NILES, Ohio (WKBN) — When author Matthew Desmond began research for what would later become his bestselling, Pulitzer-prize-winning book, he was surprised by just how common evictions really were.
“No one really had an estimate about how big the problem was,” he said.
Desmond was in Niles on Thursday for an Eviction Prevention Summit, hosted by Community Legal Aid and Youngstown Municipal Court. He was the keynote speaker for the event at the Eastwood Mall Event Center, moderated by Tribune Chronicle editor Andy Gray.
The event was designed to bring local leaders together, as well as tenants and landlords, to take a look at the housing issues in the area.
According to Community Legal Aid, Ohio ranks ninth in the country in evictions, and Youngstown and Warren are in the top 100 midsize cities with high eviction rates.
Desmond published his book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” in 2016 to much critical acclaim. He also founded the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, the first national dataset on evictions in America with data going back to 2000. According to EvictionLab.org, in a typical year, landlords file 3.6 million eviction cases.
Desmond said in order to fix these issues, there are a few things that can be done. He said community leaders can take a look at who is doing all of the evictions in the area. Is it one company? Leaders could sit down with that company or take some sort of action to address these evictions.
“If there can be policies that target exceptionally high-evicting property owners, I think that can make a big difference,” he said.
Some state laws make it easier for landlords to evict tenants. Policies like eviction diversion programs could lead to a settlement of these issues before the case reaches court. Desmond cited the city of Philadelphia for its eviction diversion program, which he said has been successful in resolving most cases before they go to court.
Desmond said investments in the right to legal counsel for tenants or renter’s insurance could also help.
“I do think, a lot of times, evictions aren’t in the landlords’ best self-interest,” he said.
Another issue, Desmond said, is that those in poorer neighborhoods are often exploited into paying more for housing. They’re spending at least half of their income on housing, simply because they don’t have a lot of other options.
Desmond said the data shows that landlords in low-income areas aren’t charging that much less for housing. One reason is that landlords may be increasing prices to “socialize the risk” of tenants falling behind on their payments, he said. But, he said, the data shows that they actually have higher profit margins. He said poor renting families often have no other choice, however.
“When folks have no choice, they’re exploitable,” he said.
Thursday’s event also brought together city leaders and those in the housing market for a series of panel presentations and community round tables discussing different topics, including the intersection of health, education and housing. The hope is that they spark discussions that lead to meaningful changes, event organizers said.
“When you drive through some of our neighborhoods now, lots of vacant lots and then lots of homes that are in really terrible state of disrepair,” said Community Legal Aid Executive Director Steven McGarrity.
McGarrity said this has been a problem since the 1970s when the Valley lost its steel mills. He also said the pandemic increased local eviction numbers. He mentioned over 3,000 evictions are filed every year in the Valley.
Warren Mayor Doug Franklin, who served on a panel during the community roundtable discussions, said he felt it was important to share his community’s experiences, as well as hear from others and experts in the field.
“We’re working on the issue of affordable, safe housing every single day through our Community Development Department and our relationship with HUD from the federal government, but seminars and events like this help us to refine some of our strategies and policies,” he said. “So this just only adds a layer of different approaches that we could implement in our communities.”