Home > PRISM Online > Matthew Desmond Takes A Hard Look At The Intersection Of Poverty And Housing In The Unsparing “Evicted”

Review by Will Preston

by Matthew Desmond
Penguin Random House, 2016

Right now, as you read this sentence, somebody in the United States is being evicted. Most likely they’re black; most likely they’re a woman. Most likely it’s not their first time. And they are not alone. Within the next hour, more than 150 families nationwide will have been forced from their homes—and by this time next year, several million. Once relatively rare, evictions have become an inevitability for poor families in the States, especially as the cost of rent and minimum wage jobs grow increasingly incompatible. But as Matthew Desmond finds in his damning, devastating examination of the crisis, Evicted, evictions are not merely a consequence of poverty. They are, in fact, a leading cause.

Many Americans continue to hold distressingly cynical views of the poor: they’re lazy, or addicted; they rely on government handouts; why don’t they just get a job already. Such opinions, of course, overlook the simple equation that poverty begets poverty, and that the deck is often so stacked against low-income families that it renders the American Dream a joke. With Evicted, Desmond condenses these points into a single piercing argument. Poverty, he writes, is “a relationship involving poor and rich people alike”; though treated as if part of two different worlds, “the rich…wield enormous influence over the lives of low-income families.” (317) And they do so in a basic way. “Not everyone living in a distressed neighborhood is associated with gang members, parole officers, employers, social workers, or pastors,” he writes. “But nearly all of them have a landlord.” (5)

Desmond is a sociologist by training, and a professor of social science at Harvard University. But he has the eye and the instincts of a journalist, and Evicted is a masterwork of reportage, telling the stories of eight Milwaukee families over a year and a half in the poorest parts of the city. There’s Arleen, a single mother evicted after her thirteen-year-old son throws a snowball at a car and the enraged driver breaks down her door. There’s Lamar, a Vietnam vet reduced to performing odd job tasks for his landlord to help pay for the rent, despite having two amputated legs. Scott is a former nurse laid low by heroin; Crystal is a child of the foster system who talks directly to God and suffers from Bipolar and Borderline Personality Disorders. They are by turns reckless, selfless, damaged, and terrified, struggling endlessly against a merciless loop. “It’s like I got a curse on me,” Arleen moans at one point. “I can’t win for losing.” (288)

She’s not wrong. Desmond, who moved into some of Milwaukee’s worst neighborhoods to live alongside his subjects, received a MacArthur “Genius” Grant to conduct a sweeping survey of the city’s evictions—astoundingly, the first of its kind anywhere in the US. Even more astounding are the numbers that came back. Between 2009 and 2011, “more than 1 in 8 Milwaukee renters experienced a forced move,” with similar numbers in Kansas City, Chicago, and other cities nationwide. (5) And while eviction was often triggered by falling behind on the rent, this explanation belied a larger problem. Without regulation, landlords—even those “at the bottom of the market”—had little incentive to offer cheaper rent. In fact, many of the worst rentals in the city—those with “broken windows, busted appliances, rats, clogged plumbing,” and occasionally, no heat—were priced almost identically to the most upscale neighborhoods: only $270 cheaper in some cases, and “only $50 less than the citywide margin.” (75) For Arleen and many others, this expense ate up more than 70% of their income. Lamar, the disabled vet, lived on $2.19 a day.

This was no accident. For a landlord, exorbitant rent was a way to both exploit their tenants and avoid the cost of repairs: “it was possible to skimp on maintenance if tenants were perpetually behind; and many poor tenants would be perpetually behind because their rent was too high.” (75-6) Many families, fresh from another eviction and desperate simply to have a roof over their heads, had little choice but to accept horrid living conditions—and were easily replaced when they fell behind. Meanwhile, the landlords only grew richer. The owner of the worst trailer park in Milwaukee “took home roughly $447,000 each year.” (175) Another landlord estimated her net worth at $2 million. “‘The hood is good,’” she told Desmond. “‘There’s a lot of money there.’” (152)

Desmond rarely pulls his punches, and even at its most gripping, Evicted makes for difficult, visceral reading. One family moves into a home overrun with cockroaches: “crawling the sinks, the toilet, the walls, filling family drawers…the mattresses and small love seat, too, each deep-burrowed with roaches.” (66) Later on, Scott, the heroin-addicted nurse, resolves to get clean and spends over an hour waiting in line for rehab, only to learn the overworked clinic accepts just four people a day. He leaves, crushed. “He could have tried again the next day,” Desmond writes, “but he went on a three-day bender instead.” (185)

Even more wrenching are the broader consequences. A single eviction has the power to “destabilize multiple city blocks,” as trust between neighbors evaporates and communities are effectively shattered. (70) Many evictees harbor resentment towards their new neighborhoods and fail to realize that their new living conditions are more than a temporary setback: most landlords refuse to accept anyone with an eviction record. As time drags on, self-worth drops. Depression and suicide climb. Children flit from one school to the next. The fear of eviction in itself forces horrific decisions. In the book’s most stomach-churning chapter, Desmond finds that women in situations of domestic violence are less likely to report their abusers to the police. Such 911 calls are designated “nuisances”—the same label as noise complaints and loud arguments. Three nuisance calls in the space of a month result in a citation to the landlord, whose usual solution is simply to evict the problem tenant—even when her attacker does not live with her. Many women are thus faced with what Desmond terms a “devil’s bargain: keep quiet and face abuse, or call the police and face eviction.” (192)

Evicted takes place in Milwaukee, but it is, Desmond notes, “an American story.” (5) Real estate prices are rising all over the country; one landlord in Oakland, CA, was recently accused of evicting over 3,000 tenants. In spite of everything, Desmond is an optimist. He suggests multiple solutions, from legal aid for the poor to expanding America’s housing voucher program, both of which are not only well within its means as a country, but would actually cost less than it currently spends to maintain homeless shelters and similar programs. But to do so, he writes, Americans must “acknowledge that housing is a basic right for all”—and that the greed and exploitation inherent in the system must be addressed. (305) “Until recently,” he notes, “we simply didn’t know how immense this problem was, or how serious the consequences.” (295) That excuse is no longer valid. This is America’s national burden, and Evicted is the best type of book: the kind that makes you want to do something about it. We have never needed it more.

A native of Williamsburg, VA, Will Preston has since lived in Oregon, England, and the Netherlands. He has written extensively on travel, music, and history, and was most recently published in Rowan University’s Glassworks Magazine. He is currently an MFA candidate at the University of British Columbia.