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ASU Grad Matthew Desmond Wins Pulitzer Prize for Evicted

Desmond's work is focused on American poverty.EXPAND
Desmond's work is focused on American poverty.
Matthew Desmond

Arizona State University graduate Matthew Desmond has won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction for Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.

This prize is one of 21 awards given annually for achievements in journalism, literature, and musical composition. In 2014, the staff of the Arizona Republic were finalists for a Pulitzer in the category of Breaking News Reporting for their coverage of the Yarnell Hill fire.

Evicted follows eight families residing in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Some are black, some white. Desmond, now 37, lived among the families for over a year during 2008 and 2009, first in a white trailer park on Milwaukee's South Side, then at a rooming house in the largely African-American North Side. The book takes a clear-eyed look at how mass evictions after the economic crash of 2008 were not just a consequence of poverty, but a cause. Through Desmond's raw, unadorned writing, readers are let inside these families' homes and inside their stories.

Desmond grew up in Winslow, Arizona, a town with a strong sense of community but not immune from economic hardship. According to U.S. Census data, approximately 30 percent of Winslow's 9,600 residents are living in poverty, while the median household income (in 2015 dollars) was $34,200.

The author graduated from ASU's Barrett Honors College in 2002 with two bachelor's degrees in justice studies and communication. While an undergrad, he became interested in poverty and economic injustice, volunteered at Habitat for Humanity, and wrote a thesis on homelessness.

His experiences, including as an undergraduate at ASU, set Desmond on the path toward the kind of deeply researched, sociological fieldwork that make Evicted so compelling. He poses tough questions: How would you live if more than 70 percent of your money was needed to make rent?

Three-quarters of families who qualify for housing assistance don’t receive it.EXPAND
Three-quarters of families who qualify for housing assistance don’t receive it.
Matthew Desmond

One story in his prize-winning book belongs to Arlene.

Arlene is a single mother with two sons living in a rundown apartment. When her 14-year-old throws a snowball at a passing car, the driver stops suddenly and jumps out. Before leaving, he kicks in the family's door. When the landlord finds out, Arlene and the boys are evicted. Thus begins her eviction cycle. Since landlords routinely reject applications of tenants who've been evicted previously, poor families are pushed to the very bottom of the rental marketplace in some of the worst neighborhoods. When Arlene eventually finds a new place to live, paying the rent takes 88 percent of the family's monthly income.

As Eviction points out, three-quarters of families who qualify for housing assistance don't receive it.

Desmond writes, "Evictions used to be rare."

But that's not the case anymore.

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Eviction has become commonplace in low-income communities. Now, one in four poor renting families can spend upward of 60 to 70 percent on rent and utilities. Spending so much on housing leaves families facing brutal choices. Medicine or rent? Food or rent? Heat or rent? At any time, families who fall behind can be put on the street.

Desmond shines a light on the fact that while housing and rental costs have gone up, incomes have remained static. But, what Evicted makes clear is how multidimensional the effects of eviction are. How does one calculate the cost of having to change schools? Or leave a community behind? The effects are cascading.

The families in Evicted help convey a new picture of the poor and the ongoing problem of affordable housing in our country. As Desmond writes, "without a home, everything else falls apart."

With proceeds from the book, Desmond started justshelter.org. The site lists organizations in all 50 states working to preserve affordable housing, and also collects eviction stories. In 2015, Desmond was awarded a MacArthur "Genius" grant for his work.

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