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Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

July 1, 2020 by admin

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

Written by Matthew Desmond, Ph.D. | Professor of Sociology at Princeton University

Book review by

This summer, a group of students and faculty from the City & Metropolitan & Planning Department at the University of Utah have chosen to read and discuss Matthew Desmond’s book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. Due to the pandemic, many are worried about housing affordability, availability, and a predicted wave of evictions—especially among the disadvantaged and low income. Given the critical role of planning in housing, hopefully, this book will be on every planner’s “shortlist” of summer reads. ● Michael Maloy, AICP, Newsletter Editor

Book Review

In Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City—a tale of poverty in the Rust Belt town of Milwaukee, Wisconsin—a trailer park dweller referred to as “Larraine” blows her entire monthly allotment of food stamps on one luxurious meal. At the supermarket, Larraine splurges on lobster tail, shrimp, and crab legs. She takes the haul back to the trailer where she’s chronically delinquent on rent and utilities and stuffs herself with seafood and Pepsi. Even though she’ll go hungry for the rest of the month, she savors this one really good meal. Larraine’s daughter, her pastor, and her niece can’t understand why a woman living in abject poverty would squander food stamps on a feast when she can’t afford shelter.

Desmond thinks he knows why Larraine chooses short-term rewards at the expense of long-term consequences. Unskilled, aging, and saddled with health problems, she has no hope of escaping poverty. Realizing she’s trapped, she lives for the moment. Desmond notes that Larraine can’t bridge the gap between abject poverty and any kind of stability, even “stable poverty,” as each eviction worsens their lives. No amount of frugality would enable a person in her situation to move up, so some people choose whatever small pleasures are possible. Her vices are shellfish and poor budgeting.

Desmond tells of other impoverished people whose habits are even more self-destructive. There’s “Scott,” the opioid user whose drug use costs him his job as a nurse and leaves him desperately poor and living in the same trailer park as Larraine. There’s also “Lamar,” who—in a crack-induced stupor—passes out in a vacant house one winter night. His feet freeze, and turn purple and black, trapping him there. After days of surviving by eating snow, Lamar hurls himself from a window. He awakens to find that doctors have amputated both his legs.

Desmond explains that poor people in Milwaukee (and other cities) face a stacked deck: Steep rents and limited job opportunities mean they’re always on the edge of eviction. Once evicted, their plight worsens. He details self-destructive decisions and social circumstances that doom his subjects to an endless loop of poverty.

Maggots, Cockroaches and Fatal Fires

Evicted is a significant book that earned rave reviews and multiple awards when first published in early 2016. The timing of Desmond’s research, conducted during 2008 and 2009, suggests that Milwaukee’s eviction wave was a result of the Great Recession. In truth, Desmond’s subjects couldn’t escape the bottom of the income scale even in a boom economy. To his credit, he gives equal time to black poverty and white poverty in Milwaukee. The maggots, cockroaches, and fatal fires in black areas seem more severe, but poor whites hardly fare better. For instance, Larraine endures a brutally cold winter in an unheated trailer, due to her inability to pay the gas bill.

Desmond wisely avoids assigning ideological blame—neither Republicans nor Democrats have effective answers to the poverty trap. A black landlord in the North Side and a white trailer park owner in the South Side emerge as semi-villains, but even they are nuanced characters. Desmond has empathy for his poverty-stricken protagonists. He describes many of them as so overwhelmed by their daily struggle to juggle expenses that they have no energy left to find work or save money.

Destructive Forces

Though he’s an academic, Desmond writes like a top-flight journalist. Evicted reads as if Tracy Kidder, Alex Kotlowitz, Barbara Ehrenreich, or Katharine Boo wrote it. In this stark, sympathetic account, Desmond describes the myriad forces arrayed against Milwaukee’s poor. Landlords pile late fees on tenants who miss payments and then quickly evict them. In black neighborhoods, landlords despise getting complaints about their properties’ condition and can’t abide visits by the police. This leaves female tenants reluctant to call the cops about abusive boyfriends or husbands, even while facing the choice of being beaten now or evicted tomorrow. Eviction can lead to deeper poverty and more evictions. If a landlord kicks a tenant out, the disposed renter might miss work for a day or two to find a new place and move. Missing work leads to job loss, deepening the cycle of poverty. Impoverished families don’t want to move but often have no choice.

In a subplot, Desmond describes the business practices of “Sherrena,” a black landlord who grew wealthy by renting units to black tenants. In one scene, she attends a meeting of Milwaukee landlords and pitches herself as someone tough enough to collect money and post-eviction notices while patiently dealing with difficult tenants. Sherrena tells white landlords not to fear the North Side, the African-American section of town. Lamar is among her tenants and the two fight over rent. Lamar does odd jobs such as house painting for Sherrena and deducts his wages from the amount he owes. Sherrena finds his work subpar and his prices too high.

Staggeringly High Rents

Even in Milwaukee, a city with a comparatively low cost of living, Sherrena’s tenants pay a staggering percentage of their income for shelter. One of her renters, “Arleen,” a single mother of two boys, only recently moved in. She came from a homeless shelter, and her welfare check is $628 a month. Her rent for a two-bedroom apartment Sherrena owns is $550, without utilities. Sherrena welcomes Arleen to the apartment with $40 of groceries, plus supplies from a food pantry, but the landlord’s kindness goes only so far. Arleen has no margin for error in her budget. She soon falls behind on rent. Sherrena moves to evict her just before Christmas. After the eviction hearing, Sherrena gives Arleen a ride back to her apartment. She scolds her for pouring grease down the sink, thus forcing Sherrena to pay for a plumber. On the verge of Arleen’s eviction, a new female tenant leases the apartment and agrees to take Arleen and her sons as roommates. The solution is only temporary. Relations between the two women quickly fray.

“The ’Hood Is Good”

Sherrena constantly complains about the travails of being a landlord—the missed rent payments, the damage to her units, and her tenants’ frequent requests for repairs. Yet renting out subpar apartments made Sherrena wealthy or at least upper middle-class. She and her husband take regular vacations to destinations such as Jamaica, but return by the first of the month when rents come due. Because poor tenants rarely have bank accounts, Sherrena collects the rent in person. During the recession’s foreclosure crisis, Sherrena added to her empire, snapping up a home every month. Reflecting the depressed real estate values on the North Side, Sherrena paid just $16,900 for a four-bedroom house with a porch and new roof and windows. She didn’t expect her properties to appreciate. She banks on cash flow. For landlords, she says, “The ‘hood is good.” But the ’hood isn’t so good for its desperately poor residents, like “Kamala,” who lost her eight-month-old daughter in a fire at one of Sherrena’s houses. The fire inspector said the blaze started after another of Kamala’s daughters knocked over a lamp. It’s unclear if an adult was watching the girls or if Kamala had left them alone. No one rescued the baby or could recall smoke detectors ringing. Sherrena seems undaunted by the tragedy and continues with business as usual.

Bleak Housing

With these stories and more, Desmond shines a light on an overlooked corner of the US economy. He discusses moving companies that specialize in evictions, and data-mining firms selling lists of tenants’ past evictions. Milwaukee’s housing courts overflow with eviction hearings. The effect is that the poorest people survive in a state of constant instability. Landlords evict some 16,000 adults and children every year in Milwaukee, a city of fewer than 105,000 renter families. Displacement comes in many forms—not just evictions but also foreclosures and other pitfalls. From 2009 to 2011, more than “one in eight” Milwaukee renters had to move. Desmond reports that Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, and other US cities have similar levels of evictions.

Desmond mostly keeps himself out of the story, but at the end of the book, he describes his research process. While pursuing his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2008, he embarked on an ethnography project in which he moved from Madison to a South Side Milwaukee trailer park. He learned from newspaper accounts that the residents faced mass eviction. He rented a place and began talking to tenants. Later, Desmond moved to the African-American North Side and documented conditions there. [Desmond’s] reporting [is recommended] to anyone interested in American poverty, income inequality, or economic development.

About the Author

Harvard sociologist and 2015 MacArthur “Genius Grant” winner Matthew Desmond became interested in poverty and housing policy after his parents lost their house to foreclosure.


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