To gather material for “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” Matthew Desmond lived for18 months in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, first in a trailer park that was home to poor whites and then in an inner city apartment in a very low-income African American neighborhood.
Desmond’s compelling and highly readable report of what he saw and heard is filled with dialogue and sharp observation. For example, a trailer park resident who has fathered children with multiple women is described as “the kind of man who took satisfaction in leaving the bathroom door open and scratching in public.”
The book is one tale after another that, taken together, tell the stories of a handful of people living in extremely difficult circumstances. There’s Lamar, a single dad and Vietnam vet who claims to have enjoyed the war. Lamar lost his legs after he smoked crack, passed out in an upstairs room of an abandoned house, and woke up alone the next day, unable to walk because his legs were frozen. No one heard his shouts for help, so he stayed there for a few more days, finally getting the attention of others after dragging himself to a window and hurling himself to the sidewalk.
Someone called an ambulance and when Lamar woke in the hospital he was a double amputee.
As sad as Lamar’s story is, the most tragic and sympathetic person depicted in the book is Arleen, a woman so poor that rent on her roach-infested apartment uses more than 80 percent of the monthly check she depends on to support herself and two of her young sons. Arleen is constantly anxious that she will lose her home and the two children that live with her. (She has already lost others to foster care.) Because a letter from the welfare agency was sent to an old address, she is unaware that her check is going to be reduced and she gives away the little money she has to help pay for the funeral of a woman she considers her sister. Giving up this money gets her behind on her rent, and she never catches up.
You might say Lamar, Arleen and others described in the book bring problems down on themselves by making terrible decisions. But as the tales unfold, we see that the deck is stacked against them. In a poor neighborhood, you are likely to be evicted if you report a building code violation. The landlord is contacted when there is a complaint about poor conditions, and if the tenant is already behind on the rent, the landlord can resolve the complaint by evicting the complaining tenant. So it is unwise to complain. You can be evicted for making a 911 call. During the period described in the book, the Milwaukee police kept track of emergency calls that were made from a location, and if they decided too many emergency calls had come from a particular apartment building, the site was labeled a nuisance and the landlord was called to account. That meant that when a woman named Crystal made the mistake of calling 911 to report domestic violence in the apartment upstairs, she was evicted, along with the woman upstairs who was being attacked. When Arleen’s 14-year old child could not breathe due to severe asthma, she called for an ambulance and she, too, was labeled a nuisance and evicted. Once an eviction is on a person’s record, public assistance may be terminated and a landlord won’t rent to them without concessions, such as higher rent.
Arleen, Lamar and many of the others included in Matthew Desmond’s book seem to be caught in complex self-perpetuating cycles with no good choices and terrible consequences, as if they are running on a treadmill that will not stop until they drop from exhaustion. But some do find a way out. Scott, originally from a farm in Iowa, was a nurse in Milwaukee who became addicted to opiates prescribed for the back pain he developed taking care of nursing home residents. Eventually, Scott began pilfering his patients’ fentanyl (the synthetic opiate that killed Prince). After his crime was discovered and he lost his nursing license, he dedicated himself to finding drugs and using them. His life in the trailer park and his descent after being evicted from his trailer are presented by Desmond with graphic description. When, finally, Desmond describes Scott breaking free from his addiction and taking the first step in the 5-year process of regaining a nursing license, it’s a relief to the reader.
Desmond went as deep with the landlords as with the tenants. Sherrena is a former teacher who entered the real estate market and realized there was gold in slum housing.
She sometimes seems to care about her tenants, but when she decides it’s time to deliver an eviction notice she gets it done and is annoyed at the recipient for putting her in that position. Tobin, the owner of the trailer park, lets about a third of his tenants slide on the rent each month, but then he turns around and hires a management company that will likely collect what is owed in an orderly manner.
The book reveals some of the obstacles faced by the poorest of the poor when they seek housing. We see them carrying belongings in plastic trash bags into substandard housing; coping with unsanitary and dangerous conditions; watching as marshals and movers reclaim the apartment; and being forced outside again, in search of housing that is probably worse than what they previously had.
Based on his research and his visits to the Milwaukee courthouse where eviction cases are decided, Desmond came to an undeniable conclusion: in the United States, poor people of all races must deal with eviction, but the face of eviction is a black female with children.
He proposes establishing publicly funded legal services for tenants facing eviction, pointing out that in housing court, 90 percent of landlords but only 10% of tenants have legal counsel. The result is that tenants do not mount a good defense, either because they don’t understand their rights or because they’re too intimidated or pessimistic about the process to participate effectively.
He says we must eliminate the conditions and legal loopholes that allow landlords and others to make excessive profit from supplying essential goods and services to the poor. It is “fundamentally unfair” that the poor often pay more than the middle class for housing, food, durable goods and credit. Prices are high in poor neighborhoods.
And finally, Desmond proposes that a universal housing voucher be provided to all low-income families, so that the trauma of being put out on the street is no longer a fact of everyday life. Desmond writes, “Eviction does not simply drop poor families into a dark valley, a trying yet relatively brief detour on life’s journey. It fundamentally redirects their way, casting them on a different, and much more difficult, path. Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty . Decent, affordable housing should be a basic right for everybody in this country. The reason is simple: without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.”