Where poverty and eviction meet

August 9, 2016

Brian Sullivan reviews the book Evicted, which tells the story of Milwaukee families struggling to keep a roof over their heads in the face of poverty.

IN THE much-celebrated "land of opportunity," there are over 45 million people who live in poverty. This is approximately 15 percent of the U.S. population. At 20 percent, America's child poverty rate is among the worst in the developed world.

Yet this large section of the population remains mostly invisible. Hidden behind racist shibboleths like the "welfare queen" or condescendingly depicted as hapless victims, those living in poverty are dehumanized and forgotten, and the causes of their struggles are obscured.

In his excellent book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond brings us into the lives of a handful of Milwaukee residents struggling to survive under the heavy yolk of poverty. Writing in a lyrical, ethnographic style, Desmond describes the harsh realities of poverty in America without either fetishizing his subjects or turning to victim blaming.

He introduces us to the actual human beings who have to survive in a cruel environment and casts their lives in a light that is both sober and loving. In telling their stories, Desmond also reveals the complex web of laws, social relations and market forces that structure the lives of both landlords and tenants, enriching the former at the expense of the latter.

A closed-down trailer park in Milwaukee
A closed-down trailer park in Milwaukee

THE BOOK follows a disparate group of Milwaukeeans as they navigate the perilous terrain of the urban rental market. Desmond spent countless hours with the subjects of the book, going to court, preparing for evictions, going to church and just hanging out. His patient attention pays off. Evicted gives readers a rich sense of life scrambling to make ends meet.

We meet, for example, the Hinkstons (Desmond changed all names to protect anonymity), a charismatic Black family who have been evicted from their longtime home. After a shooting on their street, the Hinkstons' home is searched first by the police, then by child protective services. Despite the fact that the family had nothing to do with the shooting, and obviously loves and cares for their children, they are targeted for eviction.

Government involvement, in the form of either policing or social services, can be a hassle for a landlord, and rather than deal with that hassle, the Hinkstons' landlord decides to kick them out. The Hinkstons are forced to move to a more run-down building in a worse neighborhood.

After they move in, the Hinskstons' new landlord, Sherrena, refuses to make basic repairs, choosing instead to blame the tenants for bad conditions in their home. The consequences of Sherrena's management style are brought into tragic relief when there is a fire in a neighboring building.

Sherrena had neglected to install a smoke detector in the neighbor's bedroom, and a fire in the bedroom kills the neighbor's 8-month-old baby. While the Hinkstons comfort their neighbor, Sherrena contacts the fire inspector to make sure she won't be held responsible. And that she will not have to return the grieving mother's rent.

WE ALSO spend time with Larraine, a 54-year-old white woman who lives in a trailer park. Larraine lives on public assistance, and has to spend 70 percent of her monthly income on rent. Despite her best efforts, she falls behind on rent and is evicted from her humble home.

In one of the best passages in the book, Desmond describes how after the eviction, Larraine decides to spend her entire monthly food stamp allowance on a shrimp and lobster dinner. Rather than moralize the splurge, Desmond points out,

People like Larraine lived with so many compounded limitations that it was difficult to imagine the amount of good behavior or self-control that would allow them to lift themselves out of poverty. The distance 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...

Larraine learned a long time ago not to apologize for her existence.

Or as Larraine herself explained it, "I have a right to live, and I have a right to live like I want to live."

Evicted is mostly about tenants and those at the losing end of the relentless hunt for profit. But Desmond also spends time with the hunters, landlords who own property in impoverished neighborhoods.

Through Sherrena, the Hinkstons' landlord, we are given a window into the lucrative business of renting to tenants at the bottom of the housing market. Sherrena is a shrewd businesswoman, and has learned how to take advantage of a complex set of laws and market incentives to turn distressed properties into rich sources of profit.

As she proudly declares to other landlords afraid to rent in impoverished neighborhoods, "the hood is good." Because of the dearth of affordable housing in the Milwaukee, rents in poverty stricken neighborhoods remain high. Because of years of disinvestment and racist lending practices, property values in those same neighborhoods are low.

Sherrena takes advantage of this contradiction by buying cheap properties, and renting them at exorbitant amounts to tenants who have nowhere else to go. Because the tenants are desperate, there is no need for Sherrena to maintain her investments. When a building becomes too dilapidated to rent out, she stops paying the mortgage, and "lets it go back to the city." At every step of the way, city and state policy enrich Sherrena and protect her from liability.

WHILE THE stories that Desmond tells in Evicted are incredible in their own right, he skillfully uses them to make larger points about the political economy of housing in the U.S. One of his most crucial conclusions is that eviction is not simply the result of, but also the cause of poverty.

After an eviction, tenants are more likely to be rejected by future landlords, more likely to struggle at work, and are forced to live in more distressed neighborhoods. Eviction thus explains the persistence of poverty, and its uneven effects. Desmond demonstrates that eviction is a problem that disproportionately affects Black women, arguing,

If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished Black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor Black women were locked out.

Evicted thus supplements Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, revealing how civil law, like criminal law, has been used as a tool for the benefit of the ruling class.

This arrangement is no accident. A combination of market conditions and state support conspire to enrich landlords at the expense of tenants. Desmond writes:

Exploitation within the housing market relies on government support. It is the government that legitimizes and defends landlords' right to charge as much as they want; that subsidizes the construction of high-end apartments, bidding up rents and leaving the poor with even fewer options; that pays landlords when a family cannot...; that forcibly removes a family at landlords' request by dispatching armed law enforcement officers; and that records and publicizes evictions, as a service to landlords and debt collection agencies.

In making this case, Desmond successfully debunks many myths about the causes of poverty. It is not, for example, a "culture of poverty" that prevents Black people from prospering. Rather, it is a set of racist practices in both the private and public spheres, practices designed to ensure profit for the few.

Against those who claim that poverty is a personal failing, caused by laziness, Desmond uncovers the countless interrelated hurdles placed before poor people. Indeed, some of the characters in Evicted make heroic efforts to find new housing, or a new job, but are stymied in their efforts by forces beyond their control.

Evicted does not romanticize its subjects, but does depict them doing their best on a terrain designed to make them fail.

WHILE EVICTED succeeds in depicting poverty in a humane light, and debunking mystifying explanations for its source, the book fails to offer any compelling solutions. This failure is the product of Desmond's commitment to the private housing market and faith in capitalist social relations.

Toward the end of the book, Desmond suggests an expansion of the housing voucher program and of legal services for low-income tenants. While both would be welcome reforms, neither would bring about the sweeping changes necessary to eradicate poverty.

Housing vouchers are a government benefit that subsidizes both tenants and landlords. A voucher holding tenant pays 30 percent of her income towards rent, and the government covers the balance. It is a market-based solution that, as Desmond himself acknowledges, was first introduced by the real estate industry.

Desmond favors this solution over a massive expansion in publicly owned housing because public housing is, according to him, unrealistic, and vouchers balance the right of landlords to make a profit with the right of tenants to an affordable home.

The problem is, exploitation and the elevation of profit over human need are inherent to a market system. Unlike public housing, vouchers encourage landlords to raise rents, and government at all levels is likely to support them in this project. In the current housing market, the state is an active participant in exploitation, there is no reason to think that would change in a market flooded with vouchers.

Furthermore, the massive expense of an expanded voucher system is no more realistic a goal than an expansion of public housing. In New York City alone, hundreds of millions of dollars are wasted each year subsidizing luxury development. The resources exist to build public housing, but it does not happen because it would not be profitable.

Expanded legal services for poor tenants would also be a welcome reform. However, even the most dedicate housing advocates can only accomplish so much within a legal system designed to protect landlord profits. A skilled housing attorney can do nothing to prevent the marshal from evicting a tenant who cannot afford to pay her rent.

Citywide rent strikes and other collective strategies, however, can more effectively change power dynamics in the landlord/tenant relationship. Desmond writes briefly about collective battles for tenants' rights, but sounds a hopeless note regarding tenants' ability to replicate these battles today.

This dour conclusion ignores the many inspiring battles for tenants' rights taking place today, such as that being waged by the Crown Heights Tenants Union in New York City.

Unlike The New Jim Crow, Evicted never clearly identifies the bad guys, nor does it successfully reveal their goals. While Michelle Alexander proved that mass incarceration was a ruling-class project intended to roll back the gains of the civil rights movement, Desmond fails to follow his arguments to their logical conclusion. Specifically, that poverty is the intentional result of a system that raises profit above the needs of people, and that exploitation in the housing market will exist as long as housing is provided in a private market.

Evicted is essential reading for activists, social services workers and anyone else interested in ending poverty. It is beset, however, with a series of limitations. By remaining trapped within a world in which housing is provided in a private market, Desmond fails to imagine a world in which quality housing is a guaranteed right.

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