Everything Falls Apart: Book Review of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
When I saw this book mentioned in the Sacramento Housing Alliance newsletter, I knew I had to read it. After spending hours reviewing housing listings on Craigslist, I leave work every day frustrated. Every time I see a place that looks promising for my homeless clients, or for me, I read the same message at the bottom of the page – “No criminal background, no evictions, no rental debt – no exceptions.”
Desmond, a Harvard sociologist, went to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to study the urban poor and the effect that eviction had on their lives. From May 2008 to December 2009, he lived among poor whites in a trailer park and poor blacks in the inner city, following the stories of eight families, and interacting with their two landlords to find out how eviction and extreme poverty affected the two groups.
African American landlord Shereena Tarver was an American success story. The former teacher was the owner of thirty-six rental units in the North Side area of the city and netted around $10,000 each month. For her, “the hood was good.” But most of her tenants didn’t even make $10,000 a year. She was relentless in her dealings with her tenants, evicting them once they got behind on their rent and sometimes even evicting tenants for calling 911. Tobin Charney owned the College Mobile Home Park – home to renters on fixed incomes, drug addicts, and other poor white residents of the all-white South Side of the city. Tobin sometimes made deals with his delinquent tenants, but he also forgot that a tenant had paid her rent for a year in advance. When an evicted family with nowhere to go moved into the trailer of another resident, he evicted them too, and added the first tenant’s rental debt to the amount that they owed.
The story in Milwaukee was similar to many other cities in the United States. When the economic downturn hit, the jobs usually held by unskilled, low-income workers were the first to go. Families that were barely making do were left with nothing. Desmond says, “Families have watched their incomes stagnate, or even fall, while their housing costs have soared. Today, the majority of poor renting families in American spend over half of their income on housing, and at least one in four dedicates over 70 percent to paying the rent and keeping the lights on. Millions of Americans each year are evicted every year because they can’t make rent.” In December 2011, I was one of those Americans, evicted a week before Christmas.
The downward spiral of these eight families was disheartening to read. By the end of the book, only one resident, Scott, a single white male, had escaped the vicious cycle of eviction, personal problems, legal issues, temporary alliances, housing searches, bureaucratic oversights leading to loss of benefits, more searches, and another forced move. Could residents be blamed for giving up? Could Vanetta be blamed for buying new shoes for her son’s preschool graduation when she was facing incarceration? Could Larraine be blamed for buying lobster on food stamps to have one grand feast before becoming homeless again? “The difference between grinding poverty and even stable poverty could be so vast that those at the bottom had little hope of climbing out even if they pinched every penny. So they chose not to. Instead, they tried to survive in color, to season the suffering with pleasure.”
Desmond found that rent amounts in the inner city weren’t that much different from amounts in more affluent areas. “Landlords at the bottom of the market did not lower rent to meet demand and avoid the costs of all those missed payments and evictions…For many landlords, it was cheaper to deal with the expense of eviction than to maintain their properties; it was possible to skimp on maintenance if tenants were perpetually behind; and many poor tenants would be perpetually behind because their rent was too high.” Many tenants were forced to live in housing with broken windows and without adequate plumbing because contacting the landlord could land them on the streets.
Black women were the hardest hit by evictions and black women with children had the most difficulty finding subsequent housing. Desmond’s research revealed that in Milwaukee, “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. Women from black neighborhoods made up 9 percent of Milwaukee’s population and 30 percent of it evicted tenants….Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.” Crystal and Vanetta tried to seek housing outside of the inner city but were confronted with the same barrier faced by me and my clients – “No criminal background, no evictions, no rental debt – no exceptions.” Desmond determined that setting a standard was still discrimination. “But equal treatment in an unequal society could still foster inequality. Because black men were disproportionately incarcerated and black women disproportionately evicted, uniformly denying housing to applicants with recent criminal or eviction records still had an incommensurate impact on African Americans.” Having children made eviction even more inevitable. “The presence of children in the household almost tripled a tenant’s odds of receiving an eviction judgment. The effect of living with children on receiving an eviction judgment was equivalent to falling four months behind in rent.” Due to the nuisance laws in effect in Milwaukee at that time, a victim of domestic violence or a concerned neighbor could be evicted due to multiple police calls to a residence, a practice condoned by the police department. Women had to chose between safety and housing.
“Decent, affordable housing should be a basic right for everybody in this country. The reason is simple: without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.” This is the main point that Desmond illustrates in this book. He states that landlords are more concerned with their profit margins than with the tenants who live in their buildings. One solution that he proposes is to expand the housing voucher program to include all low-income persons, so that families don’t spend most of their monthly income on rent. He compares the tax breaks given to homeowners to the amount spent on low-income families. “Most federal housing subsidies benefit families with six figure incomes.” He feels that this expansion would help to eliminate exploitation of poor families.
But many families with vouchers can’t find landlords that accept them. Landlords need to reconsider their rental requirements. I lost my apartment of ten years when my Unemployment Insurance benefits ceased. It took me seven years to find another full time job and an additional six months for me to find a landlord that was willing to look at evictions and rental debt on a case-by-case basis. Eventually, I may be able to upgrade to a better apartment, but unless changes are made in rent amounts, rent restrictions, and landlord attitudes, most people in low-income communities will never escape the cycle that begins and ends with evictions. Even though I work with a program that can help tenants with initial housing costs, most landlords will not even consider them due to the credit histories and backgrounds.
I hope that Desmond’s book reaches a wide audience, especially those who believe that the poor live in substandard housing because they don’t deserve anything better. By taking his readers into the lives of these families, he personalizes the struggles that they endure, making his point in a way that volumes of statistics could never accomplish. The stories of these families should be required reading for everyone who is concerned with the state of housing in this country. What happened to these families in Milwaukee is duplicated in cities across America. Even in Sacramento.
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this unbiased review. For more information about Desmond and the book, go to www.evictedbook.com.