I cannot believe it took me this long to read Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2017) by Matthew Desmond. Years ago, my book club read this book, but for some reason I didn’t get around to it before the meeting. I was always planning on reading it anyway. It won the Pulitzer Prize, it’s on NPR’s Best Books of 2016 List, and even Obama recommended it. But there were always other books to read, and I was afraid it might be tedious.
And then I finally sat down to read it. This book tells the personal stories of a number of people living in the poorest sections of Milwaukee in 2008 and 2009. They deal with multiple evictions and fight to stay afloat. Many of them also struggle with addiction, mental illness, and past physical and sexual abuse. Although this book is often difficult to get through, it was not tedious at any point. At times I was racing through this book because the discomfort of their lives weighed on me so heavily. I was desperate for some kind of closure. Unfortunately, what starts out badly, usually also ends badly. Desmond makes some calls for reform at the end of the book, including expanding the voucher program. He has shown that it is desperately needed.
Desmond focuses on two areas in Milwaukee. The first is a run-down trailer park in the South (white) part of the city. It is there that we meet Scott, the opiate-addicted former nurse, Larraine, and Pam. Pam is pregnant when she is evicted from the trailer park. She had just handed over her EITC check to the landlord, but it is not enough. He takes it and evicts her. She is desperately searching for a home before the new baby comes, but she and her boyfriend have a history of evictions and arrests. They also have children, which statistically make it harder to find a place and easier to get evicted.
Desmond also goes to the North Side, the part of the city that is predominantly black. We meet Sherrena, a landlord that owns dozens of properties in the poorest part of the city. She works hard, and spends a lot of time collecting rent and dealing with her properties. She also spends a lot of time on evictions. Her tenants include Lamar, Doreen, Arleen, and Crystal. We later meet Vanetta when she and Crystal become friends at a homeless shelter.
Every single one of their stories is both difficult and tragic. Arleen is evicted from her place after her son throws a snowball at a passing car and the man kicks down their door. The rest of the book, she is racing, trying to find another place to stay, and trying to stay ahead of the bills. She is evicted from another place when she gets behind in rent after her sister dies and she helps pay for the funeral. The number of moves is difficult to track, and her kids suffer for it. With so much instability, they are also constantly moving schools. I cannot imagine what that kind of childhood would feel like.
Everyone is so desperate to find a place to live that they can’t be picky about having appliances that work, toilets that flush, sinks that don’t leak, or windows that aren’t broken. The neighborhoods are often dangerous.
Crystal is only eighteen, and she meets Arleen when Sherrena shows her the apartment that Arleen is about to be evicted from. Crystal allows Arleen and her boys to stay. Crystal was abused as a child, and then put in a long list of foster homes. At eighteen and on her own, she has an IQ of about 70. It is not surprising with her upbringing that she suffers from PTSD, bi-polar disorder, and a host of other mental health issues. Crystal has a hard time keeping friends because she tends to blow up at them. But she is passionate about church, and it seems to make her feel happy. Crystal loses her SSI check when she becomes an adult. She becomes homeless and starts prostituting herself.
The tragedies that occur in this book are too numerous to account in any detail. There is the house fire, and there is Vanetta, who was making things work until her hours were cut down at The Country Buffet. I thought some of Desmond’s best writing occurred at the end of Vanetta’s story.
There were a couple of points Desmond made in this book that really took me by surprise. The first was that rents in the inner city and/or in really bad neighborhoods were only marginally cheaper than rents in better neighborhoods and fixed-up apartment buildings. If the demand is there, and people have no power to negotiate, then that’s what happens. What makes this worse, was that many of the people Desmond was following were relying on SSI checks to survive. These checks were often between $600-$800. Rent was often at least $600. Tenants had to make the choice between paying rent and buying food. Or paying rent and paying the power bill. I cannot imagine such a high percentage of my income going to housing. I cannot imagine the stress of trying to survive.
Another point that surprised and angered me was the Milwaukee nuisance law that Desmond describes. If 911 is called to an address three times in 30 days, it is labeled a nuisance property. The landlord is contacted and required to take action or face pretty severe consequences. Most of the time, the landlord’s plan of action was an eviction. These plans had to be approved by the police, and the eviction plan was always looked upon favorably. What’s really bad about this law, though, is that domestic violence was labeled a nuisance. Desmond found a long list of crimes against women that often resulted in those women being evicted because they called the police. At this time in the state of Wisconsin, one victim per week was murdered by a current or former romantic partner or relative. The police chief wondered why women didn’t call for help earlier! Because they didn’t want to get evicted! I can see noise complaints or an argument being a nuisance, but when a woman gets bleach thrown in her face that is a crime with a victim. And forcing that woman out of her home does not help her situation.
Racism is tied into this, too. Similar calls are more likely to be labeled “nuisance calls” in Black neighborhoods. If you are Black, you are often restricted to certain neighborhoods to look for housing. Black women have to deal with the most evictions–even when other factors are taken into account. Perhaps I am a little naive, but I was a little surprised at the virulent racism from many of the tenants in the trailer park. I was also surprised to find out that Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities in the United States.
At the end of the book, Desmond said that seeing all of this pain and lost hope was very difficult for him, and it stayed with him for years. “It leaves an impression, this kind of work. Now imagine it’s your life.” His book made an impression on me, and I was much more removed from the situations than he was. I am left grateful at my safe and steady life, and convinced that we need to do more.
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