In early December, I went to see a new exhibit at the Nebraska History Museum, its displays shaped like simple frame houses with stories of despair and disparity inside.
The exhibit was inspired by Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.” It included Nebraska stories, too, and the history of eviction and displacement here.
The museum was closed when I visited, following mandated health restrictions to keep COVID-19 at bay. But I got a sneak peek, and an opportunity to write about the exhibit before people could see it in person for themselves.
I interviewed Matthew Cavanaugh, executive director of the Nebraska Housing Developers Association, a nonprofit devoted to championing affordable housing in the state and the guy who started the momentum for bringing the traveling exhibit to Lincoln.
And then I decided to wait. Why write about something people couldn’t safely experience in person?
That made sense, Cavanaugh told me. But he pointed out the irony, too.
“It’s too dangerous to visit an exhibit on evictions, but safe enough that we mandate evictions be carried out in a timely manner.”
Crazy, he said.
Crazy because week after week — after a pandemic pause early last spring — eviction hearings have continued at the Lancaster County courthouse four mornings a week, deemed essential.
“We have academic proof that eviction is actually killing people in Nebraska,” said Cavanaugh. “We thought the eviction crisis was bad and underappreciated a year ago. Now it’s undeniable.”
The museum plans to open Tuesday.
In 2019, Cavanaugh toured the Evicted exhibit at the National Housing Museum in Washington, D.C.
He’d read Desmond’s book and, later, a magazine article about the exhibit. He picked up the phone and called the museum: Could they host the exhibit in Nebraska?
“The intention is to immerse you in a context that is reminiscent of home, but also puts you in the mindset of what people face.”
A day in eviction court. A sheriff’s deputy at the door. Your belongings on the street for the neighbors to see. The despair of falling behind in rent and finding a notice on your door.
Housing struggles have a long history, he said, but using the court system to solve them is a more recent phenomenon.
“Addiction to eviction is not something that has been around forever. There used to be riots when people were evicted and crowds would show up to ogle at the oddity of it.”
You should go and see what’s become commonplace, even in the midst of a pandemic.
The houses on the second floor of the museum.
The black-and-white photographs — families dressed in winter coats, mattresses and dressers at the curb. The bold bar graphs showing 90% of landlords have legal counsel and 10% of tenants do. The sad line graphs showing the difference between income and housing costs over time. The wall of cardboard packing boxes representing each state and the thousands of evictions that happen in each of them, every year.
And the quotes from Desmond’s book, especially this one: “Home is the center of life. It’s where we go to be safe, to be ourselves.”
What happens when our home is gone?
“There are a lot of social problems that can’t be solved if you don’t have housing,” said Cavanaugh. “Once you have been evicted, there are so few options available to you.”
Cavanaugh wants to elevate the conversation about eviction. Get people to think about it as a problem that happens in Nebraska.
And to know there are solutions.
“We need to invest in affordable housing,” he said. “And increase the rights of tenants.”
The exhibit runs through Feb. 27.
The history museum on Centennial Mall is sharing stories of housing issues closer to home, too, from the centuries-long displacement of Native Americans to discriminatory redlining in Omaha and Lincoln to housing shortages in rural Nebraska stemming from the 1980s Farm Crisis.
And there are opportunities to take action, via the Speak up for Housing Rights campaign, sponsored by more than a dozen local civic, legal, educational and arts groups.
And to watch videos of success stories from places such as NeighborWorks Lincoln.
Cavanaugh hopes people will take it in — maybe read Desmond’s book.
The book is the only required text in Ryan Sullivan’s Civil Clinic course at the UNL Law College. Sullivan is a law professor and a landlord and a member of the Nebraska Housing Advocacy Collaborative.
The professor has been helping champion the exhibit and he and his senior certified law students have been at the county courthouse nearly every week since April, offering legal assistance to those facing eviction.
They call it the Tenant Assistance Project, and people are grateful.
“They usually don’t know what options are available to them under the law,” he said. “Without an attorney they don’t really have a chance.”
The project has helped hundreds of people avoid eviction.
“Negotiating a peaceful transition,” Sullivan calls it. Sometimes, that’s buying more time to find a place to land. Or negotiating good faith payments so the family can stay in the home. Or letting the judge know they are covered by the CDC moratorium on eviction. Or finding rental assistance.
“This isn’t repossession of a car or a camper,” he said. “This is their home.”
Sullivan knows that most landlords are not bad landlords and that not all tenants are perfect.
But if a homeowner is late on a mortgage payment, the bank doesn’t come the next week to take their house, he said. That process takes months and months.
For a renter, late fees can start the day after rent is due. Eviction proceedings can start after seven days.
“After a trial, people can be removed that day,” he said. “What we’re seeing in these sad cases is people have to completely start their lives over after an eviction.”
You can get a sense of that despair at the Nebraska History Museum, too. From a safe distance.
Sullivan will experience it in person this week when the court is scheduled to hear 70 eviction cases, the most he’s seen since the start of the pandemic.
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Reach the writer at 402-473-7218 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @TheRealCLK