Review: Evicted


EvictedMatthew 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.

Review: Banker to the Poor

Banker to the Poor

Banker to the Poor, Muhammad Yunus. New York: Public Affairs, 2003.

Summary: Yunus’ personal account of developing micro-lending and the Grameen Bank to help lift the rural poor out of poverty by providing the small loans they needed to develop their own small businesses.

How often does it happen that a person has an epiphany, a revelatory moment that changes their lives? For Muhammad Yunus, brought up in a merchant family, and as a Fulbright scholar representing the “best and brightest” of a Bengali elite that would achieve independence in Bangladesh, the future looked promising. Returning to Chittagong, he became chair of the university’s economics department. Then came studies of the really poor in Jobra, a village near the university, and the day that he realized that 42 stool makers lacked the resources they needed to buy raw materials, tallied up the need and discovered that all they lacked was $27, which he promptly lent them himself.

At the time, banks would not give loans in such small amounts, and moneylenders charged usuri0us rates that only drove them deeper into debt. And so Yunus conceived the idea of micro-lending. In this book, we follow the narrative of the development of the Grameen (“rural”) Bank from the initial pilot project to expansion to neighboring villages and the eventual chartering of the bank. He recounts the development of its innovative lending practices (for example, no collateral, no lengthy applications, weekly payments on loans) and the conviction that the poor had the initiative and character to both develop businesses and pay back loans (typically Grameen-style banks had repayment rates between 98 and 100 percent). He describes the organization of borrowers into groups of five who all must pass a test before receiving their loans, who hold each other accountable for loan repayment without being liable for non-payments, and the setting aside of additional funds in a group loan fund, against emergencies. These groups actually acquire an ownership stake in the bank. Underlying all this is a basic trust in the borrowers, along with good structures that help with financial development.

Along the way, Yunus describes the cultural and business challenges that had to be overcome. What is striking is the gentle persistence of Yunus and an ability both to respect and creatively engage existing institutions and cultures, whether it is working out a charter for his bank, or dealing with male objections to women borrowing. One is also taken with his vision for the poorest of the poor, who he believes simply need the resources to help themselves. It is obvious that he infuses that vision in his staff, who often pass up better jobs because of the social mission of Grameen.

The latter part of the book describes the extension of Grameen Bank ideas to other nations, including the poorest of the poor in the United States. It is humorous to see how hosts in this country would bring to Yunus small business people who needed loans, when Yunus wanted to meet with the poorest of the poor, those who didn’t have businesses, but simply an idea of what they could do to support themselves if they had the money to get started.

The book concludes with Yunus’ account of the development of various Grameen enterprises (including village phones, telecommunications, textiles and fisheries), the roll-out of Grameen II, further developing Grameen’s principles, and a final chapter on his passionate endorsement of the Millenium Development Goals to eradicate poverty, particularly among the bottom twenty percent of the world’s poor.

While Yunus talks about setbacks and challenges, most of these have to do with, or are attributed to external factors. It seems we hear almost exclusively of success stories and not much of failures or organizational mistakes. The book makes a strong case for the promise of micro-lending, but doesn’t explore the limitations or other factors in economic development. Perhaps that would distract from the story he is trying to tell but a greater place for discussion of these matters would give less the sense of micro-lending as a panacea rather than as a useful practice.

The book ends in 2003. Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. In 2011, the Bangladeshi government forced Yunus to resign his post at Grameen Bank due to age (he was 72). In 2013, the government passed the Grameen Bank Act, allowing it to make rules for any aspect of bank operations. Whether the Grameen Bank will continue to serve the poorest of the poor as it was conceived to do thus is an open question. What is clear however is that Yunus developed a model of micro-lending to the poorest of the poor, built on belief in their initiative and trust that they will repay, that has contributed to growing self-sufficiency for many individuals and economic development in many settings of poverty with lessons applicable throughout the world. In an era increasingly concerned about “helping that hurts” this account offers a model of “helping that helps” worthy of our attention.