Milwaukee, it painstakingly describes the lives of poor tenants and their landlords and contemplates solutions to the nation’s eviction epidemic. Since the book’s release, Desmond has opened the Eviction Lab, a research center at Princeton University, where he teaches, and spearheaded various projects to raise public awareness of the problem. Among them is a traveling exhibition called “Evicted,” which debuted at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., and recently made its way to Milwaukee. The exhibit combines audio and visual representation of statistics and personal stories in conjunction with work by architecture students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Last weekend we took a road trip to check it out.
Maya Dukmasova: I thought that the exhibit was a great way to present the basic outline of this problem to an audience that has no prior engagement. The video is short but compelling. The photographs are excellent. The data is displayed in a well-thought-out way. But I feel like this information should not be squirreled away in a little exhibition space that’s open two days a week. Ideally this is the kind of thing that gets installed on the Mag Mile or Daley Plaza.
Anjulie Rao: Listening to audio recordings from eviction court cases was impactful because you got a sense of courtroom chaos: dozens of people, their kids, their families are all there. But I wanted to see more compelling objects like the sculpture near the entrance. It showed a collection of personal belongings wrapped in Saran Wrap, and it told the story of what it is like to be a part of an eviction. Instead of reducing eviction to a part of everyday violent bureaucratic processes, the sculpture made me see eviction as an emotional trauma.
I also totally agree with you: the house-shaped displays are visually interesting enough that you could put them in a public space. It would function beautifully and reach a much wider audience. The information stands on its own, which is why I was disappointed to see it connected with “solutions-oriented” architecture proposals from the students.
MD: Yeah, to be honest, I had a hard time taking that part of the exhibition seriously. I like looking at little models of buildings, that’s cute. But it just felt jarringly theoretical. Did it have a serious purpose?
AR: The students took a class in which they read Evicted and then designed model tiny homes for homeless people. Then they designed a community of those tiny homes and they finished the course by designing a large-scale institutional building that provides an ongoing homelessness support framework. All were on display; none were thoughtful. None of them read to me as high-quality housing.
The student work demonstrates that when architects are asked to address eviction, they immediately design for homelessness. And I think that exercise removes architects’ responsibility to advocate for housing policy change. When we use design to address a population that has been traumatized, we have to ask if that design is meant to serve that population or serve the field of architecture itself. Seeing the UWM project scares me a lot because it means the next generation of architects isn’t being programmed to think holistically about who they’re designing for.
MD: Even outside of designing affordable housing, which is so hard to build, I would imagine that architects can design solutions to landlords’ building problems that would otherwise force them to raise rents.
AR: Architects are really good at translating very complicated federal and state assistance into digestible actionable items. Architects who do affordable housing have an intimate knowledge of federal housing policy. And if they can use that knowledge and actually point out what’s wrong with it, or inefficient about it, they should be brought to the table in those policy conversations.
MD: Presenting eviction with evictees at the center, like the exhibition does is, on the one hand, necessary so people understand just how bad this is as a phenomenon. Yet it makes it seem like a natural disaster. But you can’t ignore the filthy lucre and the very real exploitation that happens in the rental market. Desmond’s book makes sure that you’re thinking about the landlord throughout, but the part of the exhibition that was about landlords didn’t go as far. Did you see that 37 percent of the real estate transactions in 2016 were homes sold to people who weren’t living in them? I just feel like that’s the central tension here. We know very little about how landlords operate, what kind of money they make. Desmond has this podcast now with On the Media about eviction, and in it he phrases it very eloquently: How much is enough profit? Where do we draw the line on “reasonable” landlord income? And if there is no ceiling on profit, then is housing something that should be subject to that kind of logic?
AR: Which is why it’s so painful to see realtors call the homes that they are selling “product.”
MD: There are people who are creating the problem through the choices they’re making. The landlords are not just market or rational actors. They are people who operate through motivations like greed and fear. We just don’t know enough about them. And we’re at a point now where it’s critical to know more because we need to figure out what kind of solution is going to be most effective at dealing with the fact that the rent is way too fucking expensive. Other than raising the minimum wage, which when it gets raised, it doesn’t get raised enough.
AR: And when it does housing costs go up.
MD: Right, why are the housing costs going up? We don’t know that because we don’t subject landlords to any kind of reporting requirements. We don’t know why they’re charging what they are. Meanwhile every policy proposal targeting profit is going to be met with unqualified backlash from the real estate people saying, “No, this is going to make things worse.”
AR: Which is why every person can theoretically get behind the call for “more affordable housing”—which is, I hate to say, very misleading.
MD: It is, because it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. People assume that it means building something, but building something is very expensive. And meanwhile, there’s an endless supply of impoverished tenants for housing that’s already built and it’s affordable and would never be competing with potential new housing. The last I heard, there is nowhere in America where rent is affordable to someone making minimum wage. I am so much less interested in How do we build more affordable housing than I am in How do we curb profiteering and make existing housing affordable?
AR: That’s the question. v