Thursday, March 31, 2016

New Population Data from U.S. Census Reveals Increasing Migration to Sunnier Regions

Research Assistant
Last week, the U.S Census Bureau released new population estimates and its analysis of components of population change for counties and metro areas. This data includes total population estimates for July 1, 2015, total population change, changes in population due to natural increase, and domestic and international migration between July 1, 2014 and July 1, 2015.

We can see that domestic migration continues on a post-recession path of recovery and with it, long-term patterns of growth and movement to the Sunbelt, slowed by the downturn, are reappearing. Suburban counties in the South are once again attracting the most movers, while northern, largely Midwestern counties are experiencing the greatest population losses.

According to this latest release, the Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix and New York metro areas rounded the top five for net population growth. In Texas, the metro areas of Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth saw population growth of 159,000 and 145,000 residents respectively over the past year. Two other metros in Texas—Austin-Round Rock and San Antonio—each grew by 50,000 people, putting them among the top growing metros in the nation. Collectively, these four metros added 412,000 in population. In all, Texas was home to 4 of top 16 metros in terms of population growth, in keeping with state-level data released late last year that showed Texas as the state with the most population growth followed by Florida, California, Georgia, and Washington. Among the top 100 metros, in percentage terms the Cape Coral-Fort Myers, FL Metro Area saw the highest population gain of 3.3%.

In all, 96 metros lost population over the past year. Among the top 100 metros, the biggest net population loss was in the Chicago area where the population dropped by 6,200, followed by Pittsburgh which lost 5,000 people.

The micropolitan areas saw a net growth of 27,000 with more than half (a total of 261) micro areas gaining population, four of which added more than 2000 people.

At the county level, population growth was also skewed to the south and west with the top 30 counties for total population growth being located in either the South or the West. The top three for net population gains were first Harris County, Texas and Maricopa County, Arizona, followed by Los Angeles County, California. Counties with the largest population losses were Cook County, Illinois which had a net negative population change of nearly 10,500, and Wayne County, Michigan, which had a net negative population change of nearly 6,700 people.

In percentage terms, among counties that had a total of more than 100,000 people in 2015, the top counties that gained the most population growth are in Texas, Hays county (5.2%) and Comal County (4.5%), while the counties that lost the most are San Juan County, NM (-4.2%) and Hardin County, KY (-1.8%). Though these counties with highest percentage losses are in the South and West, overall the counties with largest net losses were overwhelmingly in the Midwest and Northeast, and the ones with the biggest net gains were concentrated in the South.

In addition to overall gains and losses in population in metros and counties, the population estimates data also show components of growth in terms of net gains and losses from international immigration as well as domestic migration, which allow us to see what parts of the country are attracting people from around the country and those that are losing population moving to other areas.

As for domestic migration, top ten counties with highest net inflows were in the Sunbelt states of Arizona, Nevada, Florida and Texas. Maricopa County, Arizona saw the highest net domestic inflow, which was 48% of the net population change in the county. Clark County, Nevada saw the second highest net domestic inflow, which was 54% of the net population change in the county. Lee County, Florida moved up to the third spot from the ninth in 2014 for net domestic inflow, which was 92 % of the net population change in the county.

Los Angeles County, California followed by Cook County, Illinois saw the most net domestic outflow for the second year in a row.

In general, counties and metros that were attractive to domestic migrants also had high levels of international immigration. However, some counties that saw high international immigration, such as Los Angeles County, Miami-Dade County, and Queens County, also saw high domestic out migration. Indeed, in many areas gains from international immigration staved off potentially larger population losses due to domestic migration.

The map below shows the changes in population for each county between July 2014 and July 2015. Click on a county to display its data. Select a tab to map percent change in population, net international immigration or net domestic migration. [May take a few seconds to load. Click on the (i) in the upper right to reveal color key information.]

Detailed explanation of the census bureau methodology.


Thursday, March 24, 2016

Home Conversions – and Reconversions – Expected to Generate More Remodeling Activity

Kermit Baker
Senior Research Fellow
During the housing bust, and continuing into this housing recovery, large numbers of owner-occupied homes have been converted to rental units. Distressed owner-occupied homes that were foreclosed or sold as short-sales often ended up as rentals because, given the weakness in the housing market and broader economy, few households were looking to buy or were able to buy. Private investors often bought up homes built for owner-occupancy once they saw the strong demand for rentals and the rising rents that these homes commanded.

Once the housing market settles and the demand for homeownership begins to pick up, it is likely that many of these homes will filter back into the owner-occupied housing stock. What will this process look like, and how much modification will be undertaken after this transition occurs? To begin to think about this issue, the Joint Center looked at homes that have already gone through this process; namely owner-occupied homes that have been converted to rentals, and then converted back to owner-occupancy.

While this phenomenon didn’t get much attention until the recent housing crash, it turns out to be fairly common. Starting with owner-occupied homes in 1995 from the American Housing Survey, we tracked these homes for the next 20 years to see which ones changed tenure. Almost a quarter (23.4%) of homes in this 1995 cohort was converted to a rental at least once over this period. While multifamily condos were the most likely type of owner-occupied home to be converted – over half of these condos was rented at least once over this period – so were over a third of single-family attached and manufactured homes, as were over 20% of single-family detached homes.

Note: Sample composed of owner-occupied units in 1995 that were occupied in at least 7/10 surveys from 1995-2013. 
Source: JCHS tabulations of HUD, 1995-2013 American Housing Surveys

Typically, homes that were converted to rentals were somewhat less desirable than homes that were continuously owner-occupied over this period. On average, they 
  • are older – pre-1940 homes were 50% more likely to be converted than homes built after 1990,
  • have a lower value – homes valued at $100,000 or less were twice as likely to be converted as homes valued at $200,000 or more,
  • and are more likely to be located in central cities.

No doubt reflecting the lower value of these homes, spending on home improvement projects was generally lower. For the periods that they were owner-occupied, spending on homes that would be converted to rentals averaged 10% to 15% less than the average for all owner-occupied homes.

The pattern of home improvement spending on converted homes is particularly interesting. For homes that were converted to rentals and then converted back to homeownership, spending on home improvement projects was over 20% below average prior to being converted to a rental unit, and almost 20% above average after that same rental unit was converted back to homeownership.

Notes: Rental sample composed of occupied units in 1995 that were occupied in at least 7/10 surveys from 1995-2013 and were owner-occupied in at least two surveys before first rental period and after last rental period. Average spending is calculated for years in which the unit was owner-occupied. Broader sample composed of occupied units in 1995 that were occupied in at least 7/10 surveys from 1995-2013 and were owner-occupied in at least one survey. 
Source: JCHS tabulations of HUD, 1995-2013 American Housing Surveys

It may be that owners were underinvesting knowing that the home would be converted to a rental, or just the opposite – that the home was converted to a rental because it was in poor enough condition that a sale was difficult. Likewise, after reconversion to an owner-occupied home, higher spending may reflect the need to fix it up after a period of renting, or that the new owner wanted to upgrade the home or customize it to the household’s needs.

There are over four million more rental units now than there were in 2010, and over eight million more than there were in 2005. As many of these rental units return to the owner-occupied stock, we’ll see a boost in home improvement spending. On average, almost $1,000 more is spent per year on home improvements for a home that is converted from renting to owning as compared to a home converted from owning to renting. For every million rentals converted back to homeownership, therefore, there is expected to be almost a billion dollars more spent each year on home improvement activity. 

Friday, March 18, 2016

Millennial Housing Issues in Perspective: Visualizing Cohort Trends in Population Size, Household Numbers, Ownership and Renting

George Masnick
Senior Research Fellow
Today’s 41 million young adults age 25-34 have been slow to move into independent household formation and homeownership. Exactly how slowly and why, and what the future likely holds for these individuals over the next decade, is the subject of much debate. The magnitude of delayed household formation and homeownership can perhaps be better appreciated if we directly compare this young cohort of adults with the cohorts that preceded them in the age structure. The four figures below track the different cohorts’ trends between 2003 and 2013 in population size, total households, owner households and renter households as measured by the American Housing Survey.

Population Size

Figure 1 shows population size of five different 10-year birth cohorts. The youngest cohort (born 1979-1988) remained fairly constant in size between 2003 and 2013 at about 41 million. This number is slightly larger than the next oldest cohort (born 1969-1978), but not as big as the cohort born 1959-1968, which includes younger baby boomers.

The cohorts born from 1959-1968 and 1969-1978 increased slightly in size over the 2003-2013 period due to migration from abroad, underscoring the fact that cohort size among young and middle-age adults can still grow as we go forward. Why the 1979-1988 birth cohort did not also increase in size between 2003 and 2013 (it actually declined by about 300,000) is likely due to the effects of the Great Recession having had a bigger impact on 25-34 year-old immigration. The growth in the total number of annual undocumented immigrants actually turned negative during this period, and slow job growth in construction and manufacturing also had a large impact on slowing overall immigration into the under 35 age groups.

U.S. immigration law still promotes family re-unification as one of its core principles, and this provision was less impacted by the economic downturn than employment driven immigration, and probably resulted in a more sustained immigration of 35-44 and 45-54 year olds. In addition, undocumented immigrants in these age groups were more likely to have lived here longer and have children born in the U.S., so they were less likely to have left the country during the Great Recession.

From 2003-2013, the two oldest cohorts between age 55-64 and 65-74 lost population due to mortality. The oldest (born 1939-1948) declined by 22 percent and the next oldest (born 1949-1958) lost 11 percent of its population.

Number of Households

Figure 2 shows parallel cohort trends in the number of households produced by the population in Figure 1. Three things are noteworthy. First, most of a cohort’s contribution to household growth occurs as it moves from age group 15-24 to 25-34, as is visible in the sharp upturn in households among the leftmost (youngest) cohort in Figure 2. Second, the cohort born 1969-1978 (red line) appears to have formed fewer households in 2013 at age 35-44 relative to older baby boomers at the same age than its population size might have predicted. The 1969-1978 cohort is not on track to attain the household numbers achieved by the 1959-1968 and 1949-1958 cohorts (green and purple lines). Third, the two oldest cohorts, although having lost a significant share of their populations from mortality, did not reduce their household numbers proportionally.

Lower levels of household formation in the youngest two cohorts when compared to baby boomers are somewhat expected because they contain higher shares of both foreign born and minority native born, each of which have lower rates of forming independent households. They are also cohorts that have experienced delayed marriage and fertility among the native-born non-minority population, making independent household formation for the youngest members of the cohort as a whole even less likely. But if members of these cohorts are simply postponing marriage and family formation, household formation for many is also being postponed, so future upward movement in household trajectories when cohorts are still under age 45 is likely.

The fact that household numbers after age 55 do not drop as quickly as population numbers is because married couples head most households in older age groups, and if one spouse dies, the household generally survives. In addition, divorce in middle and old age generally turns one household into two, partly offsetting deaths that occur to persons who live alone. After age 75, losses from mortality increase dramatically, so it will not be until after 2020 for the oldest baby boomers, and after 2030 for the youngest and largest baby boomer cohort that significant declines in older owner households take place.

Owner and Renter Household Trends

Decomposing the cohort trends in total household numbers into owners and renters further refines our understanding of the demographic underpinnings of recent household and housing market dynamics. The youngest cohort’s shortfall in household formation, as it moved into the 25-34 age group, was especially severe on the owner side, as shown in Figure 3.

In spite of having a noticeably larger population at age 25-34 compared to the next oldest cohort (red line), and a slightly larger number of total households at the same age, owner households were almost a million fewer. In addition, this next oldest cohort also shows levels of owner household formation well below what was achieved by the cohort born 1959-1968 (green line) when it was age 35-44 in 2003. Finally, the 1959-1968 cohort had slightly fewer owners in 2013 than the next oldest cohort (purple line) at age 45-54 despite having both 4+ million more people and 1.2 million more total households. But we must not lose sight of the fact that the older 1959-1968 and 1949-1958 cohorts aged into their 40s and 50s during a very different economic period (1993-2003) with better income growth, looser mortgage lending standards and more affordable newly built housing. The number of owner households that these older cohorts achieved at ages 25-34, 35-44, and 45-54 might not be a proper benchmark by which to judge the progress of today’s younger cohorts.

Figure 4 shows that in 2013, the number of renters in the youngest cohort at age 25-34 was significantly larger than the number of owners (11 million compared to 8 million). This compares to much greater parity between the number of owners and renters in the next oldest cohort when it was age 25-34. Although the number of owners in the youngest cohort was well below the number of renters in 2013, the increase in owners between 2003 and 2013 was still larger than the increase in renters.

Looking forward, the 1979-1988 cohort is going to add many more owners over the next 10 years, while at the same time its number of renters should decline when the cohort moves between ages 25-34 and 35-44, given historical cohort transitions. In fact, this youngest cohort should continue to add owners and lose renters over the next three decades until it reaches ages 55-64. Of course, the exact numbers of owner additions will be determined by the state of the economy, by income trends, by housing prices and mortgage interest rates, and by lending practices of banks and mortgage companies. To a certain extent, future homeowner numbers will also be determined by future demographic trends in marriage, fertility, immigration and mortality that affect this age group, but these are less likely to involve significant departures from recent historical levels and are more predictable.

By examining the cohort trends in the numbers of population, households, owners and renters in the way we have, we gain a greater appreciation of the degree to which millennials have been slow to form owner households. But we also find that the next older cohort, born 1969-1978, is also well below levels achieved by baby boomers when they were the same ages. There remains room for much upward movement in owner household formation for these two youngest cohorts. However, it is unlikely that these cohorts will ever reach the 16 million owner households achieved by each 10-year baby boomer cohort without significant reductions in the obstacles they now face in becoming and remaining homeowners. Still, we should look forward to continued gains in owner household formation for the two youngest cohorts as they move into their 40s and 50s over the next decade and beyond.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Affordable Rental Housing Development in the For-Profit Sector: A Case Study of McCormack Baron Salazar

by Rachel Bratt
Senior Research Fellow
Despite the private for-profit sector’s importance in affordable housing development, there has been relatively little research on the sector. Many researchers working on affordable housing issues have, instead, focused attention on the role of nonprofit organizations and public housing authorities. My new working paper on one of the country’s leading for-profit affordable housing developers, McCormack Baron Salazar (MBS), provides some insights into their successful business model.

In view of the fact that the private for-profit sector is not able to build housing that is affordable to lower income households without public assistance, while still realizing the desired level of profit, the federal government has been providing various incentives to the private sector for more than 50 years. Public incentives, which can be used by both for-profit and nonprofit developers, replaced the prior federal strategy of providing deep subsidies to local housing authorities to produce public housing. Although private for-profit developers have the potential of adding “market discipline” to deals, a key challenge is how to provide sufficient incentives to encourage private sector participation, while also safeguarding the public purposes of housing programs—providing housing over the long-term, at prices that are affordable to lower-income residents who are unable to compete in the private housing market.

The Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program, created in 1986, cemented the role of private developers in affordable housing development and is now the major federal housing subsidy program aimed at assisting lower-income households. According to data compiled by JCHS Research Analyst Irene Lew, for-profit developers have produced about 78 percent of the LIHTC projects placed in service between 1987 and 2013.

A search of the literature* explores the extent to which for-profit developers meet the requirements of the “Quadruple Bottom Line.” This concept suggests that all affordable housing developments should:
  • have the financial backing necessary to preserve the development’s long-term affordability;
  • address the social and economic needs of the residents;
  • contribute positively to the neighborhood; and 
  • be environmentally sustainable (Bratt 2008a, p. 358; see also Bratt, 2012). 
The case study of MBS, which focuses on their home-base city of St. Louis, presents information on this company’s approach to meeting these standards. MBS is well aware of these concerns and appears to be incorporating them into their operations.

The roots of MBS go back to 1973, embracing the vision “to rebuild low-income communities by providing quality housing options for all people.” The firm’s first projects involved the development of relatively small-scale mixed-income rental properties on single sites. This model changed over time, with the major focus being the redevelopment of large deteriorated housing developments into new mixed-income communities.

In addition to revitalizing places, the firm has a strong commitment to the residents of the communities they build. With the assistance of Urban Strategies, the separate nonprofit organization they formed, MBS works with local officials to develop high quality new neighborhood schools, collaborates with social services providers, and creates well-designed developments with amenities that support family living. Through all these efforts, MBS strives to promote the economic security of their residents.

Over the years, MBS has identified a group of “essential ingredients” that are needed for it to make a commitment to do a specific project:

First, in understanding their role as outsiders to the community, MBS believes that a strong local partner with a stake in the development is essential. This can be a local government, a philanthropic investor, a large nonprofit institution such as a hospital or university, or a private business that is willing and able to contribute significant financial and in-kind resources to the early phases of the project.

Second, the proposed development must have an attractive location. It must be either downtown or close to an anchor institution in that community. Often, the lead local development partner is, in fact, that anchor institution and therefore has a great deal to gain by upgrading the general area in which it is located.

Third, and consistent with securing an appropriate local partner, MBS works to limit as much as possible their up-front risk in a deal. Thus, MBS expects its local partner(s) to cover most or all of the soft costs involved in getting the development launched, including architectural and engineering studies and acquiring the necessary permits. Once development is underway, MBS becomes fully in charge of the process and is ready to assume the bulk of the risk.

Fourth, in order to make MBS’s large, complex deals work, and to ensure that the housing will be affordable to the intended group of households, additional financial resources are typically required (e.g., from the federal, state or local government, from a private institution, from a philanthropic entity, and/or from a corporate partner). In short, there is usually a great deal of subsidy money involved.

Fifth, development fees must be adequate, and, for the most part, are non-negotiable.

Even a project that incorporates all of MBS’s “essential ingredients” may still face significant challenges, largely due to external constraints and the complexity of developing and managing high quality affordable housing. A problem facing some MBS developments is that insufficient public housing authority reserves have been set aside. This issue is looming in projects owned by the St. Louis Housing Authority, for example, where some stakeholders fear that the high quality of the developments will suffer once reserves are depleted. However, unless Congress drastically cuts public housing operating subsidy funding, MBS principals feel that such depletion is unlikely at least within the next few years.

A second major issue is the lack of a budgeted line-item for resident services. Although MBS has a commitment to providing high quality supports and educational opportunities for its residents through Urban Strategies, its ability to do so depends on funding from outside sources.  Many nonprofit organizations strive to provide resident services through cash flow generated from the operation of their buildings.

MBS’s redeveloped properties are typically only able to offer the new housing to about 20-30 percent of the original residents. Although this is apparently higher than the standard for this type of redevelopment project, the often-heard criticism of HOPE VI projects, that resident selection processes result in “creaming” (admitting only the most stable and reliable tenants to the new developments), also appears to be a factor in MBS properties. The other side of this argument, of course, is that property managers and resident committees are responsible for assuring, as much as possible, that the new tenants are able to pay their rent and that they will not cause any problems for management or for the other residents.

Going forward, it is not clear how easy it will be for any firm, including MBS, to pursue its preferred strategy—large-scale, mixed-income development. A number of circumstances aligned in a positive way and provided fertile ground for MBS’s current business model to emerge and flourish.

The paper concludes with an overview of the components of successful public-private affordable housing programs, regardless of whether the developer is a for-profit or a nonprofit. The paper also suggests that there is a need to better understand the full range of for-profit affordable housing developers, including their overall strengths and weaknesses; clearly, MBS represents only one type of for-profit firm. Certainly, the mission driven aspects of MBS’s business model are not typically a motivating factor for the great majority of private for-profit affordable housing developers. The recommendations also emphasize the importance of a strong and committed federal role in affordable housing development, including the need for deeper housing subsidies, with less reliance on multiple funders for putting together affordable housing development deals. Even a large, well-capitalized firm like MBS cannot develop affordable housing without additional and significant public and private resources, and assembling them can be a difficult and time-consuming process.

Renaissance Place at Grand, St. Louis, Missouri
  • The Arthur Blumeyer public housing development was built in 1968, housing 1,162 family and elderly households.
  • HUD awarded the St. Louis Housing Authority a $35 million HOPE VI grant for Blumeyer’s redevelopment in 2001.
  • The new community, renamed Renaissance Place by residents, and developed by MBS, contains 512 mixed-income apartments, including 140 which are in universally-designed accessible buildings
Context of the large-scale housing development – a neighborhood within a neighborhood.
Photo by Peter Wilson, courtesy of McCormack Baron Salazar
Photo by Peter Wilson, courtesy of McCormack Baron Salazar

Note * The  literature review part of the paper was written jointly with Irene Lew, Research Analyst, Joint Center for Housing Studies


Bratt, Rachel G. 2008. "Nonprofit and For-profit Developers of Subsidized Rental Housing: Comparative Attributes and Collaborative Opportunities." Housing Policy Debate 19(2):323-365.

___. 2012. "The Quadruple Bottom Line and Nonprofit Housing Organizations in the United States." Housing Studies 27(4): 438-456.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Evicted: Confronting Some Uncomfortable Truths

Managing Director
Matthew Desmond’s new book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City is just being released today, but it has already generated an amazing buzz which started with an article in the New Yorker a few weeks back, and has continued with reviews and commentary in major news outlets across the country. His bottom line conclusion that “without stable shelter everything else falls apart” is a message that housing advocates have long felt keenly. Given that the country’s serious housing challenges have failed to make an appearance at any Presidential debate, the substantial public attention the book is generating is profoundly important.

I got the chance to read an advance copy of the book myself and finished it this past weekend. As someone familiar with Desmond’s work and with a strong interest in trying to bring attention to the desperate straits that some 11 million renter households face by having to devote more than half their income to rent, I expected to be moved by the book’s up-close-and-personal depiction of struggling renters in Milwaukee. While I was certainly moved, what I didn’t expect was how challenged I would be by Desmond’s account.

The Joint Center for Housing Studies has for many years been documenting both the magnitude and consequences of a lack of affordable housing through meticulous analysis of national survey data to help fuel the policy debate. But while numbers may inform the head, they don’t move the heart and so by themselves have a hard time moving the needle on policy. Housing advocates have come to appreciate the importance of personal stories in putting a face on the numbers. The Make Room campaign, launched by Enterprise Community Partners in the past year, is a particularly effective attempt at documenting powerful stories of struggling renters to help sway hearts as well as minds.

Desmond’s stories are also powerful, but in a very different way. The Enterprise campaign focuses on people who have been undone by sickness and other life events outside their control, who struggle to make a decent living, not from lack of trying, but by a lack of good paying jobs. In contrast, Evicted largely tells the story of people who are dealing with what often seem like self-inflicted wounds—drug addiction and questionable choices about how they spend what little money they have, people who are prone to violence and seem to make only sporadic attempts to work. In short, while Enterprise shines on a light on the so-called ‘deserving poor,’ Desmond doesn’t shy away—in fact, seems to seek out—the “undeserving” poor; people whose own families and social networks often refuse to offer assistance.

But through the course of the book, and with the support of hundreds of footnotes that draw on the academic literature and put forth more of Desmond’s own arguments, he builds a convincing case for how the circumstances of grinding poverty lead to choices that otherwise might be hard to understand and how drug addiction and a history of abuse and deprivation exert a powerful tide that is extremely hard to escape. In short, Desmond forces readers to confront their own embedded notions of the “deserving poor.”

One of the most thought-provoking aspects of the book for me was a footnote that confronts this issue directly. Desmond notes that liberals tend to ignore the “nastier, more embarrassing aspects of poverty.” Citing William Julius Wilson, he argues that this approach will ultimately fail to garner support anyway as the public wants to see these behaviors taken into account. Lambasting this approach, Desmond writes, “There are two ways to dehumanize: the first is to strip people of all virtue; the second is to cleanse them of sin.” He’s right. We do need to construct a policy argument that accounts for the sinners as well as the saints—not least of all because no one’s a saint.

Evicted has also challenged my thinking about how the housing market operates at the lowest rungs of the ladder. On its face, the rental market would appear to fit the classic competitive model: there are many buyers and many sellers, information on rent levels is fairly easily available, and there are few barriers to becoming a landlord. Sure, rents are quite high relative to property values, but wouldn’t high maintenance costs, the very real risk of non-payment of rent, and the costs of carrying out evictions account for the high rents? Maybe in part. But the examples Desmond details suggest that, even after taking these costs of doing business into account, the returns earned by landlords are extremely high. The most telling example is the $16,900 house in relatively good condition in a stable block. The mortgage payment on such a small mortgage would be less than $100 monthly. Even with property taxes and maintenance factored in, it wouldn’t take much rent to earn a decent return. And he notes the landlord had acquired other properties for as little as $5,000.

So why aren’t these markets more competitive? One barrier to entry is the lack of access to capital by those who are looking to live in these neighborhoods. Given what’s involved in managing these properties, there may be few landlords who are willing to take on property ownership under these conditions, limiting competition. Landlords also have over a barrel those tenants with a history of eviction, a criminal record, or no visible means of support. With the need for housing so fundamental, landlords can extract the lion’s share of a household’s income. As Desmond notes, researchers have focused a great deal of attention on the provision of subsidized housing but very little on the supply of non-subsidized, low-cost rental housing where a large majority of the poor find their homes. As this book makes clear, this is a major oversight.

So what does Desmond propose as policy responses? To begin with, he advocates for an entitlement program for low-income renters to obtain housing vouchers in the private market. This proposal is actually not that radical, as the Bipartisan Policy Center Housing Commission made this same recommendation. There is a strong case for such a policy, particularly for those at risk of homelessness who are profiled in Evicted. The short-term outcomes report by Abt Associates for the Family Options Study provides compelling evidence that providing housing vouchers to families coming out of the shelter system produces more stable living situations, reduces domestic violence and substance abuse, keeps families together, and reduces the number of school moves among children. And it achieves these results at no greater cost than the traditional assistance families receive coming out of shelters. Desmond also advocates for publicly provided legal assistance for renters in eviction hearings. Given the stories presented in Evicted, there is a clear need to level the playing field between landlords and tenants. If tenants have access to universal vouchers, landlords will have less to worry about in terms of unpaid rent.

The one part of Desmond’s recommendations that puzzled me is that he suggests relaxing housing quality standards as part of a universal voucher program to entice more landlords to participate. He argues in a footnote that in countries where such programs exist without quality standards, tenants are able to use the market power of their voucher to choose higher quality units. But given how the current system exploits renters’ vulnerabilities to accept appalling housing conditions, I would worry about leaving the market to determine this outcome.

In fact, Desmond makes a forceful case that exploitation of the poor thrives when it comes to essentials like housing and food. For that reason it might also have been useful to consider including some recommendations about expanding property ownership among those who would be less likely to exploit the poor—including the poor themselves. In cities like Milwaukee where home prices in inner city neighborhoods are so low, homeownership may be a cost-effective solution for some. More ownership of low-cost rentals by the public or non-profit sectors could also provide needed competition for for-profit landlords.

What’s also missing from his recommendations are supports beyond just rental assistance that are needed to address some of the root causes of instability, such as treatment for addiction and mental health disorders. Housing assistance is a critical step but by itself may not be sufficient to help people become stable tenants. But Desmond is focused on the housing part of the equation and so can’t be faulted for looking at all the ways we need to shore up our social safety net.

Overall, Evicted tells a powerful story and presents persuasive evidence about the fundamental importance of housing instability as a cause and a consequence of poverty, and in the process makes a compelling case for the need to foster housing stability as part of efforts to address poverty. Evicted is that rare book that will generate spirited thought and discussion not only among a general audience but also among those of us who spend a great deal of time trying to understand the critical interplay between housing affordability, poverty, and social mobility.


On Thursday, March 3 at 6 PM The Malcom Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School is holding a book launch event for “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” with author Matthew Desmond, Co-director of their Center’s Justice and Poverty Project, along with a distinguished panel. View their event flier >