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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Cleveland-Area Reading of 'Evicted' Seeks Creative Solutions to Inequality and Housing Challenges

Dan Moulthrop, Chief Executive Officer, The City Club of Cleveland

Cleveland-Area Reading of 'Evicted' Seeks Creative Solutions to Inequality and Housing Challenges

There is a haunting description in the opening pages of Matthew Desmond's 2016 book "Evicted." As he describes the journey of a woman named Arleen and her two children from a homeless shelter in search of stable housing, he throws in a minor detail about the home the family briefly rented for $525 a month: "There was often no water in the house, and [her son] had to bucket out what was in the toilet." He goes on to quote Arleen remembering the place, "It was quiet....It was my favorite place."

So desperate and marginalized are some families in our nation that a house with no water, a house on the verge of being deemed unfit for human habitation, feels like a refuge.

Desmond reported and researched his Pulitzer-Prize-winning nonfiction work in Milwaukee, but he notes that Milwaukee's eviction rate isn't special.

"The numbers," Desmond writes, "are similar in Kansas City, Cleveland, Chicago and other cities. In 2013, 1 in 8 poor renting families nationwidewereunable to pay all of their rent, and a similar number thought it likely they would be evicted soon."

The situation has not improved since then.

In 2016, according to the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, courts in Cuyahoga County heard 26,828 eviction cases. Those are the formal evictions. That number does not account for evictions that happen less formally,when a simple threat to file an eviction with the courts is enough to pressure a family to involuntarily move. And with this week's closing of the Cleveland Tenants Organization, renters in our communities have also lost an important source of advocacy.

The persistence of these circumstances in one of the most successful economies of the modern world is cause forconcern,and calls upon us to seek a better understanding of the root causes of the issue.

In mainstream -- comfortably housed -- society, we tend to assume eviction is a consequence of poor decision-making.

Desmond's book reveals individual decision-making is a minor ornonexistentfactor. Rather, structural issues (layoffs, a lack of reliable public transportation, ineffective safety net programs) and personal challenges (episodic or chronic health issues, for instance) have a catastrophic impact on our neighbors who live minimum-wage paycheck to minimum-wage paycheck.

Beyond that, too, eviction is a cause of poverty itself; it can be the setback that disrupts the delicate balance of family and professional life. As Desmond points out, "eviction does not simply drop poor families into a dark valley ... it fundamentally redirects their way, casting them onto a different, and much more difficult, path."

Right now, throughout Greater Cleveland, people are reading "Evicted" and talking about it.

With support from the Ohio Humanities Council and the Western Reserve Area Agency on Aging, the City Club of Cleveland and Playhouse Square are collaborating with the nine library systems in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, Cleveland Heights-University Heights, East Cleveland, Euclid, Lakewood, Rocky River, Shaker Heights, and Westlake) to initiate One Community Reads, a countywide common read.

There are dozens and dozens of book discussion groups, presentations, and panel conversations happening at every branch of every local library in Cuyahoga County right now, and these will culminate in a free book talk by Matthew Desmond on March 15, in which he'll discuss the realities of these issues here in our communities, issues that go far beyond the borders of our core city.

At the launch of One Community Reads, Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish, the honorary chair of the effort, said, "Not only will One Community Reads bring our residents together through a shared reading experience, but it will give us the opportunity as a community to discuss challenging issues of economic inequality and housing." He's right.

And beyond discussing these issues, we might go even further. Desmond writes, "These problems are neither intractable nor eternal. A different kind of society is possible, and powerful solutions are within our collective reach."

So let's read together. Let's think about and discuss the most creative solutions we can imagine, solutions born of the kind of bold public sector-private sector collaboration that we are known for. Let's open our minds and hearts to understand the lived experience of extreme poverty and do everything we can to truly see our neighbors. Maybe, just maybe, we can become the different kind of society we are called to be.

(This article can also be read at

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