Evicted: Power & Profit in the American City

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Article Written by: H.G.

The majority of impoverished renters spend more than 50% of their monthly income on housing. This startling statistic opens Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted, winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction. Desmond follows eight families who are in the process of eviction. They come from various neighborhoods in Milwaukee, including a trailer park in the city’s (mostly white) South Side and several predominantly Black neighborhoods in other areas. Milwaukee, like many cities, is de facto segregated, where separation of the races isn’t illegal, but remains a fact of life. Desmond's interviews with landlords, tenants, and their associates reveals the pervasiveness of eviction and how it contributes to large-scale housing insecurity for the working poor.

The families experience various reasons for their eviction. One of the most pervasive is nonpayment of rent. The lack of a livable wage, plus a dearth of family and friends with financial means, often leads directly to legal, formal eviction. Landlords can also file a “no cause” eviction. The landlord’s reasons behind a no-cause eviction are more nebulous. The police deemed one residence a "nuisance property", because tenants repeatedly called 911. The landlord evicted the tenants who made the calls. Another tenant was evicted after being chased by a man who broke down the door. All examples are viewed as legitimate reasons to get rid of a "problem" tenant. Desmond lays out the facts with an empathetic tone, exposing the faults in a clearly broken system.

After facing eviction, the families dealt with other challenging circumstances as a result of losing their homes. "Arleen", a single mother, must move several times within the space of a few months, due to the fact she has been evicted several times. The multiple changes of address lead to unwanted consequences, ranging from lost mail to many missed school days for her children, not to mention the extreme stress it puts on the family. "Larraine", an older woman with a learning disability, faces eviction from her trailer. Her anxiety over impending homelessness causes her to forget about an appointment with her social worker. This, in turn, triggers a loss of government benefits for Larraine, who is cut off from services when she needs them most. Others, such as "Scott", cut ties from relatives, their shame preventing them from asking for help. Desmond describes his interviewees' situations without being either dismissive or patronizing. He presents the facts as they are without direct comment on the tenants' choices or morals.

In spite of the myriad problems Desmond presents, he also shows how both tenants and landlords attempt to coexist within the dysfunction. Tenants help each other out when eviction looms. Near strangers pool their resources to make the rent, staving off eviction for one more month. Scott cultivates a symbiotic relationship with a disabled man who lets Scott live with him in exchange for caretaking. For their part, landlords bend the rules to avoid evicting tenants. “Lenny”, a property manager, has tenants perform odd jobs around the trailer park to work off their rent. “Sherrena”, a landlord, provides food for Arleen and lets her slide on rent after Arleen's sister dies. The landlords and property managers are not depicted as villains, but as people with a disproportionate amount of power over their tenants. Desmond is careful not to ignore their benevolence, but underscores that the whims of the landlord can be the catalyst for homelessness.

Evicted pleads with its readers to see the humanity of tenants and the pervasiveness of the housing crisis. Everyone should have access to affordable, safe homes. Constantly living under the threat of eviction is detrimental to tenants and to society at large. To solve the problem, Desmond calls for government subsidized housing through vouchers. Prospective tenants would have more choice over where to live, simply because the funds would be available. Desmond recognizes that vouchers aren’t a magical cure. The suggestion is meant to jump start a larger conversation about housing insecurity and ways to reduce its grip on low-income people. Readers must advocate for these changes, regardless of their housing situation. Before potential solutions become a reality, readers must remain vigilant. Calling on lawmakers and demanding affordable rent is necessary to stem this problem. Those in power are encouraged to act ethically and compassionately toward tenants, ensuring their living spaces are habitable and reasonably priced. People who are secure in their housing have a huge burden lifted from their shoulders, allowing them to be more productive workers, parents, and citizens.

Desmond expertly reveals the all too often ignored housing crisis in America today. The families he follows see their problems snowball as a result of housing insecurity. He compassionately shows how evictions can happen suddenly and can utterly destroy tenants' lives. In addition to providing potential solutions to the problem, he also shows how both powerful landlords and their impoverished tenants work to stave off homelessness. Evicted teaches readers that housing insecurity has been ignored by lawmakers, and it is high time that someone start paying attention to the stories of Arleen, Larraine, Scott, and so many others who are affected by this crisis.