Every once in a while someone publishes a book that shifts the direction of our collective understanding of our society and the way things work. These seminal books are rare and most people can name only a handful; Silent Spring by Rachel Carson that animated a new, activist environmentalism, Unsafe at Any Speed by Ralph Nader that inspired a new movement of consumer activism, Kai Ericsson’s Everything in Its Path: Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood that gave us new understanding of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder and Nickeled and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich’s exploration of living on a minimum wage that has lead to new attention on inequality and the need for living wage jobs. To that collection, Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the Inner City is a welcome and worthy addition to that list. I can only hope it is as effective.
In Evicted, sociologist Matthew Desmond did a deep ethnological study of the lives of low-income renters in Milwaukee in the tradition of Elliot Liebow’s Tally’s Corner. He supplemented his ethnological research with big data and large community studies, but the heart of the book is the stories.
He follows the lives of the tenants in a run down trailer court and the tenants of an entrepreneurial inner city landlord. These are people paying as much as 80% of the income in rent, struggling to feed their children and keep the lights and water on. They are always one emergency from disaster and of course, disasters come one after the other. Worse, there are shocking policies that exacerbate their vulnerability.
For example, two women are sharing the downstairs apartment in a house. They hear the woman upstairs being beaten by her boyfriend and one of the finally calls the police. The police track “nuisance houses” that have too many 911 calls and other complaints, so they tell the landlord that one more call and she would have to pay penalties. There are fines, even imprisonment is a possibility. So of course, the women are evicted, for calling about a neighbor being beaten. Shockingly, women are killed by former or current partners or loved ones at the rate of one woman per week in Wisconsin. The Milwaukee Chief of Police wonders why women don’t call the police. In classic victim blaming, they lament that if only the women called the police more often their lives may have been saved. This double bind has changed, thanks to the author sharing his research with Milwaukee Police and City Commission, but it a common practice around the country. They still track nuisance houses but no longer count domestic violence and stalker calls toward the nuisance designation.
This policy baffles me, what kind of “neighborhood watch” can you have when people who call the police are punished with eviction?
Eviction is traumatic in so many ways. It removes people from communities they are vested in and deposits them where they are less invested and where they lack the familiar and neighborly connections that help sustain them. People lose jobs, their kids are transferred to new schools, they often lose their possessions and also lose their credit and their ability to secure good housing as evictions are impediments to public housing and private housing.
Except for a subset of the private housing market that feeds on the poor. Landlords will rent substandard housing, neglect repairs and extract what they can while the building falls more and more into disrepair, letting it be taken over by the city for unpaid taxes or foreclosed on. All without penalty because the owner of record is an LLC behind which their ownership is hidden and protected.
The landlords are a fascinating combination of casual generosity in small things combined with capricious callousness in big things. They will bring some groceries to people they are evicting in a Wisconsin winter. One of them took my breath away after a fire right after the first of the month. The home was completely destroyed. Her tenants’ eight month old daughter died. Her pressing question was whether she was required by law to refund the month’s rent they had just paid. She was not and she did not. Her tenants lost their daughter, all their possessions, their home and she kept the rent they paid, even though they had no place to live.
The tenants are more fascinating, many of them the sort of people whom the general public prefers to hold in disdain, as completely responsible for their situation, disregarding the many hurdles in their way. As you get to know them, you realize they are actually pretty strong people who cope in any way they can. They resilience will inspire you. Their ability to persevere in spite of one obstacle after another after another put in their way gives them a nobility and dignity that society may not value, but should. Walking up and down streets looking for For Rent signs, calling 90 different prospects, sometimes reeling with despair, but always finding the grit they need to endure and keep on.
This book brought me to tears time and time again. I want to know what happened to the tenants. I want them to be living in homes now, warm and dry, with running water and solid floors and doors that don’t fall on them.
Evicted is not academic for me. My rent consumes 60% of my income and has increased 146% in the last five years while increases in insurance have eaten all increases in income. The real estate company that runs my apartment building does not even offer one year leases because they want to raise rents twice a year. My rent has increased three times since last February. Finding affordable rent in Portland is less likely than hitting a jackpot in Vegas and the government sponsored affordable housing has closed waiting lists with two to ten year waiting lists so they don’t even take applications. So yes, I read this book with a vested and particular interest.
Here in Portland, the housing crisis is exacerbated by the pernicious effect of shared hosting/rental companies that evade hotel taxes by buying up housing stock and removing it from the market for the highly profitable short-term rental market. We need strong intervention in the housing market, not tepid pseudo-protections such as 90-day rental increase notices. Perhaps if Portland’s City Council and Mayor read this book, they might have the guts and the will to do something more significant and effective.
I want every elected city and state leader, every senator and representative, every governor and presidential candidate to read this. I want academics and architects, city planners and managers, activists and organizers, investors and developers, all of them to read this. I want to ask strangers on the street if they have read it yet. My hope is that many people read it, are motivated by it and put the pressure necessary to make the changes we need.
I was provided an electronic galley by the publisher through NetGalley.