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America’s Eviction Epidemic

The tenants and landlords in Matthew Desmond's new book are caught in a vicious cycle.

John Moore / Getty Images

“Love don’t pay the bills,” opines landlord Sherrena Tarver as she prepares to remove another black woman from one of her north Milwaukee properties. When has it ever in America? It’s expensive being poor, and perhaps triply expensive to be black, female, and poor. Although black women make up 9 percent of Milwaukee’s population, they account for 30 percent of evictions in the city, which had a housing crisis even before the Great Recession. One in eight renters experienced a “forced move” during the height of the recession, and one in five black women in Milwaukee will face an eviction sometime in their lives.

A shattering account of life on the American fringe, Matthew Desmond’s Evicted shows the reality of a housing crisis that few among the political or media elite ever think much about, let alone address. It takes us to the center of what would be seen as an emergency of significant proportions if the poor had any legitimate political agency in American life. More than 20 percent of Americans spend over half their income each week on rent, a number that continues to rise, recession or not. For many of the individuals Desmond profiles—including a heroin-addicted ex-nurse who can’t get into an underfunded county rehabilitation program, and a trailer-park property manager whose job hangs in the balance after local politicians target his park as a site of prostitution and drug running—there is little hope of breaking out of the cycle of unstable housing.

Crown, 432 pp., $28

Desmond introduces us to Patrice Hinkston and her three children as they face eviction from a ramshackle building that Tarver, a black working-class striver with “bobbed hair and fresh nails,” owns in the north Milwaukee ghetto. Patrice is given an eviction notice as she pushes the wheelchair of her neighbor, a Vietnam veteran named Lamar, along the street. Soon, he too receives an eviction notice for nonpayment of rent. Lamar tries to work his debt off by painting and improving the apartment Tarver has evicted Patrice from. He is cheap but costs more than hiring “hypes,” the droves of out-of-work men in the community, some homeless, who will labor for well below minimum wage.

After her eviction, Patrice moves her family into another of Tarver’s buildings on the same lot, an apartment where her mother and siblings already live. The result is eight people crowded into a derelict two-bedroom apartment with a broken sink, bathtub, and “barely working” toilet. Withholding rent does not compel Tarver to make repairs—she claims the Hinkstons broke the facilities—and calling a building inspector can be perilous. Tenant protections largely disappear for families who are behind on their rent, as Patrice’s mother was before her daughter and her family moved in. She, too, is eventually taken to eviction court, riding the bus through snowy Milwaukee at Christmastime to appear. The city used to place a moratorium on evictions over Christmas, but no longer.

Tarver’s neglect of her properties comes off as cruel, but Desmond avoids painting her as a villain. She has been hardened by doing her desperate tenants favors, he informs us, giving them food and clothing when they have none, providing when the state can’t or won’t. This goodwill, in Tarver’s eyes, has been returned with late rent payments or broken appliances. After being lenient with a tenant who is ultimately involved in a shooting in one of her apartments, Tarver and her partner clean the blood out of the rug. Calls to law enforcement to settle a domestic-violence dispute end with the police threatening Tarver with fines and recommending she evict the victim of the reported abuse.

The son of a working-class preacher, Desmond is an associate professor of social sciences at Harvard, and he did much of his research as he completed a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin. Evicted recalls Studs Terkel’s searching representations of ordinary people in their jobs in his 1974 book, Working, and more recently, George Packer’s account of the disintegration of the social contract in The Unwinding in 2013. Desmond, who lived in a trailer park and a roach-infested ghetto duplex while working on the book, suggests that evictions, and the rise of property management as a profession, are causes rather than mere symptoms of entrenched poverty.

Residents such as Arleen, a mother of two boys with few job prospects, no husband, and declining state support, evicted by Tarver multiple times, might be hard to root for. The Paul Ryans of the world would surely mark this woman, a sufferer of sexual abuse doing the best she can with the terrible hand she’s been dealt, as a “taker,” “welfare queen,” or whatever the proper code for black layabout is at the moment. But Arleen is also a person who, like many of those profiled, cannot get government housing assistance because of her eviction record. Other landlords will not rent to her because of that very record, and she often finds herself choosing between feeding her children and selling their food stamps. She needs the money to pay for any number of things, from shoes for her children to a storage unit for their soon to be evicted belongings. These are almost impossible choices for anyone, but ones that many cultural commentators feel happy to pathologize from afar.

Vulnerable children who live in poverty are often victimized for the paltriest of reasons. Desmond’s account begins with Arleen’s sons passing a winter afternoon by having a snowball fight that includes passing cars as collateral damage. After his car is struck by a snowball, a driver chases them, kicking down the door of the house where they live. The landlord uses this as cause to remove the family, which leads them first to shelters, and finally to Tarver’s apartments.

Eviction weighs on the spirit of the evictee, driving already vulnerable people to overwhelming anxiety, and exacerbating the likelihood of further bad choices, depression, and even suicide. Desmond provides an account of one county sheriff who entered an eviction proceeding, intent on removing a tenant alive, but who instead witnessed a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The number of suicides attributed to evictions doubled between 2005 and 2010 as the housing crisis consumed much of the American economy. “Eviction does not simply drop poor families into a dark valley, a trying yet relatively brief detour on life’s journey,” Desmond writes toward the end of the book. “It fundamentally redirects their way, casting them onto a different, and much more difficult, path.”

Help from the state is difficult to access. Desmond powerfully shows that in times of crisis the poor can often rely only on one another. Time and again in Evicted we see the bonds of support, both financial and in kind, that poor people form with each other: Daughters, freshly evicted with their children, move into the equally precarious homes of their mothers; sisters move in with their brothers; new tenants who are complete strangers share their space with previously evicted tenants. These deals are struck out of something more lasting than necessity: the recognition that “there but for the grace of God go I.” One evictee contemplates “the lawns and jobs and children and normal problems” that other members of his family still enjoy, before declining to ask them for help. As Desmond quickly observes, “middle-class relatives could be useless that way.”

It hasn’t always been this way. As Desmond explains early in the book, eviction used to be a remarkably rare proceeding in American life. This was not because the government was more benevolent, but because communities were able to unite and take action against landlords more easily. Eviction riots were not uncommon during the Great Depression, and Desmond finds, for instance, an account of the eviction of three Bronx families in a New York Times article from February 1932 that suggests nearly a thousand people turned up in their defense.

But such solidarity is hard-won in postindustrial ghettos and transient trailer parks, where everyone wants a way out instead of finding a way to lift everything, and everyone, up. Whereas sheriff squads now have full-time eviction units, there was a time when marshals were “ambivalent about carrying out evictions.” They had other reasons for picking up a badge and a gun.

“If poverty persists in America, it is not for lack of resources,” Desmond concludes, before recommending, among other things, a universal voucher system to provide housing for every American. The housing market and its effect on low-income families remains an underreported area, even after Ta-Nehisi Coates’s landmark 2014 Atlantic essay, “The Case for Reparations,” which focused on how housing discrimination extracted billions of dollars from African American families over the decades of the Great Migration. Evicted takes a bold first step in describing various aspects of this problem as it exists today. Not the least of these is that “most federal housing subsidies benefit families with six-figure incomes.” Until we spread wealth more effectively, needless suffering will persist.