In 2016, Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond published Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Evicted) – the story of eight families in Milwaukee, Wisconsin as they struggle to keep a roof over their heads.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction in 2017, the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award, the 2017 Pen/John Kenneth Galbraith Award, the 2017 Andrew Carnegie Medal, and more, Evicted is the emotional and heartbreaking story of what happens when people are evicted from their homes. As the author points out, it’s not just the roof over their heads that’s lost, but also a neighborhood, friends, schools, and a sense of safety and personal dignity.
If you know nothing about eviction, there is no better book to read than Eviction because most of us are shielded from the realities of poverty where evictions are commonplace between landlords and tenants. The author makes a strong argument for the importance of a home and how its loss impacts every part of life including opportunity, work, community, and often, our children and extended family. That most of the evicted spend more than half their income (most of which appears to be government assistance) and sometimes up to 80% on rent sets them up for eviction because there are simply very little resources left to meet basic necessities (i.e. gas, electric, food, healthcare, shoes, etc).
As easy as it would be to say the landlords and the government are the bad guys leaving the tenants as victims (and the author does assert this), it’s not that simple. There are landlords who shy away from tenants with past evictions (as does the government for public housing), criminal records, and those who have children for both valid and invalid reasons and there are also landlords who fail to provide a basic level of repair and maintenance to apartments targeted for the impoverished. But, there are also tenants who prefer government assistance over working, trash apartments, and make bad decisions where hardship is self-inflicted, including:
- a mother of two young sons giving half her SSI check to a mortuary for her sister’s funeral instead of to her landlord to keep a roof over their heads;
- a 41-year old matriarch leaving her 20-year old daughter in charge of her teenage children and grandchildren to board a bus with her best friend to New Orleans to pass out blankets and help serve food in 2005 causing the family to fall behind in rent;
- a young woman getting pregnant at 18 with no job or prospects;
- tenants drinking “Milwaukee’s Best” at 11 am in the morning;
- a woman blowing a few hundred dollars on a makeup application kit advertised on television;
- a woman buying a two hundred-dollar beauty cream instead of paying the rent;
- a tenant spending her monthly allocation of food stamps on a lobster and king crab legs dinner leaving her dependent upon food pantries for the rest of the month;
- tenants buying cigarettes when there is no food in the house;
- a tenant vowing to “buy some food and clothes and some drugs now and then;”
- a young woman beating and kicking the head of a woman who tried to help her; and spending her SSI check on clothes, fast food, and slot machines at a local casino;
- a nurse addict justifying bad decisions by claiming reinstatement requirements were too far out of reach; and
- tenants admitting they prefer collecting an SSI check and food stamps to holding steady employment.
Both of these parties – the tenant and the landlord – appear to be on a continuum and not at one end or the other. Landlords want the rent paid (to pay their mortgage, property taxes, and bills), their property taken care of (the author makes the point that some tenants “were less than tidy” when they would leave dishes piled in the sink, garbage overflowing and then wonder why apartments were infested with cockroaches), and no criminal activity. Tenants want a decent place to live but not pay more than 30% of their income on rent.
The problem is that neither side is getting what they want which provokes the reader to think deeply about why. Is it our unfailing belief in capitalism in the private housing industry? a reluctance to interfere with private enterprise? our reluctance to have the government oversee a national housing program? a reluctance to pay for national housing with taxes? our belief in a safety net that values hunger and education more than housing? or is it an unspoken belief that people simply need to be responsible for themselves, the families they create, and work for what they get? When opportunity is inequitable, the answers aren’t so easy.
One of the strongest arguments attesting to how screwed up the system is relates to physically abused women. When the police are called to an address more than three times a month in Milwaukee, the landlord is sent a letter alerting him/her that the property is a nuisance property (gobbling up police resources) and subject to severe penalties. So, the landlord has the right to evict the tenant (s) occupying the apartment where the police were sent. That the calls may have been made to the police reporting the physical abuse of a tenant does not matter. In Milwaukee, the landlord can legally evict the victim and therefore punish her for a crime committed by someone else. She has to “keep quiet and face abuse or call the police and face eviction.”
Evicted is an upsetting book. Even the author admits “the work was heartbreaking and left me depressed for years.” You won’t feel good reading this book (but you will learn a lot) because most of us can’t imagine the horror of the Sheriff knocking on the door, telling us to vacate our home. Movers are also at the door. All personal belongings are packed up and moved out of the house and either onto the curb or into storage. And, then there is the humiliation of standing outside with family wondering where you will sleep tonight and how to feed your kids? It’s a horror that most of us thankfully don’t live through but a nightmare that thousands of people face every single day.
The author writes “America is supposed to be a place where you can better yourself, your family, and your community. But this is only possible if you have a stable home.” How we obtain a stable home for all is the hardest question to answer. The author argues for a national housing program but we also have to reduce alcohol abuse, drug abuse, tobacco, sexual abuse, physical abuse, mental abuse, crappy food, bad decision-making and an inequitable system of opportunity for a start.