Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

Up to no good, their depleted Milwaukee homes being hit by one of the worst snow-laden winters in recent history, Jori and his cousin were out on the street corner tossing tightly packed snowballs towards oncoming traffic. With one accurate pitch, Jori and his cousin managed to capture the attention and anger of one passing driver – pulling his car to a sudden stop, chasing down the boys who had fearfully ran home and locked themselves inside, and kicking their apartment’s flimsy door from its hinges with a few sturdy kicks. Retribution being had, the man left, leaving Jori, his brother Jafaris, and his mother Arleen with a story they now had to inform their landlord of. Once Arleen’s landlord caught wind of the incident, rather than fixing the door or giving the family a second chance, she decided to evict them from the premises, out onto the streets during that harsh winter.

In regards to their property, Arleen had the choice of having the forceful movers either toss her possessions out onto the street, or to have them all placed in a bonded storage unit, which carried a monthly  and removal fee. Arleen chose the storage unit. She was well accustomed to living in debt to companies and the state. Other than her possessions, Arleen and her boys were also facing homelessness due to the eviction. Arleen immediately began searching for apartments, finding one in one of the worst neighborhoods of the North side of Milwaukee. The rate for the two-bedroom apartment was $550 a month, utilities not included. The rent would take 88% of Arleen’s $628-a-month welfare check, but she could not complain or fight back. Her choices were to either secure a home for her and her children or to face the shelters or the snow swept streets.

Matthew Desmond’s Evicted chronicles the lives of 8 intertwining, Milwaukee families and their struggles with landlords, evictions, and poverty. A brilliant work of ethnographic documentation and research, Desmond provides a humanizing portrayal of the often misrepresented poor classes of American society, along with presenting statistical data to highlight the ineffectiveness of the social welfare system in America. While Desmond humanizes the the people and the struggles that they are facing, he is certain not to romanticize them, often noting how their troubles are not all produced by the faults of society, but sometimes created by their own misdoings. Crystal and Trisha are young black women who come from troubled, violent homes; Arleen and Doreen are black mothers struggling to support their families with their minimum-wage income; Lamar is a black father who had both legs amputated after contracting frostbite following a crack-induced bender, passing out in an abandoned home; Larraine is a white trailer park dweller, brain damaged following an early childhood injury; and Scott, a resident of the same trailer park as Larraine, is a white nurse whose opioid addiction led him to steal medication from his patients, losing his license in the process. All of these people are living under the poverty line, yet Desmond is keen on assuring that while they may be poor, they do not fit the stereotypical narrative prescribed to most poverty stricken people, and that their lives are unique in their own ways. However, he is certain to portray that that which makes their lives alike is the contributing factor that promotes their economic distress – the fact that “all of them have a landlord.”

The critique of the landlord stems from the fact that they are profiting from those stricken by poverty, along with the monthly state welfare programs that are meant to support them. Being indebted to a property manager is not out of the ordinary historically, yet the American system and its exploitation of the poor is problematic. With housing voucher programs few and far between, landlords are able to set the rates for going apartments as they wish, knowing that people are going to pay what they must to assure they, and possibly their family, require a roof over their heads. Becoming ever evident during the phase of deindustrialization, the conditions of inner-cities properties had been getting worse, essential needs and fixes being overlooked, while prices for the properties began to steadily rise.  Currently in the United States, at least one in four tenants dedicate over 70 percent of their income or welfare checks to monthly rent and utilities. Following importation tax hikes, public energy mandates, and oil crises, monthly utility bills rose by more than 50 percent since the year 2000. The rising costs of livings negatively affected tenants across the country, with 1 in 5 families missing their monthly payments and facing the possibility of having their electricity, gas, or water shut off by the respective departments.

Because of the leverage that landlords had over their highly lucrative properties, they were able to evict tenants who couldn’t pay their monthly bills at will, with 1 in 8 Milwaukee renters being forced to move from their residences between 2009 and 2011. Yet, as Desmond reminds the reader, if a tenant does not pay their $500 monthly rent, then the landlord loses $500 they should have had that month. Just as much as it is difficult for some to pay their rents, due to a variety of economic and societal issues, landlords required the rents rightly due to them, as it was their means of income.

The landlords that Desmond presents are not that bad off, though. Although the face struggling times, here and there, you get landlord Sherrena and her husband, Quentin,  who preside over the dilapidated, African American ghetto properties of Northern Milwaukee, living in a home with a fully furnished basement, filled with beige leather furniture and an inset Jacuzzi tub, along with having the funds to vacation on the pristine beaches of Jamaica. Likewise, you have Tobin, who owns the trailer park that house 131 trailers, in which both Scott and Larraine live in, who makes nearly $500,000 a year, following mortgage and utility payments. So as much as you want to feel for them and the troubles they face when dealing with their tenants, it is hard to feel for them when they are reaping the benefits of the poor with overpriced, sub-par housing and the untouched fixes the housing requires for human residence – with doors knocked off the hinges, single bathrooms with toilets and tubs caked with black grime, ceilings sagging from once leaking pipes, and kitchens filled with broken appliances and sinks backed up and spewing out discolored water from the rusted pipes. 

No matter how horrific these housing situations sound, people who are hurriedly evicted from their properties are required to accept it. Again, for mothers, their choice is to either provide a home, a place for security, for their children, or to move their children into a shelter or onto the streets. For fear of shaming, feeling inadequate as a responsible human and parent, most have to accept the poor housing conditions, for they have no other options.

To expedite the process, as well as strong arming tenants, landlords will evict tenants through the justice system, working through the means of local sheriffs and courts.  Due to the stereotyping of poor renters and their collective criminal records and “eviction histories,” the courts most often sided with landlords, stating that the renters were the root cause and that the evictions were justified. Much like how the court system stereotypes and incarcerates poor black males at higher rates, they evict poor black women at much higher rates than any other people – twice as often as black men, and nine times as often as poor white women. Desmond pointedly highlights the issue of the system, “Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”

The system is built against of the interests of progressing racism, sexism, as well as class struggles. In the inner cities, those worse off are the ones with the least wealth. This segregation did not come naturally though, it was produced when politicians reduced public housing funds and allowed public housing to fall into a state of disrepair. Although most housing became unlivable, landlords were able to work the system, sending rents through the roof. Poor families still needed to provide shelter to their kin, so they began living above their standards, under conditions that they could not feasibly afford. Landlords, wanting their rent or accumulated debt owed to them, began evicting families from their homes by the millions each year. Now, relinquished to the streets, families sought out other housing, still above their means, leading to another eviction and continuing the cycle poverty. Thus, “eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.”

The source of America’s eviction epidemic, as Desmond states in his conclusion, is not due to the character of the poor, but for “the rapidly shrinking supply of affordable housing.” This poverty exists because of the political disinterest in rerouting resources towards social welfare programs.  The pain and horror that poverty brings will not end until these resources are allocated, assuring that cities become affordable even for the most poor American citizens.

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