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REVIEWING

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

By Matthew Desmond

Heliotrope Books | 2016 | 418 pages

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

Matthew Desmond

Our Worst Shame

If you’ve ever received a shut-off notice or rearranged your finances to pay your rent (desperately calculating how you can pay for food, electricity, garbage, Internet, etc. over the next month) then this book is for you. If you’ve gone to a foodbank, as a client or as a volunteer, this book is for you. If you’re following the election this year and interested in the minimum wage being raised or how race will play out with regards to the proposal of “building a wall,” well then, this book is also for you. This book is simply remarkable.

Matthew Desmond, a sociologist, spent over a year living in the poorest areas of Milwaukee, tracking eight families. Part of the time, he spent in a mostly black area of town known for violence and poor housing; the rest of the time he spent in one of the worst trailer parks in the city.

His work extends to looking at landlords and the crews set up to get rid of renters’ stuff after they have left. The housing situation he describes is beyond deplorable. In the mostly-black neighborhood, renters hardly get what they pay for.

Desmond describes houses that are literally falling apart, decrepit, and sometimes not up to code. In spite of these conditions, people seem pleased to have apartments at all. Even the shabbiest apartments get treated with care and excitement when the renters first move in. He describes the feeling of hope and possibility inherent in moving into a new place. However, Desmond proves that if loving even the worst housing is not hard, then staying in housing can be extremely difficult, hence the name of the book: Eviction.

Take the case of Arleen. A single mom, she has two boys to care for, a fiercely loyal older son and a special-needs younger boy. She moved so many times that I lost track. Her evictions are caused by horseplay from her son and by not having enough money to pay rent.

Sometimes it just seems that getting kicked out falls under the category of bad luck. She actually is somewhat friendly with her landlady, Sherrena, a black woman, who is also portrayed as a decent, though tough, person.

Desmond follows some of the renters to court, where the rules are confusing and seem rigged to benefit landlords. Arleen eventually ends up in a shelter. In spite of her troubles, Arleen is a positive woman, always looking forward, with an ability to laugh at herself. Yes, she could get angry, but she’s also portrayed as a woman of generosity. For part of the time, she becomes friends with a woman who after years of abuse seems so fragile and is constantly moving from foster home to foster home. Although at first it seems like a match made in heaven, eventually the two women explode under the weight of their heavy conditions.

Violence is a constant in the lives of Desmond’s portrayals. Domestic abuse is certainly a reason why the women get evicted. Similarly, landlords sometimes evict tenants because of minor infractions caused by their children. Discrimination is also a constant. Two black women are rejected from housing for no apparent reason, whereas, when he—a white male—pretends to seek the same apartment, he is greeted with open arms.

The deplorable conditions that Desmond describes get spun in a vicious cycle. For example, one family—a mother and her grown daughters and grandchildren—call the landlord to get the plumbing fixed. But, then the landlord blames the plumbing situation on the tenants, saying they pushed things down the sink. So, the plumbing doesn’t get fixed, escalating the faulty plumbing and poor living conditions.

Desmond witnesses this again and again. Sometimes landlords agree to take off part of the rent for tenants who improve the property, but then they often come down hard on the work . For example, one man without legs painted parts of the property but still couldn’t pay the rent.

The situation in one of the poorest trailer parks in Milwaukee is equally bad. Scott, is a former nurse, who once had a nice apartment and a promising career ahead of him. Because of his addiction to heroin, he lived in a trailer park with an older man whom he looked after (his nursing, care-taking impulses continued as his situation deteriorated). 

Pam is a mother of several children who lives with a sometimes violent man. And, Larraine, is an older, ex-beauty, who sometimes “wastes” all her food stamps in one fell swoop to the consternation of her children and friends:

“When her food stamps kicked in, she went to the grocery store and bought two lobster tails, shrimp, king crab legs, salad, and lemon meringue pie. Bringing it all back to Baker’s trailer, she added Cajun seasoning on the crab legs and cooked the lobster tails in lemon butter at 350 degrees. She ate everything alone, in a single sitting, washing it down with Pepsi. The meal consumed her entire monthly allocation of food stamps…”

The argument goes, “if only she or he had more discipline they’d be able to save” or “why does the government pay for such excess?” (the lobster dinner).  But, after paying her rent, Larraine had $164 to last for the rest of the month. According to Desmond, “If Larraine somehow managed to save $50 a month, nearly one-third of her after-rent income, by the end of the year she would have $600 to show for it—enough to cover a single month’s rent.”

One can certainly sympathize and understand why Larraine would “blow” all her money on one meal.

The idea that tenants receiving food stamps or money from the government are “lazy” is dispelled repeatedly through the book. Desmond shows people industriously seeking housing and jobs, calling an absurd number of landlords and dealing with rejection with fortitude. I’m not saying that Desmond coats the reality of the people he interviews in a sugar-coated gloss; rather he shows them with all their warts, their anger, their amazement, their fear.

I sometimes wondered how he could “sit back” and observe some of the terrible scenes he witnessed—women who had become friends coming to blows, Pam, a woman who lives in the trailer park, leaving with her children, desperate to find housing….

Desmond addresses the process of being a sociologist in the back of this book, in “About This Project,” where he describes the bank taking his family home and, therefore, how necessary this project is.

He describes the shame he felt about getting his home taken away and one can see this deep understanding displayed throughout the book.

He describes how we need to unite to face the terrible housing problem in our country. He writes, “Whatever our way out of this mess, one thing is certain. This degree of inequality, this withdrawal of opportunity, this cold denial of basic needs, this endorsement of pointless suffering—by no American value is this situation justified. No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching, can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become.”

I don’t think you can express it much stronger than that. We need to find a way to allow our children to sleep in housing that is affordable, safe, and constant.


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