Evicted, Matthew Desmond. New York: Broadway Books, 2017.
Summary: A look at the private rental market in impoverished communities and the dynamics of eviction, why it happens and the impact of evictions on the evicted and the communities in which they live.
Imagine this scenario with me. You are living below the poverty line in a city where there is a several year wait for subsidized housing. That may not even be possible because of your credit record, or because of bad decisions that resulted in convictions. So you turn to the private rental market and try to find a landlord who won’t look too hard at these things and give you a chance. Often the property is substandard and you fear to complain too much because the landlord might just kick you out if you get behind on the rent. And it is easy for that to happen when rent gets 70 to 80 percent of your income and you have to figure out how to pay all your other bills and eat on the rest. Often you struggle along for months, only to have a sudden trip to the emergency room, a car breakdown, or a death in the family destroy the fragile equilibrium of your life.
You receive notice of eviction proceedings. Or your landlord agrees to return your security deposit if you are out of your apartment by the end of the month. You don’t understand the system and their are no court appointed lawyers for evictions. The court finds in favor of your landlord, and then the dreaded knock comes. A sheriff’s deputy is at your door along with movers, who will move your belongings onto the curb, or into storage you have to pay for or lose your possessions.
You search desperately for another place to live, asking family, friends, church for help. Sometimes they do if they can, and you haven’t asked too many times. You look at 60, 70, 80 places and no one will take a chance because of your eviction. You might lose your job, if you have one, because of time away from work. You might lose benefits because of your changes of address. Your children’s education suffers. Neighborhoods suffer as well when tenants are transient, and property quality declines.
This is the story Matthew Desmond tells in Evicted, through the eyes of eight individuals or families, living on the north and south sides of Milwaukee who face evictions. He also introduces us to two landlords, Sherrena Tarver and Tobin Charney. Charney runs a fleabag trailer park that is one of the worst in Milwaukee. Tarver owns rental properties throughout the city, and while at times she tries to help tenants out and puts on a show of care, she says, “Love don’t pay the bills.” Yet both net close to half a million a year. As Tarver puts it, “the ‘hood is good.”
Probably two of the most moving are Arleen who tries to provide for her two sons on the twenty percent left after her rent, and finds herself being evicted by Shereen just before Christmas, and Scott, a former nurse with job-related injuries that left him addicted to opioids, and lost him his license. Both go through harrowing efforts to find housing when evicted, and the crushing toll of this experience on the human spirit is hard to read about. We learn that landlords often deny rentals to prospective tenants with children, who are not a protected class in the Fair Housing Act of 1988.
This is not an easy book to read. It honestly portrays both the structures that hold people in poverty and the all-too-human choices people sometimes make that exacerbate those situations. At the same time, Desmond, particularly in his epilogue, raises questions about whether affordable, sound housing is a human right. He observes that we have decided to provide universal public education, social security and Medicare, and other structures that recognize basic human necessities and asks whether housing might be one of these. Against the economic arguments of what this might cost, he asks what it is costing us when so many below the poverty line live with housing uncertainty, and the impact this is having in many of our cities.
This was not an easy book to write. Desmond, a Harvard sociologist, lived for a couple years in the neighborhoods of these eight individuals or families and won the trust of these people who let him into their lives and let him record their stories as they unfolded. He lived in Tobin Charney’s trailer park, and for a time on the north side of Milwaukee. He describes this experience as “heartbreaking” and that it “left me depressed for years.” It changed him. He writes,
“The guilt I felt during my fieldwork only intensified after I left. I felt like a phony and a traitor, ready to confess to some unnamed accusation. I couldn’t help but translate a bottle of wine placed in front of me at a university function or my monthly daycare bill into rent payments or bail money back in Milwaukee. It leaves an impression, this kind of work. Now imagine it’s your life” (p. 328).
For Desmond, it has propelled, in addition to writing this book, further research in the form of the Milwaukee Area Renters Study (MARS), the first of its kind to study tenants in poverty neighborhoods renting on the private market, and developing tools for further research of this aspect of urban sociology that has been often overlooked.
This strikes me as academic field research at its best, and there is something more in Desmond’s immersion in these communities. There is an incarnational quality to his approach to these communities–that won the trust of those he interviewed but also changed him, and perhaps through his narrative might begin to change us as well.
Matthew Desmond won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction for this work.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.