Evicted by Matthew Desmond
Published by Crown on March 1, 2016
my rating: ★★★★★
Goodreads avg: 4.48 (as of 2019-06-23)
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.
Y’all know that meme that’s like “Uh, hey guys? Just found out about [bad thing everyone has been aware of for quite some time]. Yikes!” Anyway, that’s how I feel about landlords after reading this book. A lot of the people in my leftist circles have been damning landlords for quite some time now and while I didn’t love the fact that they profit off of the ubiquitous need for shelter, I just didn’t quite get how they were worse than any other staple of capitalism. Now I know.
It was easy to go on about helping “the poor.” Helping a poor person with a name, a face, a history, and many needs, a person whose mistakes and lapses of judgment you have recorded — that was a more trying matter.
Evicted follows two landlords in Milwaukee — Sherrena, who owns many properties in the inner city, and Tobin, who owns a trailer park — as well as several of their tenants. It does so gracefully, interweaving life experiences with research and statistics in a way that makes sense and enhances one’s understanding of the topics at hand. Most notable is the cycle of eviction and how impossible it seems to climb out of. There are so many factors at play but Desmond is able to explain them all without losing the reader.
Part of the reason why this works is the narrative format; with concrete real-life examples it is much easier to become invested in wanting to know how the system functions. Marrying the bare facts with personal histories turns a series of numbers into an infuriating and heart-wrenching reading experience. And believe me, you will be infuriated. The entire time I was reading this book, I found myself discussing it with family and friends. Learning the details of the housing system, I was deeply disturbed. I realized more fully how privileged I’ve been to live the way I’ve lived.
When people have a place to live, they become better parents, workers, and citizens.
While it’s easy to place accountability the landlords, making six figures and taking tropical vacations while throwing tenants out onto the streets, the blame is spread more widely than that. Although don’t get me wrong, they do deserve to shoulder plenty of it. They will intentionally refuse to maintain properties of poorer residents, particularly those who owe money. If a resident who owes calls a building inspector, the landlord will often evict them for the trouble — technically illegal, but not if the landlord cites the missing rent as the reason for the eviction. They will charge tenants using housing vouchers well above market value. Technically, the tenant doesn’t pay extra out of pocket, but an estimated 588 additional families in Milwaukee could be housed using the surplus money the landlords are charging.
One particular practice I hadn’t been aware of was nuisance property ordinances, in which the police departments can penalize landlords for their tenants’ behavior — meaning that the more the police are called to a specific property, the more likely they are to fine the landlord. Of course, this practice can have dire consequences for domestic violence victims. Instead of being supported, a battered woman is evicted as a “nuisance.” This leads women to remain silent about their abuse even more often, which could in turn lead to their deaths. Additionally, nuisance property ordinances aren’t fairly enforced. In Milwaukee, citations were given to eligible properties in primarily black neighborhoods at over twice the rate they were given in primarily white neighborhoods. Through this, the police have a direct hand in forcing more black residents to be evicted than white residents.
But those solutions depend on how we answer a single question: do we believe that the right to a decent home is part of what it means to be an American?
All that barely scratches the surface of what Desmond has to share. This really is quite an engrossing read, and really educational. I’d like to put some work into researching tenancy laws and practices in my area, both to know my own rights and to lobby for necessary change. My only complaint is that Desmond doesn’t leave us much in the way of solutions, but I suppose that could fill an entire second book. He also notes that solutions will likely vary region to region and city to city, so the local context counts for a lot. Overall, I really cannot recommend this book enough. It is quite eye-opening and quite important and I’m so, so glad that I read it.