In ‘Evicted,’ Author Matthew Desmond Makes The Case That Forced Move-Outs Are A Cause of Poverty, Not A Symptom

Leah Binkovitz | @leahbink | April 27, 2017

Photo by Matthew Desmond.

The Kinder Institute will host Matthew Desmond, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the bestseller “Evicted,” at a free lecture May 9. Click here for event registration.

Once a rarity, evictions are an increasingly common part of the country’s housing landscape. In most places, there’s little protection for people who can’t make rent. But the math isn’t as simple as rising rents and growing affordability gaps prompting evictions.

Missing from that formula is the profit that eviction can deliver to some. That’s the argument behind Matthew Desmond’s critically-acclaimed Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. The bestselling book is the culmination of eight years of quantitative and qualitative research in Milwaukee that provides an immersive look at the exploitative logic of eviction.

Following the lives of several individuals caught in the cycle of eviction, Desmond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tome intersperses their narratives — the apartment searches, appearances in court, church visits — with passages that pull back the curtain of these individual traumas to reveal the system of levers and pulleys that ensure these residents will likely never know a day without some struggle.

Though the narrative plays out in Milwaukee, the lessons could apply to any other city in America.

Desmond, a Harvard University professor, chronicles the lives of single mother Vanetta who is searching for housing with another woman, Crystal, a teenager on her own after bouncing through dozens of foster homes. They search for housing together, encountering multiple forms of discrimination. Desmond writes:

Most Milwaukeeans believed their city was racially segregated because people preferred it that way. But the ghetto had always been more a product of social design than desire. It was never a by-product of the modern city, a sad accident or industrialization and urbanization, something no one benefited from nor intended. The ghetto had always been a main feature of landed capital, a prime moneymaker for those who saw ripe opportunity in land scarcity, housing dilapidation and racial segregation.

He explains how low-income residents are often forced to reside in housing complexes were danger abounds:

Screening practices that banned criminality and poverty in the same stroke drew poor families shoulder to shoulder with drug dealers, sex offenders, and other lawbreakers in places with lenient requirements … This also meant that violence, drug activity, deep poverty, and other social problems coalesced at a much smaller, more acute level than the neighborhood. They gathered at the same address.

Though research and policy around affordable housing often deal with subsidized programs like low-income housing tax credits or vouchers, most poor people, Desmond points out, don’t receive any kind of housing subsidy. Instead, they try their luck in a private market that profits off their misfortune.

In a scene early in the book, one of the landlords Desmond follows, Sherrena, attends a Milwaukee Real Estate Investors Networking Group meeting in an airport hotel.

A gathering like this, filled with landlords and property managers, would have been unimaginable a couple generations ago, Desmond notes, before the career became a full-time gig. When the evening’s speaker makes a comment about his lucrative time renting boarding houses to poor, single men, saying he’d be “just as happy not running around and dealing with some of these dregs of society,” Sherrena laughs along with the crowd.

Instead, the speaker tries to sell them on the self-storage business, which many evicted families fall prey to, storing their belongings in a rush and hoping they will have enough money to keep up on payments one day get them back. But others in the room have different ideas about how to make money. And Sherrena — who is black — made a show of demonstrating how committed she was to getting paid for any landlords who might be interested in a property manager.

“Many white landlords knew money could be made in the inner city, where property was cheap, but the thought of collecting payments on the North Side, let alone passing out eviction notices, made them nervous,” writes Desmond.

After the meeting, Sherrena dishes to her friend that she has “drama,” about a disabled war veteran, Lamar, who “shorted” her $30 on rent.

“It’s the principle,” Sherrena tells her friend, adding that he still owed her for a paint job on the property that she refused to pay him for because it hadn’t met her standards. In response, her tenant had found an old box of tiles from a neighboring property and retiled his bathroom floor, deducting $30 from his rent for the job, a badly needed improvement to the property.

“They just try to take, take, take, take, take,” her friend responds after hearing the story.

In that exchange, Desmond captures the many levels of exploitation at work in the low-income housing market. When Lamar rented the apartment from Sherrena it was not what most would consider habitable. At the time he moved into the apartment, Desmond writes, maggots were already sprouting “from unwashed dishes in the sink.” But Lamar cleaned the place up and started doing handyman work around the property to make up for his chronic shortage of funds. His rent — $550 — leaves him with a little more than two dollars a day to support himself and his boys.

It’s a world where landlords often punish tenants who call building inspectors to report unsafe conditions or police to report domestic violence, Desmond argues. If residents do work on the property to pay off the rent, it’s only worth as much as their landlord says it is.

And once evicted, Desmond writes, people are not simply dropped “into a dark valley” to face a “trying yet relatively brief detour on life’s journey.” Instead, he argues, eviction “fundamentally redirects their way, casting them onto a different, and much more difficult, path.”

Kids are pulled in and out schools, families are forced into low-quality housing in high-crime areas and many people lose their possessions in the process. The material hardship is matched by emotional and physical suffering.

Where Desmond excels is in connecting dramas that play out at the individual level to larger structures, noting, for example, that “lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have restricted housing aid to the poor but expanded it to the affluent in the form of tax benefits to homeowners … Most federal housing subsidies benefit families with six-figure incomes.”

The committee that awarded Desmond the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction described the work as “a deeply researched exposé that showed how mass evictions after the 2008 economic crash were less a consequence than a cause of poverty.”

But it’s also a call to action.

“If poverty persists in America, it is not for lack of resources,” Desmond writes in the book’s epilogue.

The work continues on his website, Just Shelter, where a team is gathering stories from across the country and creating a directory of housing resources.

To RSVP for Desmond’s May 9 lecture in Houston, click here.

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Leah Binkovitz

Leah Binkovitz is Senior Editor with the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

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