The realities of living in an American city today are frightening. They are at the core of the Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, a book that examines not life on the margins but life beyond the margins. The people Desmond writes about in these pages live lives that spotlight the insidious nature of poverty and the nearly impossible task of leaving that world behind.
Desmond’s book isn’t dedicated to simply examining the inequalities that take place in housing, however, nor is his sole intent to provide dramatic vignettes of apartments filled with dirty dishes, cockroaches and the realization that the alternatives are in some cases non-existent. Instead, he details the hellish slope that many Americans experience when their lives become complicated by addiction, poor health and the cruel hand of fate. There are reminders that even the fortunate, those who feel their lives are on an upward trajectory, can wind up in these least desirable of circumstances.
Desmond examines eight families living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. There, as in many American cities, the cost of housing has the greatest impact on a family’s financial resources. The poor spend nearly half their monthly income on housing, leaving little for other necessities, including food, transportation to and from work, and the increasingly necessary gadgets that occupy modern life. For many of these families, the cash leftover after paying these housing costs amounts to a pittance.
One family struggles to get by on less than three dollars a day after paying for their dwelling, another is left with a mere $20 to ride out the time between paychecks. There’s a temptation on the part of many to skip rent in an effort if not to get ahead, to at least be able to eat. These decisions only further complicate their already meager existence. A tenant behind on their rent is reluctant to request maintenance because doing so may draw attention to their status as non-paying tenants and hasten their removal from the property.
Eviction, a once-rare practice, has become increasingly prevalent and increasing damning. Yes, tenants can appeal claims of eviction in court, but the courts themselves provide a sharp relief between the mother of three whose hours have been cut at the local department store and the lawyers who represent landlords. These are legal representatives who exude power and, by extension, intimidation by their very presence, perhaps accounting for the mere 30 percent of the evicted who turn up to court dates. Without access to representation or the ability to maneuver the minutiae of such proceedings, the poor find themselves further distanced from the system and from personal dignity.
Finding permanent employment becomes a near impossibility without a fixed address, and the mark of an eviction on a housing record makes future landlords reluctant to extend housing to these families. One woman whom Desmond writes about turns to prostitution, another searches in vain for some kind of shelter, another participates in a failed robbery with the hope of closing what some might see as a meager gap in pay.
The casualties in this cycle are many and the pain visited upon the children of the mothers and fathers who find themselves without a home are many. Children are forced to drift from school to school and home to home with little sense of belonging. They are routinely stripped of what meager possessions they own as are their parents. There is help, of course: help in the way of a welfare system designed to keep people in poverty; help in the way of payday loans that charge exorbitant interest; help in the way of other institutions that offer help for those with bad credit but only perpetuate the problem with policies intended to exploit rather than elevate those living outside the margins.
Though it may be tempting for some to point out that the tenants have violated a contract with their landlord, reneged on a bargain, it should also be pointed out that the owners of these dwellings hardly suffer in the process. These dwellings are often owned by wealthy business people whose greatest profit comes from renting to tenants afraid to request maintenance or afraid to seek legal recourse for the actions taken against them. (Many tenants remain reluctant to call the police to report a crime because reporting a crime will involve the very people who have the power to send them to the street.)
That property owners take advantage of a basic human need, housing, and exploit it sets off a moral alarm for Desmond, who writes that if incarceration has kept many men locked inside, eviction and poverty have kept many women locked out. It’s a powerful statement and a wrong that, if corrected, could help restore dignity and provide empowerment for a large segment of the population. Moreover, it might help prevent the spread of such indignities to a growing number of Americans.
Desmond’s research isn’t wholly abstract: he lived among the people of which he writes, attended court cases and spent time with two landlords who hold the fates of the families he writes about in their hands. The success of his argument depends on making the problem relatable to a readership that may not be experiencing these circumstances firsthand, but which can imagine itself in a similar situation. In this regard, the book more than succeeds because the author convinces us that not only are the lives portrayed in the book an indication of a great moral problem, but that we have the power to demand that these problems are addressed and corrected.
Evicted isn’t always an easy book to read because of its subject matter, but it is no less necessary.
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