Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American Cityby Published 01 Mar 2016
|Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.pdf|
New York Times Bestseller
From Harvard sociologist and MacArthur "Genius" Matthew Desmond, a landmark work of scholarship and reportage that will forever change the way we look at poverty in America
In this brilliant, heartbreaking book, Matthew Desmond takes us into the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee to tell the story of eight families on the edge. Arleen is a single mother trying to raise her two sons on the $20 a month she has left after paying for their rundown apartment. Scott is a gentle nurse consumed by a heroin addiction. Lamar, a man with no legs and a neighborhood full of boys to look after, tries to work his way out of debt. Vanetta participates in a botched stickup after her hours are cut. All are spending almost everything they have on rent, and all have fallen behind.
The fates of these families are in the hands of two landlords: Sherrena Tarver, a former schoolteacher turned inner-city entrepreneur, and Tobin Charney, who runs one of the worst trailer parks in Milwaukee. They loathe some of their tenants and are fond of others, but as Sherrena puts it, “Love don’t pay the bills.” She moves to evict Arleen and her boys a few days before Christmas.
Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare. But today, most poor renting families are spending more than half of their income on housing, and eviction has become ordinary, especially for single mothers. In vivid, intimate prose, Desmond provides a ground-level view of one of the most urgent issues facing America today. As we see families forced into shelters, squalid apartments, or more dangerous neighborhoods, we bear witness to the human cost of America’s vast inequality—and to people’s determination and intelligence in the face of hardship.
Based on years of embedded fieldwork and painstakingly gathered data, this masterful book transforms our understanding of extreme poverty and economic exploitation while providing fresh ideas for solving a devastating, uniquely American problem. Its unforgettable scenes of hope and loss remind us of the centrality of home, without which nothing else is possible.
From the Hardcover edition.
"Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City" Reviews
This book describes the misery of living at the ragged edge of homelessness. The first 80 percent of the book follows in detail the experiences of eight low-income families (including both black and white) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The final part of the book is a long Epilogue that provides a concluding summary and a description of how the author collected his information and data by living among the subjects he writes about.
The reading experience of exposure to the stories in this book is disturbing. It includes incident after incident where people are facing miserable dilemmas in their efforts to find housing. It was a relief to reach the Epilogue at the end where I knew there weren't going to be additional hard luck stories to read.
Evictions are a growing problem that is creeping up the economic ladder. The 2008 housing crash and subsequent foreclosures turned millions of former homeowners into renters, which kept rents rising even as incomes fell. [spoilers removed]
The number of low income housing units has not increased to match this demand. Consequently, the only market force preventing rental rates from rising even higher is the ability of renters to pay. The competition for rental space has forced a growing number of low-income households to pay crushing shares of their income for shelter. [spoilers removed]
Another fact brought out by this book is that eviction isn't just another hardship, but rather a forced entry onto a much harder path with harsh consequences—"a cause, not just a condition, of poverty." In other words, once a renter has an eviction on their records, many landlords will be reluctant to rent to them. Even the government low income rental program—which has long waiting lists—consider past evictions to be a negative mark on their record.
Another sad fact is that the frequency of evictions falls disproportionately on poor women. They are more likely to have dependent children under their care which can lead to problems leading to eviction. Also, police calls due to physical abuse inflicted by boyfriends leads to some evictions because police calls are considered to be a undesirable nuisance.
In Milwaukee's poorest black neighborhoods, eviction had become commonplace—especially for women. In those neighborhoods, 1 female renter in 17 was evicted through the court system each year, which was twice as often as men from those neighborhoods and nine times as often as women from the city's poorest white areas. Women from black neighborhoods made up 9 percent of Milwaukee's population and 30 percent of its evicted tenants.Among the individuals interviewed extensively by the author was an entrepreneurial African American woman who is the owner of numerous rental units and is one of the landlords issuing eviction orders. By including the story of a landlord in the book the author has included the other side of the story. Landlords need to maximize the amount of income from their rental units in order pay their bank loans. But one of the points of the book is that there is plenty of money to be made in renting to impoverished tenants. Maintenance and upkeep doesn't cost much because poor people can't complain for fear of eviction.
If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out. [underline emphasis is mine]
Tenants who fell behind either had to accept unpleasant, degrading, and sometimes dangerous housing conditions or be evicted.Evictions have negative consequences for whole neighborhoods, including those remaining who have not been evicted. Evictions destabilize neighborhoods. The more people come and go, the less chance there is for cohesion and neighborhoods become less safe. The effects are enduring, as measured by incidents like hunger or lost utilities.
The year after eviction, families experience 20 percent higher levels of material hardships than similar families who were not evicted.The availability of affordable rental units has not kept pace with the rise in demand. In 1970, the US had nearly a million more affordable units than poor households, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Two decades later, the situation had reversed—there were five million more poor households than affordable units.
In the Epilogue the author makes the case for a universal voucher program. Such a voucher program would need to include some sort of rental rate controls, otherwise increased availability of money would simply increase rental rates. But rental rates would need to be sufficient to make construction of affordable units financially viable. The author believes a comprehensive universal voucher program would change the face of poverty in this country.
Evictions would plummet and become rare occurrences. Homelessness would almost disappear. Families would immediately feel the income gains and be able to buy enough food, invest in themselves and their children through schooling or job training, and start modest savings.Regarding the present situation in the United States, the author has the following comment:
No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching, can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become.
I recalled that last year that author Roxane Gay was asked what was "the last book that made you furious?" She said: "'Evicted,' by Matthew Desmond. My God, what that book lays bare about American poverty. It is devastating and infuriating and a necessary read." So true. (I continue to think this book says oodles more than Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis about poverty, class, and the American Dream.)
I try to remember to sing this last stanza of Pretty Boy Floyd, the song by Woody Guthrie, the week we work on poverty in Introductory Sociology:
Yes, as through this world I've wandered
I've seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.
And as through your life you travel,
Yes, as through your life you roam,
You won't never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home.
Often this shocks students to consider the inhumane way we regularly treat each other, and that the "it's just business" attitude can drive many families into homelessness and shelter living. The lyrics focus us on the nature of criminality, and whether acts are ethical even if legal, etc..
The best type of qualitative, sociological analysis, Desmond tugs at our heartstrings until we ache with relentless story after story of people who are evicted from their homes. Having a secure place to live provides us with human dignity, and most developed countries guarantee a place to stay by virtue of the fact of being a member of that society. Not so in the wealthiest country in the world. In the US, we can still remember Ronald Reagan with his arm around a homeless man, agreeing with him that most people who are homeless choose to be so. We tend to blame people for their own circumstances quite resolutely.
The cover is this book is powerful enough. Indeed, I had it several days before realizing the picture was one of a wall of vacated home, showing the lighter places once pictures were taken off their hooks. I had a number of students star at the book cover as it was here on my desk for quite a while, and they often asked about the picture, also slow to recognize it. Our hesitancy to come to recognize and come to grips with the pain of a family, often, losing a home speaks volumes in itself. Desmond brings us into the lives of many in Milwaukee during the time directly after the '08 crash and in the midst of the major home foreclosure crisis, and while he garners some sympathy for landlords, who reasonable only want to get paid for rent, what is clear is that no one can live a productive much less meaningful life while worrying how to provide shelter for yourself and your family.
I was reminded of Michael Moore's lament that increasingly the working class became "the Man", the landlord, as Rustbelt workers with good-paying jobs through the 70s rented out basement apartments and invested in rental real estate. Moore claimed this further separated the psychological perspectives as well as the actual living circumstances of the working poor (renters) from the lower middle class (increasingly landlords themselves.)
Please let me end with Hana's great review of Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street's Great Foreclosure Fraud that you can find here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show.... it is horrifying to learn that Trump has just appointed Mnuchin for Treasury Secretary, who personally benefited from the corruption of the foreclosure crisis in California. In the US, we must be vigilant with ongoing "crony capitalism" that continues to gather the wealth of the 99%. More and more I'm reminded of that old saying by Mellon the capitalist that it's during economic downturns when money flows back to its' rightful owners.
A high 4 stars.
Much has been written about Evicted. There’s not much I can add other than to say everyone should read this book. And not just for the stories of the people the author follows, but for everything at the end about the importance of having an affordable home and the author’s experience of doing the research for the book. It’s a heartbreaking and important book. It brings to life what it means for families and individuals to live in precarious housing situations. He humanize his subjects without romanticizing them.
The audio works well, although it took me a while to keep everyone he refers to straight.
Thanks to all my GR friends who posted enthusiastic reviews.
This book won a number of awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, for uncovering a housing problem in America that appears to disproportionately affect low-income renters and keep them in a cycle of perpetual uncertainty: eviction. A beautifully written and involving set of individual family case studies, this sociological work casts light on a problem that has developed over time and has not been well understood to date.
Desmond is able to involve his readers in the lives of the people he describes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin because he includes many details of their circumstances which we may recognize. The decision-making and determination of these folks to get out of the cycle of eviction they face is not flawed. They work with imperfect tools and face a constantly renewing mountain to climb starting from a new lower low with each instance of rent non-payment and subsequent eviction.
Addiction doesn’t appear to be the most common cause of eviction, at least among the people whose stories Desmond shares with us, though it does figure in the lives of many families he describes. Lending money to addicts is a constant drain on everyone’s scarce resources. Neither does wild over-spending appear to be a common cause of poverty. Desmond will argue that wild overspending on inappropriate items is a result of poverty, not a cause.
Hard as it is for us to admit, exploitation by landlords appears to contribute hugely to reasons low-income tenants cannot be free from the cycle of eviction. The slumlords to whom Desmond introduces us extract outsized profits from very low-end housing without necessary inputs like plumbing, painting, repairs. This leads to families not valuing their abode, children being placed in unsafe conditions, and adds to the burdens of rent-payers.
Recognizing that renting out housing at the low end of the market is not a charity, we must still condemn excessive profit at the client’s expense. What are excessive profits? If these notions are not universally recognized, they need to be challenged in court. Desmond points out that most tenants facing eviction do not show up in court to challenge charges against them or to raise property maintenance issues. These huge, messy problems involve individuals with extenuating circumstances. Sometimes the problems appear circular, and insoluble.
Desmond will argue that housing should be considered a basic human right, like clean drinking water, protection for elders, and universal education. Desmond’s proposal may cause catalepsy among libertarians. Conservatives for small government might agree, however, that we don’t want to live in a country where people are living and/or dying on the streets, unable to free themselves from a cycle of dependence. I think we all can agree with that. The question remains: what is the best way to evict people from poverty?
Desmond suggests a universal voucher for all low-income families in his epilogue, but I won’t repeat his argument here. You need all the pieces to make sense of what he is proposing. It helps to see the scope of the problem by reading the book—no hardship because it is so well written—but you can also just go to the Epilogue. I do want to point to a couple of interesting observations he makes earlier regarding fixes made so far to address poverty and homelessness but which developed unexpected consequences.
People using vouchers are allowed to use those vouchers in any community in states that accept vouchers, which means low-income renters could try to escape the inner city which can be dangerous and unkempt. However, prospective tenants often encounter a reluctance on the part of landlords to rent to families with children, pets, or smoking habits. Renters themselves don’t like the greater adherence to immutable rules that are common in more upscale locations, and the lack of leniency in the case of under-payments.
Currently landlords in low-income housing areas do not want to accept housing vouchers and rent assistance in most of their properties because “they didn’t want to deal with the program's picky inspectors.” There are legal limits to the degradation on a property which accepts government-issued vouchers. This is true everywhere, but those on housing assistance get checked on. This “government interference” some conservatives (and slumlords) decry. So much for the market policing itself.
The option of “working off the rent” is only taken advantage of by male tenants, Desmond found. This option should have appeared more possible for women as well, it seems, but it parallels the phenomenon of exchanging sex for rent which appears to be an exclusively a female option. Desmond did not encounter this among his interviewees.
Among interviewees who were evicted, few felt pity for others in similar circumstances: they often felt “it was their own fault” for unsound choices they’d made and were disinclined to help. This included Christians and church-going neighbors, though examples of times they’d helped in the past were evident. Evicted tenants were reluctant to ask family, or were refused if asked.
This is one problem among many in this country. The world is changing utterly, and fast. We need to fundamentally rethink how we want business and government to run going forward. Looking back nostalgically is the wrong solution, I am convinced.
Perhaps something like an offer for free college but also a requirement for national service could be brainstormed. If we sent youth out to be witnesses in these problem areas, have them suggest & develop solutions, and follow through, e.g., gaining new skills building better housing, repairing old housing stock, using their legal skills attending law court for strapped tenants, I think both sides might get something from the experience. Sociologists, finance, nursing, social welfare, law, teachers...everybody has something to offer those without resources.
One of the most heartbreaking results of this cycle of evictions is its effect on the children. Trying to round up the children for schooling each day when they have been displaced so many times--we know how difficult that would be. Some of the children are watching a parent hauled off for doing something illegal under pressure to round up enough cash to keep themselves housed. Violence explodes suddenly and cannot be controlled. The children need more attention, and protection.
The problems that befall individuals and families are inconceivable to those among us without similar constraints. Religious groups could ramp up their services and showcase their empathy and yet not feel as though they were laboring alone in the wilderness. We can see how that has impacted their outreach in the past.
Does it make any difference if low-income people live among wealthier neighbors? I believe it could allow them to see how others live, what other choices and opportunities are out there, and allow them to get help from neighbors in the normal way we all do. Dilution of the problem—is it coercive if we eliminate “low-income” housing altogether? Anyway, just thinking…
The brutal truth of poverty in America is far more devastating than any fiction ever could be. In evicted, Matthew Desmond brings rigorous sociological research and ethnography to Milwaukee's inner city. This book is painful and necessary and eye opening. I am ashamed of how little I knew about poverty and eviction. This book is fucking depressing and hopeless and excellent. We have got to do better. Also the segregation! And racist ass Ned who made his biracial stepdaughters say "white power" while their mom hoped it wouldn't scar them. What???