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Evicted by Matthew Desmond

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City - Matthew Desmond

Evictions in the U.S. used to be rare events, drawing crowds of protesters. But these days, for low-income renters, evictions are commonplace; housing courts exist to process nothing else, while many more people are forced to move without ever going to court. But eviction can have long-term consequences; it becomes harder and harder to find new housing, and people are forced to accept poorer options, along with potentially losing their personal belongings. Those who have been evicted are more likely to suffer depression even years later.

This book follows eight or so Milwaukee tenants and families facing eviction, as well as two major landlords: one, the owner of a notorious trailer park on the white side of town (Milwaukee being a particularly segregated city), the other the owner of a number of properties in the black inner city. The tenants are a diverse lot, but they are uniformly dysfunctional, whether they’re picking fights, addicted to drugs, spending limited funds unwisely, missing welfare appointments, or deciding in a moment of desperation to mug someone for rent money. This is not a book for the judgmental reader (for that, I suggest Two Dollars a Day, which is an excellent complement to this one whether you’re judgmental or not). That said, it works, because the author’s point isn’t that the tenants are blameless. It’s that everyone, no matter how undesirable as a tenant, has to live somewhere. And while a stable home can be a base for someone to get their life together or begin recovering from addiction or trauma, having none is likely to exacerbate their problems and may send them into a downward spiral.

Evictions aside, though, housing for low-income people in the U.S. is a mess. Only about a third of those who qualify for housing assistance receive it, due to lack of funds. This means everybody else is on their own, which can mean spending most or all of their income on rent. Low-income housing isn’t actually much cheaper (if at all) than middle-income housing – just less selective and in much poorer condition.

Desmond deals with all this through the stories of the tenants, which after a slow start (I was about 100 pages in before becoming sure I’d finish) become quite compelling. You can’t help but feel bad for these messed-up people and their poor kids. And the stories do an excellent job of illustrating the problems low-income tenants face, as they spend their days searching frantically for housing, only to lose it – sometimes for good reason, sometimes not. This will be an eye-opener for a lot of readers and I’m glad to see it getting the attention it deserves.

Interestingly, the book spends a fair amount of time on the landlords’ point-of-view, but they never become sympathetic. They are oddly open about their moneymaking schemes: for instance, Tobin, the absentee owner of the trailer park, uses the “Handyman Special,” meaning he gives away the trailers, then charges tenants $500 a month in “lot rent” (for the land the trailer is on). This makes the tenants, as owners of the trailers, responsible for all upkeep and repairs, but ownership gets them nowhere because, if evicted from the land, they lack the money to move the trailers (even if they’re worth enough to move) or anyplace to move them to. So he gets to reclaim them as “abandoned property” and start all over with new tenants. Meanwhile Sherrena, the inner-city landlady, seems to have really opened up to the author, but it’s not a pretty picture: she files spiteful evictions against people who’ve offended her to make their housing search more difficult, and complains that tenants with nowhere to go are “selfish” for not moving out faster. Even the attempts to humanize her by showing her personal life backfire; she enjoys eating out, vacations in Florida and Jamaica, and gambling, i.e., living large off the desperate people whose stories comprise the majority of the book.

While much of this book is broadly applicable to the U.S., though, it would have benefited from more research into areas outside of Milwaukee. Some of these Wisconsin laws and practices are jaw-droppingly bad (and let’s just say I’m not comparing it to California). In Wisconsin, apparently, evicted tenants are given no advance notice of when the sheriffs will come to padlock them out, and movers come along to dump their stuff out on the spot, rather than allowing tenants time to return and collect it. Tenants are given separate court dates for the eviction itself and to determine the amount of money owned (unsurprisingly, hardly anybody shows up for the second one). And police departments pressure landlords – through threats of fines and even imprisonment – to evict anyone who is a “nuisance,” meaning anyone who calls the police a lot. Even if it’s for very good reason, such as the caller or their neighbor being a victim of domestic violence. One landlord in the book gives a tenant a hard time for calling 911 when her child has an asthma attack, while others post signs telling tenants not to call the police. In emergencies. I cannot get my head around this and can only hope someone sues this police department into oblivion – because what use are police if they’re forcing people to decide between eviction and calling for help in emergencies? How can this do anything but make the city more dangerous?

Okay, more on the police thing. When the Milwaukee PD gets three calls in a month from any one address, they force the landlord to come up with a plan to address the “nuisance,” and eviction seems to be the only plan they accept. One landlord, in a letter I can only hope was written in a subtle attempt to shame the department, wrote: “First, we are evicting Sheila M, the caller for help from police. She has been beaten by her ‘man’ who kicks in doors and goes to jail for 1 or 2 days. (Catch and release does not work.) We suggested she obtain a gun and kill him in self-defense, but evidently she hasn’t. Therefore, we are evicting her.” Any intended irony went right over the police’s heads, though. The response? “This notice serves to inform you that your written course of action is accepted.”

Anyway, this is a good book, and you should read it. Maybe only when you are ready to be outraged. But the author did an excellent job and I hope people pay attention.