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Rochester's poverty talk has to include evictions 

Matthew Desmond gets straight to the point in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Evicted." "We have failed to fully appreciate how deeply housing is implicated in the creation of poverty," he writes in the book's prologue. "Not everyone living in a distressed neighborhood is associated with gang members, parole officers, employers, social workers, or pastors. But nearly all of them have a landlord."

In the book, Desmond, a professor of sociology at Princeton University, profiles eight families in Milwaukee, following their struggles with finding, and keeping, housing. To do this, in 2008, he first moved into a trailer park and then into a rooming house and took a full-time job as a fieldworker. Desmond — who'll be in Rochester May 9 for a sold-out lecture hosted by PathStone — paints a deep picture of how eviction leads to poverty, and how that cycle keeps people trapped.

Last year, Desmond and a team of researchers at Princeton started The Eviction Lab, a database collecting eviction data, the first of its kind in the country. To date, 83 million records from 48 states and the District of Columbia have been added. The lab wants to make the data accessible to the public, and there are easy-to-use tools that allow you to look at local eviction rates, demographic information, and make comparisons with other municipalities.

The Eviction Lab doesn't yet have data on Rochester, but New York State reported 38,055 evictions in 2016. And according to Rochester City Court information, there were 3,510 evictions in Rochester in 2017.

In reality, the number of evictions in Rochester is probably higher, says Susan Boss, executive director of the Housing Council at PathStone, since that number reflects only evictions that went through the court process. The only legal way for a landlord to evict a tenant is through a court process, but techniques like changing the locks, removing furniture, or even just threatening court action are often used to get people to move.

The Housing Council, which runs a hotline for housing issues, received 1,167 calls in 2017 related to eviction, from tenants and landlords regarding everything from threats of eviction to what a family can do once it's been evicted.

Numerous problems lead to eviction, but most of those calls to PathStone involve non-payment of rent, Boss says. A bad storm is swirling in Rochester: 64 percent of households in the city are renters; the median monthly rent in the city is $779; but the median tenant-household income is $22,000. This is leaving a lot of people with a high rent burden — paying more than 30 percent of their income in rent — and not a lot of wiggle room.

"Typically it's a loss of income or something happened catastrophically to their budget, and they fall behind on their rent," Boss says. And eviction leaves a mark on a person's renting history, making it tougher to find adequate housing in the future.

"Eviction's fallout is severe," Desmond writes in "Evicted." "Losing a home sends families to shelters, abandoned houses, and the street. It invites depression and illness, compels families to move into degrading housing in dangerous neighborhoods, uproots communities, and harms children."

Rochester needs more truly affordable housing units, Boss says. When a person is spending less on rent each month, they're less likely to fall behind when an emergency happens. But if they do fall behind, a local organization or program's ability to intervene early, like through financial counseling, could help people get back on track.

Temporary bandages aren't the solution, Boss says; "we're looking at permanent stable housing and what that looks like."

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