Evicted America

Evicted America 


May 2017

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
By Matthew Desmond
B/D/W/Y, Broadway Books, 2016, $17.00 paper


Evicted is a brilliant book that reads almost like a work of fiction, but is all too factual. Matthew Desmond has combined rigorous ethnographic fieldwork and statistical studies carried out in Milwaukee with dazzling scholarship (the footnotes go far beyond simply buttressing the text, and are a must-read in themselves) to reveal the crushing impact of the runaway exploitation of the poor in the private housing market in 21st-century America.

There was a time when evictions were neither common nor acceptable. Many of us are familiar with the stories of crowds putting furniture and families back into the apartments from which they had been removed during the Great Depression. But as rents throughout the country have risen much more rapidly than incomes, the business of evicting people from their homes has become a thriving industry that benefits a few as it squeezes poor people ever more tightly. According to Desmond, there are now more than a million evictions per year nationwide.

The nationwide backdrop is a country in which, in 2012, about 35 percent of U.S. households were renting. More than half were rent-burdened, paying more than 30 percent of their income in rent. Among low-income renters, the majority were spending more than half of their income on housing, and one in four paid over 70 percent of their income for it. Besides making renters vulnerable to eviction, rent burdens of this magnitude stunt their lives, especially if they are children; as Desmond notes, for many poor people, “the rent eats first.”

Milwaukee is a sharply segregated city, and Evicted focuses on two separate (and still unequal) groups of people who have in common prosperous landlords and their own poverty: white people living in a rundown trailer park on the South Side of the city, and black people living on the North Side. Starting in 2008, Desmond followed families and individuals through multiple evictions and threats of eviction, while he also designed a survey of tenants in the private rental sector in Milwaukee, which was carried out from 2009 through 2011.

The specific, highly personal narratives garnered in Desmond’s fieldwork are heartrending. They vividly illustrate the flukes and tragedies that lead up to a forced move, as well as the train wreck of consequences following one: not only the loss of a home (often after having paid as much as could be scraped together in a vain attempt to change a landlord’s mind), but also of possessions (after not being able to make the additional rent for storage), jobs, and access to government help. There are other costs that can be counted in broken dreams, truncated educations, and traumatized children—the loss of potential contributions to society by those too ground down to take even a first step out of poverty. Desmond describes one woman being evicted in a foreclosure case as having “the face of a mother who climbs out of the cellar to find the tornado has leveled the house.” Eviction can even be fatal: It has been identified as a “significant precursor of suicide.”

Finding a new home is complicated by any number of factors, starting with a record of having been evicted, if the forced move went through the court system. Even the threat of being blacklisted can keep a renter from trying to argue his or her case in court. Federal law prohibits discriminating against families with children, but it still happens. And most of the poor in Milwaukee do not even dream of looking for housing in neighborhoods where the other people don’t look like them.

Evicted is also rich in historical context, and reminds us that particularly for black Americans confined to all-black neighborhoods, costs are not lower for substandard housing and food: Sometimes they are higher, as people confined to an area provide a captive population for exploitation. In Milwaukee, the gap in rent between higher-end properties and poorly maintained, even unlivable ones is only a couple of hundred dollars.

Among the remedies Desmond proposes are legal representation in civil court—indeed, his work is credited with significantly helping the struggle to gain the right to counsel for tenants in New York City—and a universal mandated housing-voucher program coupled with rent regulation. As he points out, the annual amount wealthier Americans receive in homeowner benefits is three times what a universal voucher program is estimated to cost, and therefore, we should drop the pretense that we can’t afford to help those who really need help. “If poverty persists in America, it is not for lack of resources,” he writes.

We can also read Evicted as a cautionary tale, for any who doubt the efficacy of rent regulation and tenant organizing. Private non-regulated housing constitutes about 40 percent of the 2.1 million units of rental housing in New York City, according to a report by the New York City Rent Guidelines Board for the year 2016. Milwaukee has no rent-regulated private housing. There was no tenants’ union there at the time Evicted was written, and none can be found online now. The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection has issued a four-page document titled “Tenants Rights’ and Responsibilities” that is not exactly long on rights; by contrast, the “Tenants’ Rights Guide” from the office of New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is 36 pages long and covers rights exclusively. 

For Milwaukee tenants, asserting their few rights often leads either nowhere, if a tenant has their rent paid up, or to eviction, if the tenant is in arrears. A landlord can always rent a unit unfit for human habitation to another desperate human being. We do well to remember that rent stabilization is about more than preventing rent-gouging in a tight or overheated market. It is about stabilizing both renters’ lives and neighborhoods: Neighborhoods with high rates of turnover are much less safe both structurally and socially than stable ones.

In the end, Evicted comes to the same conclusion that has driven Met Council since its inception more than 50 years ago: “Decent, affordable housing should be a basic right for everyone in this country.”