“There are two freedoms at odds with each other: the freedom to profit from rents and the freedom to live in a safe and affordable home.”
Between 2007 and 2009, the American housing market was shaken by the subprime mortgage crisis, in which banks foreclosed on millions of homeowners who could not keep up with their rapidly inflating mortgage payments. But another group of people is deeply affected by the trauma of displacement on a more regular basis: the renting poor. Many of these families are spending between fifty and seventy percent of their monthly income on housing, and even a small crisis can easily cause them to fall behind on the rent, making them subject to eviction. Sociologist Matthew Desmond takes the reader into two of Milwaukee’s poorest neighbourhoods, one predominantly white, the other mostly black, and spends eighteen months examining what happens when landlords evict those who have fallen behind on the rent.
Desmond begins on Milwaukee’s black North side, with the properties own and managed by a black couple named Sherrena and Quentin. Sherrena’s motto was “the hood is good,” and they regularly bought and rented out marginal properties that required more work that they could honestly keep up with to really be fit for habitation. They could regularly expect to collect $20 000 in rents on the first of every month. On the South side, Desmond examines a run-down trailer park owned by a man called Tobin, who attracted press attention because the park was so dilapidated that the city considered it an “environmental biohazard.” Despite this state of affairs, Tobin earned nearly half a million dollars a year from his property. Landlords can ask tenants to move out with only twenty-eight days’ notice, but when they are behind on the rent, an eviction notice may provide only one to five days’ warning before the sheriff’s deputies and a crew of movers show up to clear the home. The contents of the home are then deposited on the curb, or taken to storage and held for payment, driving the family further into debt.
A significant factor that emerges in both of the neighbourhoods Desmond examines is the presence of children. As a single mother with two sons, Arleen struggled terribly to find a new place to rent that would accept her children. When Pam and Ned were evicted from Tobin’s trailer park, they faced an even bigger dilemma. Pam had two daughters from a previous relationship, her daughters with Ned, and another baby on the way. No landlord wanted that many children causing additional wear and tear on the property. When an eviction comes, children often lose many or most of their possessions, miss or have to change schools, and are sometimes separated from their immediate families as they are shunted off to different relatives who can provide shelter while the parents look for a new home.
Desmond draws particular attention to the plight of black women, who face a disproportionate rate of eviction. Desmond points out that “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.” The problem is compounded by the fact that with so many men in jail, the women are frequently raising children alone. Black women with children are by far the most likely to face eviction. Unable to miss work or obtain childcare, they are often unable to attend housing court to contest their eviction. An eviction record then further decreases their likelihood of being able to secure housing in the future. If they choose to miss work to attend court, they may find themselves both homeless, and out of a job.
One very interesting aspect of the book comes not in the body of the work, but in the author’s note, where Desmond describes the process of researching and writing Evicted. He not only went into these neighbourhoods to conduct interviews, but actually lived in them, renting a trailer in Tobin’s mobile home park, and later moving in with an acquaintance on Milwaukee’s black North side. Most interestingly, the landlords were fully aware of what he was working on, and it actually seems as if they trusted him more readily than many of the tenants, some of whom believed that Desmond was probably an undercover cop, or maybe working for the landlord.
Evicted is a book that is largely about documenting the problem, and putting a human face on it. However, Desmond does offer some policy suggestions at the end of the book, such as expanding the housing voucher program, and providing a right to legal representation in housing court. I was surprised by his support of housing vouchers, because earlier in the book he discussed how landlords overcharge by an average of $55 a month when they know that a tenant has a housing voucher. This means that the tenant pays up to 30% of their monthly income towards the rent, and the rest is paid for by tax dollars through the housing voucher. But Desmond does point out that this program is much more scalable than trying to build more public housing. The idea of representation in housing court made a lot of sense; Desmond describes how seventy percent of tenants do not even go to court, which means a default eviction, and ninety percent of those who do show up do not have a lawyer. This means that housing court, as it currently stands, essentially functions as an eviction assembly line. No doubt another entire book could be written about the possible policy solutions to the eviction problem.
Evicted offers a series of portraits of instability, of chronic poverty in a life with no centre or grounding. It chronicles the rise of eviction rates, and paints an empathetic portrait of the impact this constant uncertainty has on poor families. It also upends the notion that homelessness is caused solely by poverty, and examines the ways in which eviction can contribute to impoverishment. Desmond makes the case that housing is an overlooked issue in our efforts to address poverty, and asks the reader to consider what it means about our values if we refuse to confront this problem.
You might also like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.