Book Review: Evicted – Poverty and Profit in the American City

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Evicted is the non-fiction story of eight families, who, because of their circumstances in life, do not matter. A turbulent statement, perhaps, but when you boil everything down to its barest possibilities, these poor, destitute, impoverished lives are among a contingent of people in the United States, who are off the radar of the American consciousness. In Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond, a Harvard University professor, American sociologist, urban ethnographer, and awardee of the 2015 MacArthur "Genius" grant for his contributions on the subject of poverty in America, gives voice to the troubled existence of those viewed as “less than.” Correction! The subjects of his heart wrenching book are not considered “less than,” they are simply the unconsidered. 

Danielle Shaw and Jerry Allen

Danielle Shaw and Jerry Allen were not expecting the authoritative knock on the door that signaled the end of their lives residing at their humble abode. In the midst of the sound of children’s laughter, the Milwaukee County sheriffs walked in and set in motion the beginning of the end (Desmond). Danielle and Jerry were advised of their choices this day, they could store their belongings for a substantial fee, or they could have their possessions placed on the curb. If you cannot afford to pay your rent, how can you afford to pay for storage? Realizing that today was the day, Jerry challenged the sheriff stating that the landlord had advised that they would have more time to prepare. It was clear that the pair were getting ready to leave, but it was also clear that they were nowhere near that finish line. Calls were made asking friends and relatives for help, as a look of abject fear, anguish and despair was forming on Danielle’s face as the movers proceeded to carry her refrigerator and stove out the door.

Matthew Desmond – the Author

Matthew Desmond’s resume often makes him seem like an unlikely candidate to be documentarian of the lives of the disenfranchised. A Harvard University, John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences, co-director of the Justice and Poverty Project, and Harvard Society of Fellows, Junior Fellow, you might expect Desmond to be a member of the ivory tower club, that group of erudite talking heads who point and click from afar, while wearing their Brooks Brothers kicks, as their wives proudly display their Christian Louboutins - but no. Desmond walks the walk. His vivid ethnographic accounts could only be told by someone committed to the trenches.

Desmond’s students learn about poverty, social theory, ethnography, urban sociology, race, ethnicity and about organizations and work environments. The professor has written about the inner-city and the housing market, the impact of educational inequality, race and its influence on social theory, political ideology, and dangerous employment. Desmond has been the recipient of grants from numerous organizations, including the Russell Sage, National Science Foundation and Ford, as the key investigator in a study on Milwaukee Area Renters, which surveys impoverished Milwaukee residents in the private housing sector. 

Arleen, Jori and Jafiris

Jori was having a grand time throwing snowballs at passing cars. Unfortunate for him, he hit one of the cars and the driver gave chase. As Jori ran, the driver followed and kicked down the door of his family home, where his mom Arleen, and younger brother Jafiris lived. The landlord put the family out, and so the saga began. Arleen was able to find another place to live, where her rent absorbed eighty-four percent of her income, yet it was still no safe haven, as the authorities condemned the home. The family next moves to a residence Arleen described as “Crack Head City,” a vivid moniker for the comings and goings of some of the community residents. 

Onward and upwards, Arleen and family move to a duplex, the cost of which now consumes eighty-eight percent of her income. In anticipated trouble once again, she is unable to keep up with the rent and is evicted on Christmas Eve eve. Luckily, the new recipient of the duplex, Crystal, allows the family a reprieve until Arleen is able to find a new home. But friction between Arleen and the good Samaritan ensues. There are screaming matches and name calling, even Jori is involved. Crystal begins to speak in tongues, and states that she will not kick the family out despite their problems. Another argument occurred, but this time Arleen was not easy to calm. Her life flashed in front of her and she remembered how she had never received love from anyone. Her father molested her and her mother did not react. Crystal screamed back that she did know what that was like. She said that her stepfather had molested her and it was the reason she had been sent to foster care. Finding mutual ground the two embraced and started their friendship anew. After calling an endless list of landlords, Arlene finally finds a new place, but before leaving she tells her son to remove an inexpensive adapter she had purchased from the gas line, which turned the stove off. Crystal screams at Arleen and a new fight ensues. Names are hurled, profanity flies, and Crystal through the family’s clothes into the yard. Jori joins in and smashes Crystal’s TV, Jafiris hits her with a shower rod.

Arleen moves, but not too long thereafter is evicted yet again. Things do not get better, though. She makes a new attempt at securing a place to live and decides to share an apartment with a neighbor. Her new “landlord,” a “lady of the night” makes this situation even more volatile than before, she has to consider her two boys and the impact this circumstance might have on them. Yet, the next rental is the site where Arleen and company are robbed at gunpoint. Finally, her next abode cost her ninety-six percent of her income, so the lights go off. Child welfare removes Jori and Jafiris from their loving mother and their new home. The tragic stories of Arleen, Jori and Jafiris; Danielle and Jerry, and others, are told in mesmerizing detail in this groundbreaking treatise about the tragedy experienced by the powerless and most vulnerable in our society. 

Eviction is a Cause not a Condition of Poverty

Desmond’s exploration into the lives of his subjects reveals the regularity with which evictions take place in the experience of the underprivileged. This is particularly true in the case of those who live in the inner city. A thorough examination of court records show that as much as one in fourteen renters in Milwaukee’s black neighborhoods, is evicted annually. This does not even begin to contemplate the number of undocumented involuntary displacements which occur. Involuntary displacements likely represent an even higher number of evictions annually, as landlords try to avoid the high costs associated with the formal court controlled eviction process.  

Court evictions and involuntary displacements were not the only forms of dispossessions available to unscrupulous landlords. Some proprietors turned off tenants’ electricity or heat. In some instances, landlords removed apartment front doors, exposing the family to nosey onlookers, vandalism and theft, humiliation, and housing authority condemnation. This aggressive, illegal scheme for dislodging tenants was off the books and under the veil of shadows. Adding illegal displacements to the mix of evictions, underprivileged black tenants suffered at a rate of one in seven, while Hispanic renters suffered at a rate of one in four.

So what ultimately happens to the chronically evicted? Many of the chronically evicted wind up in shelters, or become homeless living on the street or in their car, if they have one. Those that do find housing have such horrific rental records that they can only find rentals in dilapidated, perilous tenement houses. Chronic eviction has severe consequences for children, as well. Children victimized by habitual evictions suffer emotionally and their state of mind is often reflected in their school work. In the case of Jori, Arleen’s son, he attended five schools while he was in the 7th and 8th grades and missed seventeen days of school in a row, at one point. Eviction destabilizes children’s lives, they have no safe haven. In fact, Desmond found that adults suffer irreparable damage, too. Consequences of chronic eviction for adults include poor health, depression, persistent hardship, loss of employment and ongoing housing instability. Through his research, Desmond has determined “that eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty” and that the scarcity of low-cost dwellings is the explanation for the high number of low-income people being evicted (Desmond). He and his team determined that the housing crisis is at its highest peak since World War II, and that the real estate bust may have lowered home prices, but it did not lower rental rates. Rental rates in Milwaukee have gone up over the last sixteen years, yet wages and welfare checks have not kept pace with rental increases. 

Desmond’s Beginnings

Desmond attended the University of Wisconsin and launched his research into eviction in 2008 while he was a graduate student. In order to authentically communicate about the lives he was recording, he moved into one of the trailer parks on the south side. He tried to locate people with eviction notices. At the time, the trailer park was receiving press because a local alderman was trying to close the park because of the ongoing crime coming out of the park and the housing code violations the park had accumulated. Desmond had identified himself as a writer looking into the problems the park was experiencing. Raw sewage escaped from the septic tanks and came up under some of the trailers. Desmond himself did not have hot water most of the time. The trailer park’s landlord Tobin Charney was able to obtain a reprieve from the housing department shutting the park down, in part due to the cries of tenants who said that if the park were to close, they would become homeless. 

After his south side experience, Desmond moved to the north side of Milwaukee. Sherrena Tarver (names were changed to protect the innocent and guilty) was a tough cookie landlord who didn’t really like the people she rented to, calling them “low-quality people” (Desmond). Desmond shares his experience there as well. During his research, Desmond followed the lives of eight different families from opposite sides of town, supervised the distribution of numerous surveys on thousands of Milwaukee tenants and over two hundred people who were required to appear in housing court. Added to this he attended meetings between tenants and landlords, traveled on scene with county eviction crews and sheriff officers. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City is an authentic tale of heartbreak and destitution in the inner city.

Works Cited

Desmond, Matthew. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. New York: Crown, 2016 Print.