Efforts to combat poverty generally focus on job creation, crime, drugs, schools, but, according to Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond, in his extraordinary new book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,’’ these initiatives have overlooked a key problem trapping the poor in their poverty. Desmond, who received a MacArthur fellowship last year, argues that the lack of quality affordable housing and the mushrooming of evictions results in ever-more frequent displacement of those on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder and an increasingly transient mind-set among those who assume being tossed out on the street is not a matter of if but when.
“Our cities have become unaffordable to our poorest families,” Desmond writes. “[A]nd this problem is leaving a deep and jagged scar on the next generation.” Evicted from one property, tenants find they are excluded from many other rental units, including state-voucher-subsidized and publicly-funded housing. The private landlords who accept them, despite their damaged rental records, tend to run bottom-of-the-barrel operations, failing to maintain their properties in safe, habitable conditions and threatening to evict any who complain.
Increasingly, desperate tenants, caught in this trap, pay far too much rent for far too shoddy living spaces. They stay until they are evicted for failure to keep up payment and then move on. With each uprooting, their children are pulled out of schools, and any semblance of structure is once more shattered. All of this, as Desmond so carefully details, contributes to a downward spiral ever further into poverty.
Over 18 months, starting in May 2008 as the broader housing market imploded, Desmond followed a group of residents and landlords in Milwaukee’s white South Side and its black North Side. He embedded himself first in a poorly maintained trailer park on the South Side, a place described by one resident as being home to “all sorts of shipwrecked humanity.” This was followed by long stints in a rooming house on the North Side. Over time, he developed bonds of trust that enabled him to describe his subjects in their most intimate and vulnerable moments. “Who had time to protest inequality,” he writes, “when you were trying to get the rotten spot in your floorboard patched before your daughter put her foot through it again.”
Desmond breaks his book into three sections, “Rent,’’ “Out,’’ and “After.’’ In them, he tells a complex, achingly powerful story about people caught in webs of poverty and exploitation in an era in which the building of public housing has ground to a halt and the usage of government-funded rent subsidy vouchers for the poor fails to keep up with the scale of need. And all of this comes atop gentrification and surging housing costs at a time of stagnant wages.
Desmond shows us landlords looking to maximize profit by renting classic slum properties — yet, at the same time, developing strangely intense, almost psychologically symbiotic relationships with some of the residents. We also meet tenants whose dysfunctional behavior — be it explosive violence, drug usage, or an inability to put aside what little money comes into their possession — both exacerbates and is exacerbated by housing woes. And then there are the bureaucracies largely indifferent to the plight of those who can’t earn enough to ensure that they can pay their rent and utility bills and who don’t have access to legal representation that would give them a fair chance of fighting eviction in court.
So prevalent is eviction in Milwaukee, and, he argues, in most American cities, especially for families headed up by single African-American women, that entire industries cater to the process: moving companies whose sole job is to follow sheriffs’ deputies and bailiffs into homes to pack up and remove the possessions of the evicted; storage companies who keep those possessions, often at high monthly fees, until the newly homeless can find other accommodations. “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods,” Desmond writes, “eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”
Beyond the damage to individuals, “eviction can unravel the fabric of a community,” Desmond concludes, “helping to ensure that neighbors remain strangers and that their collective capacity to combat crime and promote civil engagement remains untapped.”
There have been many well-received urban ethnographies in recent years, from Sudhir Venkatesh’s “Gang Leader for a Day’’ to Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers.’’ Desmond’s “Evicted’’ surely deserves to takes it place among these. It is an exquisitely crafted, meticulously researched exploration of life on the margins, providing a voice to people who have been shamefully ignored — or, worse, demonized — by opinion makers over the course of decades. It is the story of a calamity made possible by the turning of too many blind eyes over too many years.
EVICTED: Poverty and Profit in the American City
By Matthew Desmond
Crown, 418 pp., $28Sasha Abramsky’s writings have appeared in the Nation, the New Yorker online, Mother Jones, Salon, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. His two most recent books are “The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives’’ and “The House of Twenty Thousand Books.’’