Matthew Desmond at the Milwaukee trailer park where he lived while conducting fieldwork for his doctoral dissertation. (Harvard Magazine)
Occasionally, a nonfiction book comes along that more than opens your eyes to a social issue. It seeps into your pores and burrows into your consciousness. It introduces you to real people and riveting scenes you will never forget.
“Evicted,” by Matthew Desmond, is one of those books.
If you’ve read “Nickel and Dimed,” by Barbara Ehrenreich, you learned about what it’s like to try to survive on a minimum-wage job — not as a teenager taking a first job, but as a full-blown adult trying to make ends meet in a service or retail job. At the bottom of the pay scale, you’re rendered invisible and expendable, disrespected by customers and subject to the whims of your employer.
Read my 2011 blog post on “America’s working poor”
“Evicted” is similar in tone, insight and method. It too delves deep into an aspect of American poverty. But instead of income, it focuses on housing. In particular, the short-term disruption and longer-term devastation that result from losing one’s home. And by home, I mean a squalid apartment or a rundown mobile home in a trailer park.
“Evicted” is the product of years of ethnographic work by Desmond, a Harvard professor who began the project when he was a Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. From May 2008 to December 2009, Desmond lived in nearby Milwaukee as he reported first-hand on the struggles of eight families living on the edge, as well as the perspectives of two landlords whose compassion is nearly always eclipsed by their capitalist instincts.
In addition to that immersive experience, he brought a social scientist’s rigor to his project, designing surveys, gathering eviction court records, and collecting big data on housing, residential mobility and urban poverty that he could analyze.
The book was honored with the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.
One can see why.
Winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.
Desmond’s childhood home was repossessed when his parents fell behind on payments. As a graduate student, he said he wanted to understand poverty in America in a way that went beyond “structural forces” seemingly beyond a person’s control or “individual deficiencies” such as starting a family out of wedlock or low levels of education.
“I wanted to write a book about poverty that didn’t focus exclusively on poor people or poor places,” Desmond said in a postscript to the book. “Poverty was a relationship, I thought, involving poor and rich people alike. 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. Eviction was such a process.”
The result is a compelling book that takes the reader into the ghetto of Milwaukee’s north-side neighborhoods, from sweltering summers to bone-chilling winters. The eight families are bound by desperate circumstances — either unemployed, underemployed or getting by on public assistance — in a desperate scramble to keep up with the rent in a market that totally favors the landlord.
Their desperation stems from having to devote a huge portion of their monthly income to making the rent — sometimes 70 or 80 percent instead of the rule-of-thumb 30 percent. Often, these renters have to choose between keeping the lights on or paying the rent.
Some of the families are black, some white; some with children, some without. Most of the households are headed by single women. One landlord, a former schoolteacher, is black. The other, who runs one of the city’s worst trailer parks, is white.
Early in the book, one of the landlords moves to evict a single mother and her boys a few days before Christmas, saying simply, “Love don’t pay the bills.”
Aside from its proximity to UW-Madison, it’s typical of medium-sized cities in how eviction plays out, Desmond says. (With a population of about 600,000, it is the same size as Portland, Oregon.)
“In Milwaukee, city of fewer than 105,000 renter households, landlords evict roughly 16,000 adults and children each year,” he writes. “That’s sixteen families evicted through the court system daily. But there are other ways, cheaper and quicker ways, for landlords to remove a family than through court order. Some landlords pay tenants a couple hundred dollars to leave by the end of the week. Some take off the front door.”
Nearly half of these forced moves are “informal evictions.” And when you count all forms of displacement — formal and informal evictions, landlord foreclosures and building condemnations — you realize more than 1 in 8 Milwaukee renters experienced a forced move, a rate similar to numbers in Kansas City, Cleveland, Chicago and other cities, Desmond says.
It’s wrenching enough to be evicted, to have your meager possessions put out on the sidewalk or hauled off to a storage shed where you have to pay additional fees and interest to retrieve them. What’s worse is the effect on everything else — your ruined credit, your self-esteem, your kids’ education, and having to settle for increasingly less desirable places in more dangerous neighborhoods.
Add in the health and psychological issues resulting from unsafe, unsanitary conditions and unscrupulous landlords and the effects are nothing short of traumatic
Matthew Desmond’s book explores poverty and profit in a typical American city.
A book of this type can’t be written without addressing these things: race, history and solutions. Desmond touches on all three.
Race and history are intertwined. It’s no accident that the poorest people in Milwaukee are black, hemmed into the worst neighborhoods as a result of decades of discriminatory practices and laws written to favor landlords. Nor is it a surprise that those most susceptible to eviction are women.
In a typical month, Desmond reports, 3 in 4 people in Milwaukee’s eviction court were black. Of those, 3 in 4 were women. Women from black neighborhoods made up 9 percent of Milwaukee’s population but were evicted at a rate far higher than women from non-black neighborhoods. He writes:
“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.”
What to do about all this?
Desmond says the affordable-housing crisis should be at the top of America’s domestic policy agenda because it is driving poor families to financial ruin and threatening to swallow others a notch or two up the ladder. (Fat chance, given which party runs Washington.)
Establishing publicly funded legal services for poor families in housing court would be a start toward lessening homelessness and evictions and giving renters a fair shake, he says. More meaningful would be a significant expansion of our housing voucher programs so tenants could live anywhere they wanted. Universal voucher programs operate elsewhere in the developed world and are more cost-effective than new construction, Desmond says.
Whatever solution is proposed, he asserts, it must be rooted in a declaration that there is a basic right to housing in America.
“If poverty persists in America,” he concludes, “it is not for lack of resources.”
A postscript: I received this book as a birthday gift at the end of last year from my daughter Simone and daughter-in-law Kyndall, but I wasn’t able to get to it until last month. It was an absorbing read, but one that filled me with guilt. Here I was reading about the struggles of the working poor while in the comfort of our vacation home in Washington state. Obviously, I feel fortunate to have a partner in life who has teamed up with me to make that second home possible. But that doesn’t diminish the realization that I can and should do more to help those less fortunate. I feel a donation to Habitat for Humanity coming on.