Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

Matthew Desmond’s ethnographic study of the housing crisis among the poor in Milwaukee has won multiple awards, including the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It’s easy to see why. Desmond lived in a trailer park and then in an inner-city rooming house, getting to know the renters and their landlords and learning about the crises that led to eviction and how difficult it was for the evicted to get back on their feet.

The book follows eight families through the struggle to find and keep secure housing. These aren’t perfect people. Some have addictions, some commit acts of violence, and others just make big errors in judgment, but the mistakes and their penalties create a situation that these families cannot seem to escape, even when they do everything right. Once you’ve been evicted, it’s hard to get another home because that eviction sullies your record. The landlords who will rent to people who’ve been evicted often charge high rents for terrible homes that they don’t bother repairing. And what happens if a tenant reports the landlord for the shoddy conditions? Another eviction.

There’s so much in this book to get angry about. For instance, 911 services can charge landlords a fee if their tenants make “nuisance” calls. And those fees give landlords a reason to evict. So women are afraid to call 911 in cases of domestic abuse because they could lose their homes! Another problem is that is perfectly fine to refuse housing to families with children, meaning mothers (fathers, too, but usually mothers) get turned down repeatedly.

The families and individuals in this book—some with children and some without—tend to drift from home to home, finding housing only to get kicked out, sharing with neighbors or even virtual strangers, staying in shelters. Rarely did they end up entirely on the street, but they still lack the stability that’s needed to maintain a job, good health, and a general sense of well-being. Children have to change schools frequently, if they go to school at all.

Desmond tells these stories with detachment, avoiding the first-person until the epilogue, where he explains his methods. He provides extensive notes for the research he cites, and he also indicates in the endnotes when he’s describing in incident he didn’t observe himself. The research appears to be meticulous, and it’s only near the end of the book that he steps back to talk solutions. For most of the book, he focuses on showing the scope of the problem.

Because Desmond spends so much time with the people he writes about, he’s able to present a multi-faceted view of their lives, showing how they dream of doing better and sometimes manage for a short time. And he doesn’t pretend that they get everything right, but he puts the mistakes in context, as when he tells the story of one woman, Larraine, who spend almost all of her food stamps for the month on a lobster dinner. It was a celebratory dinner on her anniversary with her late husband, and, for her, it was worth it. Desmond writes,

People like Larraine lived with so many compounded limitations that it was difficult to imagine the amount of good behavior or self-control that would allow them to lift themselves out of poverty. The distance between grinding poverty and even stable poverty could be so vast that those in the bottom had little hope of climbing out even if they pinched every penny. So they chose not to. Instead, they tried to survive in color, to season the suffering with pleasure. They would get a little high or have a drink or do a bit of gambling or acquire a television. They might buy lobsters on food stamps.

Reading this, I found it hard to begrudge Larraine some lobster on her anniversary.

Toward the end of the book, Desmond starts talking solutions, focusing mostly on housing vouchers that would enable tenants to pay no more than one-third of their income on rent. I don’t know if this is the best solution, but the book makes clear that something needs to be done. The housing crisis affects not just those who lose their homes but also those in their neighborhoods. Neighborhoods require investment from residents, people looking out for each other. And that includes landlords. The landlords Desmond talks to are trying to make a living, which is fair, but the system allows them to get away with unfair practices that amount to exploitation. Getting at the root problem in a way that is fair to both landlords and tenants is a challenge, but it’s an essential one to tackle.

This is an excellent book, even if it left me rather overwhelmed with the scope of the problem. I’m not sure what I can do with the knowledge, but I hope that at least it will help me be a more informed citizen. When you read books like this, what do you do with that knowledge?

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14 Responses to Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

  1. That is a good question. I do tend to feel powerless after reading such books, but I still think knowing is better than not knowing. Gathering knowledge is important as a basis for action. Also, I am trying to connect with local progressive groups to do something about issues in our community. I may not be able to do anything about larger national or global issues, but maybe I can do something about my town or neighborhood at least.

    • Teresa says:

      I agree that knowing is better than not knowing. I’ve been looking at local groups, too, but haven’t made a connection with one I want to get involved with yet.

  2. Kristen M. says:

    Last night I watched the first episode of American Race, Charles Barkley’s series about the topic, and it was about Baltimore and Freddie Gray and the black experience there. I came out of it overwhelmed and sad, but also feeling slightly more educated, arguably gaining more from what the people said that Barkley himself did. I am still trying to figure out what to do with the knowledge I gained.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve been doing a lot of reading on racial issues and have felt similarly. There are some groups working on getting data on policing in my area, and I’m paying some attention to that and may get involved at some point.

  3. litlove says:

    This sounds like an excellent and important book. I think these books are a success when they change attitudes or open people’s eyes. Now you’ve read this, you’re going to have sympathy for people with such problems, and promote that sympathy to others. And heaven knows what this world needs is for us all to find as much sympathy and kindness in our hearts as possible for people in bad situations. We need a sea change away from endless judgement, and the more books encourage us to change our mindsets – and possibly in related areas of social issues too – the better. And if some practical application of help suggested itself to you in the next few months, you’d be primed and ready to take it on. So by reading the book and blogging about it, you’ve already contributed to making a difference. (Lory’s suggestion is excellent, too.)

    • Teresa says:

      I think you’re right about sympathy. I hear a lot of people complain about wasteful habits of the poor, and Desmond talks a lot about why people in poverty make some of the decisions they make, and he does so in a way that elicits compassion. The story about the lobster dinner was a great example of that. She knew she’d be hungry later in the month either way, so why not enjoy that one great night? It’s not wise, but I could understand.

  4. I suppose we can write letters and make phone calls to our city councils and congress people to advocate for more funds for housing grant money. I know that a lot of local funding here is tied to federal grant money that Trump has proposed eliminating, which is infuriating.

    I want to read this, but I’ve felt daunted by the sadness and enormity of the problem. Maybe I’ll propose it for our book group and then I can share my emotions at least with my book group mates.

    • Teresa says:

      I hate seeing so many federal grants potentially getting cut. Another thing I’m wondering about is tenants’ rights. Some of the reasons for eviction or for not renting didn’t seem fair to me.

      This would be a good book club book! Maybe you could even look into an action to take together.

  5. The late Fred Rogers said that when you’re faced with a situation that makes you see the world as a terrible place, look for the people who are helping. You’ll always find people who are helping.

    I’ve become a big believer in the power of the pen. Since this past election, I’ve written three letters to my various representatives every time I pay the bills, once a month Postcards actually since they are easier for me to do. I know they are just a drop in the bucket but that’s how the bucket gets full.

    • Teresa says:

      i like the postcard idea a lot. My reps, I’m happy to say, are usually already out there helping, so I haven’t felt the need to contact them frequently. But I know there are groups here in Virginia organizing postcard campaigns for things like voter registration, since we have a big election this year, and I’ve been thinking about doing that.

  6. I’m fortunate to have a reasonable level of access to people who work in social services in my area, so I can usually find a local place to give money that I trust to be good stewards of the funds. So that’s one thing I do when I feel exhausted and despairing about the scope of the problems that face poor people in our country. There’s so many ways that the government (federal, state local) finds to stack the decks against them, and it makes me angry as hell.

    • Teresa says:

      Checkbook activism has been a big thing for me this year. I don’t always have the energy to get out and help, but I can usually scrape together some money to help. Maybe I’ll look into setting up a regular donation somewhere locally.

  7. Linda says:

    I also found this book quite enlightening. Housing is a big problem here in the Boston area, and I actually live very near a huge development and have been a bit involved in lobbying officials for more affordable housing. We haven’t been successful yet (corporate greed is still winning out) but at least I’m making my voice heard. I’ve also organized a small group of friends to get together to discuss political issues and a couple of weeks ago we had an evening of writing postcards to our elected officials. Every bit helps.

    • Teresa says:

      It is an enlightening book. Hopefully, the new information will spur more people to find out what’s happening in their communities. I haven’t followed housing issues closely in my area, but I want to start paying more attention.

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