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Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

By Matthew Desmond

–Review by Paula Jones

Around 380 BC Plato wrote, “Our current state of affairs reduces to poverty men born for better things.” This short sentence summarizes Harvard Sociologist Matthew Desmond’s recently published and gut-gripping Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Using detailed research, statistical analysis, and heart-rending family narratives, he demonstrates the direct, two-way correlation between eviction and poverty, insisting that eviction is “a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.”

Why? Eviction is an enormous strike against anyone who is hunting housing. It is often the starting point of a fierce cycle of poverty that is almost impossible to break. Once evicted, the effects are enduring. It is almost impossible to secure another place to live. Homelessness is a frequent result. To put a roof over their head, desperate people (who are willing to overlook nearly anything) enter into degrading agreements with landlords for substandard housing, housing without working toilets, baths, heating, stoves, refrigerators, or locking doors. Instead, the housing comes with leaking or caving-in roofs, boarded-over windows, dangerous holes through flooring, raw sewage pools in years, and criminals as neighbors. Because those agreements have a clause that allows the landlord to present the tenant with a 30-day no cause eviction notice, so unbearable problems are seldom reported to building inspectors for fear of a second eviction.

Desmond’s poignant tome reads like a good novel. He focuses on the city of Milwaukee, where he introduces the reader to eight families living in brutal poverty––which he distinguishes from stable poverty––in either a ‘white’ trailer park or a ‘black’ ghetto. Each family deals with eviction at least once in his book. Since the families share landlords, their lives are frequently entwined.

To do his research, Desmond did not restrict himself to an ivory tower. He moved into the same ramshackle properties as those to whom he introduces us (talk about incarnational living). Living in squalor, he went without hot-water for months. Why? He believes that “Poverty was a relationship …To understand poverty I needed to understand that relationship. This sent me searching for a process that bound poor and rich people together in mutual dependence and struggle.” That relationship turned out to be the eviction process.

To explore that relationship, Desmond immersed himself in relationships with the poor. From day one he was honest with both tenants and landlords about why he was living in their world. He sat beside them in eviction courts, tried to help them rig repairs in trailers or apartments, shared meals with them, babysat their children while they hunted work, helped them move out when evicted, played cards with them, went to funerals with them, provided transportation for them, rode with eviction crews, went to landlord meetings, and on occasion slept in the dilapidated homes of his neighbors.

As he gained their trust, they were shockingly honest with him. At no point does Desmond try to hide the ugliness that runs through the lives of many of the flawed and damaged people to whom he introduces us. We meet people who have made poor life decisions. We meet drug-addicts. We also meet women who ran away from home as young teenagers because they were being sexually abused by their step-fathers (and thus never finished school), women who had fled with their children from abusive husbands, a double-amputee, a child-like woman who was no more capable of making good financial decisions than a ten-year old, a woman and her two children who were evicted on a day when temperatures in Milwaukee plunged to 40 degrees below zero, and a girl who had been in 25 foster care placements between the ages of 5 and 18, at which point she aged-out of the system with no job skills and no place to go. Desmond manages to tell sympathetic stories about druggies, prostitutes, and bag ladies. While writing about these people who have been shipwrecked by life, he never robs them of respect or dignity. He even offers a degree of grace to what can only be called some extremely greedy landlords.

As we read, we learn some disturbing facts. “Every year in this country, people are evicted from their homes not by the tens of thousands or even the hundreds of thousands, but by the millions.” Minimum wage workers spend up to 80% of their income on rent, leaving only 20% for everything else––food, phone, heat, gas, household necessities, transportation, etc. Only 1 in 4 people who qualify for rent assistance actually receive it. 83% of landlords who received nuisance visits from the police for domestic violence complaints evict either the abused person or the one who called to report them.

The two landlords Desmond gets to know are not shy about telling him they are in the business to make money. One frankly says, “There is a lot of money to be made off the poor.” And thus the main problem––poverty is big business. Not only is it cheaper to evict a tenant than to maintain a property, the properties in the worst shape yield the biggest returns on their investments. The landlords can charge excessive rent to the less fortunate because no one else will have them. When a ghetto property ‘Sherrena’ owns burns down and kills the baby of her tenant, her first question to the police was, “Do I have to return their rent?” And she didn’t return it. She evicted her.

Eviction exacts a heavy toll on families. As they walk away from their home, as dilapidated as that home may be, they carry only what can fit into two or three trash bags. Everything else is usually dumped on the street for trash collectors to pick up. They loose stability, neighbors, schools, furniture, clothing, food, toys, jobs, mementoes, self-worth, and all-too-often their physical and mental health. They can also lose their children to child welfare agencies. In addition, eviction damages entire neighborhoods by unraveling and destabilizing communities. Because relationships are short-lived in slums, tenants simply don’t invest in them. Support networks are almost non-existent.

         The extreme shortage of affordable housing is a major (if not THE major) issue facing this country right now. There is a high human cost attached in allowing the growing gap between the wealthy and the poor. It is easy to excuse our apathy by convincing ourselves that those living in abject poverty are lazy, irresponsible, or evil. In demonizing them, we think we can let ourselves off the hook. Desmond refuses to allow the reader to use such excuses, writing, “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.”

In my opinion, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City is a ‘must read.’ This powerful book should be required reading in every civics, sociology, and economics class. It should be required reading for any man or woman wanting to enter the political arena. Yes, it is unsettling, but sometimes it is important to take a hard look at America’s dark side if we ever hope to come into the light.