When Harvard sociology professor and 2015 MacArthur Fellow Matthew Desmond moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to study housing policy, homelessness, and the politics of eviction, he came to a conclusion that startled him: “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.”
In Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, out this month from the Crown Publishing Group, Desmond compellingly focuses on the ways race, class, and gender intersect with housing loss. His focus is Milwaukee, a city he got to know while in graduate school in nearby Madison. Evicted offers an in-depth, heart-rending look at eight families caught in the struggle to find decent, affordable housing in the city. To write the book, Desmond spent more than a year living in two of Milwaukee’s most impoverished neighborhoods and interviewing residents.
“In Milwaukee and cities across the country,” Desmond writes, “as affordable rental stock has been allowed to deteriorate and eventually disappear, low-income families have rushed to occupy cheap units. Nationwide, vacancy rates for low-cost units have fallen to single digits … The high demand for the cheapest housing told landlords that for every family in a unit, there were scores behind them ready to take their place. In such an environment, the incentive to lower the rent, forgive a late payment, or spruce up your property was extremely low.”
“Among Milwaukee renters,” he writes, “over 1 in 5 black women report having been evicted in their adult lives,” compared with one in 12 Latinas and one in 15 white females.
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Escalating housing prices in “Beer City”—the fourth-poorest large city in the United States, according to Census reports—and the loss of decent-paying manufacturing work over the last few decades have contributed to a demand for low-cost housing that, in turn, leaves tenants vulnerable to eviction and ill treatment from landlords.
One of the book’s most moving sections tracks Arleen, a Black single mother of two boys, ages 5 and 13. As Desmond tells it, Arleen relies on a disability benefit that provides her with $7,536 a year, or $628 a month, because of chronic, clinical depression. Health issues make it impossible for her to work, and although she has applied for both public housing and a Section 8 shelter voucher—both of which would cap her rent at 30 percent of her income—neither has come through because waiting lists are frozen. Many of America’s poorest residents face similar roadblocks, Desmond explains, and cannot access public housing or subsidized units because there are none available. In fact, he reports that three-quarters of families that qualify for assistance are unable to obtain it.
In Arleen’s case, she and her boys have spent years bouncing from one substandard apartment to another, more often than not paying between 60 and 70 percent of their household income to do so. Eviction has become routine. One building they lived in was condemned by the city, rendering it uninhabitable. A second eviction resulted from non-payment of rent; arrears mounted after Arleen buried a close friend and then fell behind in her bills. In still another instance, the family was removed after Arleen called the police for protection from an abusive partner. Unbeknownst to her, she had been dubbed a “nuisance tenant” for making “too many” 9-1-1 calls in a 90-day period, something Desmond and Arleen subsequently learned from city records.
Not surprisingly, Arleen and her sons eventually ended up in a shelter. From there, finding a new home has become her full-time occupation. Desmond reports that, to date, the family has been rejected by 89 potential landlords for reasons ranging from anticipated trouble paying the rent to fear that her sons will disturb other residents.
And it’s a struggle 54-year-old Larraine knows well. A former tenant in a trailer community called College Mobile Home Park—nicknamed, according to Desmond, “The Shame of the Southside” by the news media because of the homes’ appalling conditions—Larraine, like Arleen, has lived a tumultuous life, a situation that was exacerbated by the jailhouse death of her most recent beau, Glen. As her life cascaded downhill, and she tried to cope with fibromyalgia and cluster migraines, she lost the trailer and all of her belongings. A washing machine, refrigerator, stove, dining table, clothing, and personal items were placed in storage.
According to Desmond, the average evicted family’s possessions require four pallets, or approximately 400 cubic feet of space, and costs about $100 a month. Failure to pay a storage sum, he continues, means that after 90 days, someone like Larraine’s possessions can be sold. Roughly 70 percent of the goods that are confiscated through evictions and foreclosures meet this end, Desmond writes.
Larraine, however, was relatively lucky; she was able to move in with her brother, making it possible for her to pay the storage costs and hold onto her furniture. But it has not been an easy or desirable transition.
In addition to speaking to tenants, Desmond also shadowed two landlords, Tobin Charney, owner of the College Mobile Home trailer park, and Sherrena Tarver, a former teacher turned landlord.
Both, Desmond notes, have demonstrated kindness. Tarver, for example, once bought groceries for Arleen. Similarly, Desmond writes that Charney “worked with his tenants. He let them pay here and there. When tenants lost their jobs, he let some of them work off their rent … He lent a woman money to attend her mother’s funeral.”
At the same time, Desmond said, “a tenant would say she owed $150 and [Charney] would say it was $250 or $600.”
What’s more, both owners boasted of huge earnings, which seem especially striking in comparison to their tenants’ financial situations. “Every month,” Desmond writes, Tarver “collected roughly $20,000 in rent. Her monthly mortgage bills rounded out to $8,500. After paying the water bill, [Tarver]—who owned three dozen inner-city units, all filled with tenants around or below the poverty line—figured she netted roughly $10,000 a month.”
As Tarver told him, “The ‘hood is good. There’s a lot of money there.” By her own estimate, she and her husband are worth about $2 million.
Likewise, owning a trailer park has been lucrative for Tobin Charney. In Evicted, Milwaukee Alderman Terry Witkowski, whom Desmond interviewed, estimates Charney’s annual take to be approximately $1 million, a sum that enables him to live in a posh Chicago suburb.
The upshot of Evicted is a tableau in which renters, for the most part, lose out. Though protections vary from city to city, power, and the law, tends to be skewed toward property owners, not tenants. For example, as Desmond reports, the 1968 Fair Housing Act “did not consider families with children a protected class.” Although the statute was amended 20 years later to make this unlawful, Desmond acknowledges that many landlords continue to refuse to rent to families with children.
In addition, in much of the country owners can reject a person who has a recent history of eviction—no questions asked. Other cities and towns allow landlords to bar potential tenants with felony, misdemeanor drug, or disorderly conduct charges from signing—or sometimes even being on—a lease. Public housing imposes a separate brand of stringent rules, regulations, and guidelines.
Small wonder that Arleen, or Larraine, or many others in Milwaukee, have been unable to find a permanent place to call their own.
Desmond ends the book with a series of policy recommendations that he believes will benefit low-income individuals and families. The first involves a clearly articulated assertion that every human being has the right to a decent residence, regardless of income, whether or not they live with children, have a criminal history, or use illegal drugs or alcohol. Desmond also supports the provision of a free lawyer for anyone facing eviction, just as pro-bono lawyers are provided in criminal cases.
Lastly, he supports the expanded use of housing vouchers. Under his plan, low-income tenants meeting a particular financial threshold will be able to present a voucher—essentially an agreement guaranteeing that the government will pay 70 percent of a fair market rent to a landlord. This, Desmond says, will allow poor people to choose where they want to live so that they do not have to remain in unsafe housing conditions.
I disagree with this approach. Since vouchers subsidize private owners—people like Tarver and Charney—I think the profit motive should be completely removed from low-income housing. As I see it, rebuilding and renovating the diminishing stock of publicly owned, nonprofit housing or abandoned properties—and building new, low-rise units in small towns and suburbs throughout the United States—should be a top priority for local, city, and state governments.
But this is a relatively small quibble. Desmond’s central point, that no one should be without shelter, is well taken. While we can disagree over what it means for a private landlord to make a “reasonable” rate of return, or even whether low-income housing should be profit-generating, Evicted is an important and compassionate plea for housing justice.
As Desmond concludes, “Without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.” The case studies he presents underscore the veracity of this claim.