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Author puts lack of affordable housing in spotlight at Pittsburgh event

| Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016, 3:12 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Matthew Desmond, author of the book, 'Evicted' (center) discusses affordable housing challenges across the nation during a question and answer session at an event organized by the Housing Alliance and Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures at East Liberty Presbyterian Church Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Matthew Desmond, author of the book, 'Evicted' listens to a question from the audience at an event organized by the Housing Alliance and Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures at East Liberty Presbyterian Church Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016. The discussion focused on affordable housing challenges in Pittsburgh and across the nation.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Matthew Desmond, author of the book, 'Evicted', discusses affordable housing challenges across the nation during a question and answer session at an event organized by the Housing Alliance and Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures at East Liberty Presbyterian Church Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016.
Michael Kienitz
Matthew Desmond

Eviction is becoming as much a cause as it is a symptom of American poverty, and cities such as Pittsburgh should do more to confront housing barriers that threaten family life and relegate poor people to the worst homes in the poorest neighborhoods, best-selling author Matthew Desmond said Thursday in Pittsburgh.

“It didn't used to be like this,” Desmond, a Harvard University sociologist and 2015 MacArthur “Genius” award recipient, told the Tribune-Review. “Eviction used to be rare in America.”

Desmond, 36, of Cambridge, Mass.,visited Western Pennsylvania as part of a national tour speaking about his critically acclaimed book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.” The author uses data from more than 30,000 eviction reports and observations from living alongside eight struggling families in Milwaukee to portray how and why America is facing “one of the worst affordable housing crises in generations.”

About 50 guests, including Pittsburgh-area tenants, landlords, developers, housing advocates and public officials, joined Desmond for a question-and-answer session in the basement of the Cathedral of Learning in Oakland. The Pittsburgh Foundation put up about $5,500 to host Desmond, and Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures partnered with the Southwestern PA Housing Alliance in organizing the invitation-only luncheon.

“We need to look past gentrifying neighborhoods and into low-income, un-gentrifying neighborhoods — where the vast majority of evictions happen,” Desmond said.

Getting evicted sets a sequence of crises in motion, because “without a home, everything else falls apart,” he said.

“Eviction can put you in the worst homes in the worst neighborhoods because landlords use that record as a screening tool, and public housing authorities all around the country also use it.”

One in four low-income U.S. renters spends more than 70 percent of his or her income on rent, and three in four who qualify for subsidized housing do not receive it, Desmond found. Receiving a voucher for subsidized housing doesn't guarantee a place to rent.

“It's hard when you have small children; it's hard when you're on a fixed income,” said audience member and Section 8-qualifier Lisa Gonzalez, 49, of West View, a former school food services worker.

Desmond found “alarmingly high” rates of eviction for blacks, with one in five black women in Milwaukee facing eviction compared to one in 15 of white women.

He observed that black women with children tended to have the hardest time getting landlord approval and live in conditions worse than those of poor white families.

“In poor black neighborhoods,” Desmond writes, “what incarceration is to black men, eviction is to black women: a common yet consequential event that pushes families deeper into poverty. Poor black men are locked up; poor black women are locked out.”

In Allegheny County, 30 to 45 affordable spaces are available for every 100 households that are extremely low-income, meaning they make less than $15,000 a year, data compiled by the alliance show.

One-fourth of county households make less than $25,000, and 47 percent of renters here are spending at least one-third of their income on rent, the alliance said. A renter should be bringing in $15.90 per hour to afford the average two-bedroom apartment.

Both Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Officer Rich Fitzgerald have deemed affordable housing to be an administration priority, with city officials contemplating how to raise up to $10 million a year to address the issue.

“That's also why the mayor is a big believer in transit,” Peduto spokesman Tim McNulty said. “He wants to make sure we're not leaving people out in islands of poverty wherever they are, whether in the suburbs or certain pockets of the city.”

Community Human Services, a Strip District-based nonprofit lauded for its work in eviction prevention, helped 160 families last year thwart an eviction or utility shutoff.

“We constantly have more inquiries and more demand for services than, unfortunately, we have capacity for,” said Jon Hoffmann, chief operating officer.

United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania's 2-1-1 hotline received more than 32,000 requests for utility and rent assistance in 2015.

Desmond advocated a voucher program that would ensure the poorest tenants don't spend more than 30 percent of income on housing.

George Moses, 71, a health care worker, recalled he and his wife struggling to find a place in Pittsburgh on an annual income topping $30,000.

“It's tiny, it's cramped, but at the time it was the best available that we could find,” Moses said of his $750-per-month place in Point Breeze. “I have a strong network of support and I can be resilient and find something, but those folks down below, there's almost no help for them.”

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