We all know, or at least know of, some poor soul who encounters one misfortune after another. They give us pause, the unfortunate; we feel sorry for them, we wish we could help, and sometimes we can do a little something that makes things marginally better. Usually they don’t occupy our thoughts for long, though: we quickly shift our focus to something more pleasant. Before doing so, we may try to come to terms with what’s happened by blaming (“If only he hadn’t done that“) or glib truisms (“Life isn’t fair.”) It takes quite a bit to disturb us in a way that sticks with us for days. For me, Matthew Desmond accomplished that feat with his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Broadway Books, 2016).

Desmond, a Princeton sociologist, moved into a dilapidated trailer park in southern Milwaukee and later into a rooming house in the city’s North Side. In both areas, he encountered plenty of people on the edge–people who were having to spend 70 or 80 percent of their income on rent. That left them vulnerable, like riding in an overloaded boat that can be swamped even by small waves. Once that happens, choices become extremely difficult–whether to buy food, pay rent, or pay a utility bill when there isn’t money for all three, for example. It’s become more and more likely that poor renters will find themselves in this situation:

“Since 2000, the cost of fuels and utilities had risen by more than 50 percent, thanks to increasing global demand and the expiration of price caps. In a typical year, almost 1 in 5 poor renting families nationwide missed payments and received a disconnection notice from their utility company.” p. 15

“In 2013, 1 percent of poor renters lived in rent-controlled units; 15 percent lived in public housing; and 17 percent received a government subsidy, mainly in the form of a rent-reducing voucher. The remaining 67 percent–2 of every three poor renting families–received no federal assistance. This drastic shortfall in government support, coupled with rising rent and utility costs alongside stagnant incomes, is the reason why most poor renting families today spend most of their income on housing.” p. 303

Once tenants fall behind, they lose many of their legal protections. They can’t withhold rent if the property is dangerous or in disrepair, and court eviction if they make a report to a building inspector. As a result, renters in arrears often have to endure miserable living conditions. For example, Doreen and her children, one of the families Desmond introduces us to, have holes in the walls, a door off its hinges and clogged drains in the toilet, bathtub, and sink. Desmond describes the eventual effect on the family:

“Doreen stopped cooking, and the children ate cereal for dinner. Patrice [an adult daughter] slept more. The children’s grades dropped, and Mikey’s teacher called saying he might have to repeat, mainly because of so many missed homework assignments. Everyone had stopped cleaning up, and trash spread over the kitchen floor.” p. 257

The family had previously lived for seven years in much better quarters, but had been evicted because police investigating a neighborhood shooting had come to the door, saw the house was a mess, contacted Child Protective Services, who in turn called the building inspector, who cited the landlord. Doreen was behind in rent because volunteering in New Orleans after Katrina had cost her too much. Thus the landlord could retaliate for being cited by evicting Doreen, so he did. In another incident, a young woman named Crystal called 911 to report domestic violence occurring in the apartment above hers. The police responded, but later contacted Sherrena, the landlord, notifying her that they were called because of nuisance activity on her property and would charge her for future enforcement costs. Sherrena responded by taking out eviction papers on Crystal.

Desmond describes the details of the eviction process, from eviction court to the moving crews and sheriff’s deputies that spend all day every day evicting one tenant after another. Those being evicted were given a choice; have all their belongings stacked on the curb or have them taken to storage and pay a monthly storage fee until they could get them out. Some choice! Some homes were neat and tidy, others not so much:

“Sometimes renters had already abandoned the place, leaving behind dead animals and rotting food. Sometimes the movers puked. ‘The first rule of evictions,’ Sheriff John liked to say, ‘is never open the fridge.'” p. 114

Some evictions seem vindictive, as when Ned and Sue were evicted from their trailer and moved in with friends in another trailer; the landlord decided to evict the friends as well. Sometimes a child’s problems are the cause: Arleen’s teenage son kicked a teacher in the shin; when the landlord found out she told Arleen she had to leave or would be evicted. Whatever the cause of the eviction, it’s often tremendously hard for the evicted family to find new quarters. Arleen had been evicted before, and called 90 landlords before finding someone willing to rent to her.

Evictions disproportionately affect blacks and women. In the poorest black neighborhoods, “1 female renter in 17 was evicted through the court system each year, which was twice as often as men from those neighborhoods and nine times as often as women from the city’s poorest white areas.” (p. 98)

Those who are evicted are more likely to subsequently lose their jobs, experience other material hardships such as hunger, and be depressed. Not only those who are evicted suffer, but the neighborhood suffers as well: Desmond found that neighborhoods with high eviction rates have higher violent crime rates the next year. Some of Desmond’s subjects found themselves on the verge of eviction because of poor choices they made. Yet most poor Milwaukee residents had an incredibly small margin for error, and some ended up on the street when the choice they made was reasonable given the circumstances. For example, Arleen’s previous eviction resulted in part from having helped pay her sister’s funeral expenses. What sort of society is set up so that providing a little assistance for a funeral puts someone at risk for homelessness?

Besides those who actually experience eviction, there are many who manage to keep a roof over their heads but struggle to do so. Desmond indicates that 1 in 5 renting families in the US spends half or more of their income on housing. They struggle not just because of low and stagnant wages, but also because landlords can profit by exploiting the poor. In the poorest neighborhoods, housing is dilapidated or in disrepair but only costs marginally less than in other parts of the city. Our housing problem can only be addressed by major societal changes. Desmond mentions especially legal aid to the poor and a universal voucher program.

In the meantime I’m troubled. I’m troubled for Doreen, for Crystal, for Ned and Sue, for Arleen, and for everyone who has been evicted. I’m troubled that I live in a society that does so little to help those without access to adequate housing. And I’m troubled by my inability to help. Thanks to Desmond, I imagine that I’ll stay troubled. I hope his message troubles enough of us that together we can make a difference.

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