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Matthew Desmond. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2016.
Matthew Desmond chose to become a sociologist mainly because he wanted to study poverty. And he wanted to study it firsthand, by living alongside some of the poorest people in America. To that end, he spent over a year living in two kinds of low-end housing in Milwaukee, a trailer park on the predominantly white South Side, and a rooming house on the predominantly black North Side. (After reading Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, I am even more troubled by the social distinctions “white” and “black”, which perpetuate the illusion that people can be divided into distinct “races” on the basis of appearances.) Desmond supplemented his observations and recorded conversations with other forms of research, including his own formal survey of renters.
Desmond brought to his research a belief that too many previous studies treat the poor “as if they lived in quarantine…cut off from the rest of society.” That makes it too easy to attribute poverty to the deficiencies of poor people themselves, or to historical forces beyond the reach of current social policies and practices. Desmond thought of it differently:
Poverty was a relationship, I thought, involving poor and rich people alike. To understand poverty, I needed to understand that relationship. This sent me searching for a process that bound poor and rich people together in mutual dependence and struggle. Eviction was such a process.
The main focus of the book is “the powerful ways the private housing sector is shaping the lives of poor American families and their communities.” Instead of assuming that the kind of housing the poor get is simply a consequence of their poverty, Desmond is interested in how the decisions of landlords, builders, and housing policymakers help create and perpetuate poverty.
The book makes a major contribution to this subject by combining detailed stories of tenant households with thoughtful analysis. Many readers may find the book a little hard to follow, since the author scatters both the narrative and analytic information over so many chapters. Without explaining why, he chose not to use available software that could have helped with organizational tasks, such as telling a family’s story from start to finish in one place, or bringing together generalizations about how housing markets work to further disadvantage the poor. I will organize this review differently than he does, starting with the household stories and ending with the analysis of housing markets.
Let’s meet some of the main characters, starting with the North Side of Milwaukee. Desmond has changed the names of all his subjects for the sake of confidentiality.
Sherrena was a landlord specializing in renting to the black poor. She had been a schoolteacher, but preferred the life of an independent entrepreneur. Her husband Quentin quit his own job to work as her property manager. Desmond says that Sherrena “knew the ghetto’s value and how money could be made from a property that looked worthless to people who didn’t know any better.” Poor tenants had trouble paying very much rent, but that problem was more than offset by the very low prices at which Sherrena could acquire the properties. If she bought them cheap and put as little money into them as she could get away with, she could make a good living, netting about $10,000 a month.
The same thing that made homeownership a bad investment in poor, black neighborhoods—depressed property values—made landlording there a potentially lucrative one. Property values for similar homes were double or triple in white, middle-class sections of the city; but rents in those neighborhoods were not….When it came to return on investment, it was hard to beat owning property in the inner city.
Many of Sherrena’s properties had building code violations or other deficiencies. But because tenants were vulnerable to eviction due to rent shortages or other personal problems, they were in a poor position to complain. “For many landlords, it was cheaper to deal with the expense of eviction than to maintain their properties.” Turnover was high, and evictions were a normal part of doing business.
The Hinkstons were a three-generation family living in one of Sherrena’s run-down properties, which Desmond calls the “rat hole.” The “mother hen,” Doreen, lived with her four children, the oldest of whom, Patrice, had three young children of her own. For a time, Patrice and her children had moved into the apartment upstairs, but Sherrena evicted her after her work hours were cut and she fell behind on the rent. Then all eight of them lived in the small two-bedroom, one-bath apartment, with its roaches, cracked windows, rear door off its hinges, sagging bathroom ceiling, and chronically stopped-up plumbing. They resorted to withholding rent in order to make repairs or pressure Sherrena to make them, but she started an eviction process, only relenting when Doreen agreed to make up the back rent. While this was going on, Doreen’s 19-year-old daughter, Natasha, became pregnant. She hoped to find alternative housing, but ended up bringing her baby home to the same apartment. The Hinkston women did not rely much on men to support them, having experienced too many men as economically undependable, abusive, or in trouble with the law.
Living next door to the Hinkstons was Lamar, an older man with prosthetic legs, and his two teenage sons. Lamar had joined the navy at 17, been dishonorably discharged, and become addicted to crack several years later. His feet had frozen while he was sleeping in an abandoned house, and in a state of delirium he jumped from an upper-floor window. He lost his legs, but soon overcame his crack habit. Now he lived on a small public assistance stipend and odd jobs. Sometimes Sherrena let him work off part of his rent, but she complained about the quality of his work, while he complained that she paid him too little. She was already threatening him with eviction when a fire destroyed another apartment in the same building. Lamar lost his apartment when Sherrena elected to have the whole building torn down.
Arleen was another tenant whose rent took most of her public assistance check. Like her mother before her, she was a poor single mother, in Arleen’s case with five children. She had once qualified for subsidized housing, but she gave it up because she thought she could live independently with the help of a friend. When that didn’t work out, she was unable to get back into subsidized housing, which serves only a small percentage of the poor. She rented an apartment from Sherrena, but fell seriously behind on the rent after paying for her sister’s funeral expenses. Sherrena was planning to evict her, but when she showed the apartment to a prospective tenant named Crystal, Crystal offered to let Arleen stay with her until she could find another place.
Crystal was not the easiest person to live with, since she could manifest warm Christian love one minute and become violently angry the next. She had her own troubled history, having been born premature when her mother was stabbed, and then placed in dozens of foster homes starting at age 5. At 17, she was diagnosed with a host of psychological problems, including bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, effects of abuse and neglect, and borderline intellectual functioning. The psychologist concluded that she would need “long-term mental health treatment and supportive assistance if she [was] to be maintained in the community as an adult.” The arrangement between Crystal and Arleen unraveled after Crystal called the police, mostly because of noisy fighting in the apartment above them, but also because of a “roaring argument” with Arleen. The police pressured Sherrena to resolve the problems, and she responded by evicting all concerned. Milwaukee’s nuisance property ordinance allowed police departments to cite landlords for nuisances involving their tenants, and landlords often responded by evicting people regardless of whether they were aggressors or victims of abuse.
Arleen embarked on a long search for housing before finding something she could barely afford, although it had no stove or refrigerator. Crystal lived at a homeless shelter for a time, where she teamed up with another homeless woman, Vanetta. Their search for housing was also long and frustrating, especially because they were trying to escape from the North Side. After they did finally get something—also without a stove and refrigerator—Crystal got into a violent conflict with a friend of Vanetta’s and got evicted. Homeless again, she turned to prostitution. Vanetta was already in legal trouble before she met Crystal, having cooperated with another woman in stealing purses from customers coming out of a store. At the time, she was facing eviction and possible homelessness because her work hours had been cut. When she was finally sentenced, she got 15 months in state prison and 66 months of extended supervision.
The other landlord featured in Evicted is Tobin, who owned a trailer park in Milwaukee but lived 70 miles away. Here the residents were white, raising the interesting question of how segregation persists in an era of fair housing laws. The racial barrier was more than financial, since the average rent was only $550 a month. The park had 131 trailers, with almost one-third of the residents behind in the rent at any one time. Tobin paid one of the long-time residents to manage the property, but came in personally to collect rent and make decisions about delinquent tenants. He could be flexible with tenants who seemed able to make up or work off back rent, but he did average several evictions every month.
Tobin netted well over $400,000 a year in income, placing him in the top 1% of earners. He did this by minimizing maintenance on his trailers, but keeping them rented by not screening his tenants very carefully. “Most impressive was his ability to transform an utterly trashed trailer into a rent-generating machine in a matter of days—and for next to nothing.” When Desmond arrived on the scene, Tobin was in danger of losing his license because of code violations and the park’s reputation for drugs, prostitution and violence. He had to enter into an agreement with the city to address the code violations, evict the most troublesome tenants, and sell the park within a year. The new management had a reputation for being tougher with tenants. Desmond observes that variations in screening practices create a “geography of advantage and disadvantage.” The poorest and most troubled renters end up clustered together in the same locations. Municipalities can ask landlords to enforce higher standards, while overlooking the question of where tenants who don’t meet those standards are going to live.
Larraine was a middle-aged woman with a learning impairment attributed to a bad fall in her childhood. She had grown up in public housing, struggled in school, and dropped out in tenth grade. She had two long-term relationships, one ending in divorce and the other in the man’s imprisonment and death from a drug overdose. Now she lived alone in the trailer that she tried to keep neat and clean. She lived on $714 a month in Supplemental Security Income and $80 worth of food stamps. She was chronically behind on rent or utilities, sometimes underpaying the rent in order to keep the gas or electricity on. She had alienated family members by borrowing money and not repaying it. When she did have cash on hand, she sometimes spent it on nonessentials rather than saving it for future expenses. (Desmond points out that SSI recipients are limited in what they can save without having their monthly payments reduced, and that people who anticipate only future hardship may grab momentary pleasures when they get the chance.) Tobin lost patience with Larraine and evicted her even after she finally managed to come up with the back rent. She lost most of her possessions when the eviction movers placed them in storage and she was unable to pay the storage bills, a common occurrence in eviction cases. With no place to go, she was taken in temporarily by other trailer park residents.
Drugs play a prominent role in the next story. Pam’s mother died in a car accident when Pam was in high school, and her father spent time in prison on drug and alcohol charges. Pam reacted badly when her brother died of a heroin overdose, and she started using crack. She spent ten months in jail for drug offenses. Now 30, she lived in the trailer park with Ned, another crack user with a daughter from a previous relationship. Pam had two daughters of her own from a drug dealer who had abused her. Ned and Pam also had a daughter together; and Pam was seven months pregnant when Tobin took them to eviction court. Both Ned and Pam had jobs, but Pam lost hers when her car broke down and she couldn’t afford to repair it. Their financial problems were aggravated by the money they spent on their drug habits. When they were evicted, they too found temporary housing with other park residents, Scott and Teddy.
Scott was a 30-year-old gay man who cared for 52-year-old Teddy, who had serious health problems. Scott differed from most of the tenants Desmond met because he had not always been poor, but had graduated from a technical college and worked as a nurse in a nursing home. He did have a troubled family history, however, since his mother “was made to marry” the man who raped her on a date, and who dropped out of her life before long. Scott also told a counselor he had been sexually abused, although he did not say who the abuser was. Scott’s downward spiral began when he slipped a disk in his back and became addicted to the opioids he was prescribed. Then he lost his job and his nursing license when he was caught stealing drugs from patients. He was in a homeless shelter when he met Teddy. The two of them decided that they could afford to live in the trailer park by combining Teddy’s SSI check with Scott’s income from odd jobs. When Scott was suffering withdrawal sickness from opioids, another trailer park resident started him on heroin.
Scott and Teddy’s decision to share their trailer with Pam and Ned turned out badly. Tobin added what Pam and Ned owed him to Scott and Teddy’s bill, and then evicted them when they couldn’t pay. Teddy decided to return to his home state of Tennessee. Scott struggled to find housing, work and sobriety, and he wound up homeless when he couldn’t afford both his rent and the cost of a methadone clinic. Then he got a big break, when a homeless shelter helped him get a decent apartment with subsidized rent, and later employed him as a resident manager. He had remained sober since then. As for the couple Scott and Teddy took in, Pam’s baby was almost due when she and Ned were evicted. She gave birth in a cheap motel, having been turned away from numerous rental properties. Ned lost his construction job for missing work during the eviction, illustrating how evictions are causes as well as consequences of poverty. Eventually Ned got an apartment for them by leaving Pam off the lease, since many landlords seemed reluctant to accept her children, despite laws against such discrimination. Ned found another construction job, and Pam found work as a medical assistant.
Although the detailed accounts of these lives are one of the book’s strong points, Evicted is more than a book of stories. Next time I’ll discuss Desmond’s sociological insights into what he observed.