During a visit to Virginia Commonwealth University, the leading author on the country’s eviction crisis praised Richmond’s response to being one of the worst cities in the U.S. for eviction.

Matthew Desmond, a sociologist at Princeton University and the author of “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” spoke Wednesday at the Siegel Center about his book — which won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction — and the state of eviction in the country.

“The home is the center of life. It’s our refuge from work and the pressures of school,” Desmond told students, professors and community members. “Everyone needs stable housing. The right to housing in America should be essential.”

That’s not currently happening — in Milwaukee, where 16 households per day are evicted and where Desmond immersed himself for his book; in the U.S., where 2.3 million Americans lived in a home that received an eviction judgment in 2016; or in Richmond, where renters faced eviction at the second-highest rate in the country.

Desmond founded the Eviction Lab, which built the first nationwide database of evictions. His book, which was given to all first-year VCU students this year as the university’s “Common Book,” has made him one of the country’s leading experts on housing instability and poverty.

Kathryn Howell, the co-director of the RVA Eviction Lab, which operates out of VCU, said Desmond’s work “brought eviction out of the shadows.”

In “Evicted,” Desmond follows eight families in Milwaukee who are struggling with rent. Desmond lives among them and chronicles their struggle to keep a roof over their heads.

During his talk Wednesday night, which drew hundreds and nearly filled one side of the Siegel Center, Desmond focused on the story of Arleen and her two sons, Jori and Jafaris, who spent 88% of their income on rent at one house, for example.

They’re not alone. The majority of low-income renting families in the U.S. devote more than half of their income to housing, Desmond found, with 1 in 4 spending more than 70% on rent and utilities.

Like many other families, both in Milwaukee and across the country, Arleen’s family faced eviction multiple times and didn’t receive help from the government. Desmond said 3 in 4 renting families below the poverty line receive no housing assistance. Just 6% live in public housing, he said, and 12% get vouchers.

“It’s one of the most serious housing crises our country has ever seen,” Desmond said.

The numbers are especially bleak in Richmond.

The Eviction Lab, which Desmond founded to try “to take an invisible problem and put it on the map,” found that in 2016, there were 6,345 evictions in Richmond, equating to 17.34 households being evicted every day. For every 100 homes that were rented, 11.44 households were evicted.

Only North Charleston, S.C., was worse. Milwaukee was 60th in the U.S.

“Evictions are really high in Milwaukee,” Desmond said. “Richmond’s like: Hold my beer.”

Richmond, in response to Desmond’s findings being released last year, is currently piloting an eviction diversion program to try to reduce the number of evictions, giving tenants a clean slate and financial literacy education while landlords receive the rent they’re owed and avoid the expense of the eviction and finding a new tenant.

Desmond called Richmond’s response “amazing” and “beautiful.”

“You’re a model for the nation,” he said.

The program, the first of its kind in Virginia, seeks to stop eviction proceedings for approximately 500 city residents in the first year. The effort was modeled after programs in Lansing, Mich., and Durham, N.C.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, who was in attendance for Desmond’s talk, said he appreciated the recognition but vowed to continue tackling the issue.

“We know we still have a lot of work to do,” Stoney said.

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jmattingly@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6012

Twitter: @jmattingly306

Education Reporter

Justin Mattingly covers K-12 schools and higher education. A northern New York native and a Syracuse University alumnus, he's worked at the RTD since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter at @jmattingly306.

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