Review: Matthew Desmond – “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City”

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American CityEvicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The day Arleen and her boys had to be out was cold. But if she waited any longer, the landlord would summon the sheriff, who would arrive with a gun, a team of boot-footed movers, and a folded judge’s order saying that her house was no longer hers. She would be given two options: truck or curb. “Truck” would mean that her things would be loaded into an eighteen-footer and later checked into bonded storage. She could get everything back after paying $350. Arleen didn’t have $350, so she would have opted for “curb,” which would mean watching the movers pile everything onto the sidewalk. Her mattresses. A floor-model television. Her copy of Don’t Be Afraid to Discipline. Her nice glass dining table and the lace tablecloth that fit just-so. Silk plants. Bibles. The meat cuts in the freezer. The shower curtain. Jafaris’s asthma machine.

As the reader follows Arleen’s family and other individuals in this airy tome of current-day problems that are affecting the poor and, actually, the not-so-poor persons in the USA, your eyes will widen and your jaw slacken at the sheer magnitude, complexity and most horrid situation that persons who find themselves on the verge of becoming homeless face, not only in the USA, but nearly everywhere, mainly due to how bad societies treat their poor.

I, who am writing this, belong to the middle-class in Sweden. I bask in having been carried by a quite big social-security safety net that’s been behind me for the past decades. This, however, is changing. The average time it’s taken for a Swedish person who has been evicted from their rented (i.e. not bought and owned) apartment after they haven’t paid their rent, is two weeks. This is extremely worrying. People do not talk about this. Things are, clearly, worse in a lot of ways in the USA which is highlighted by Matthew Desmond’s powerful book. Here’s an example of how evictions were seen less than a century ago:

Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare. They used to draw crowds. Eviction riots erupted during the Depression, even though the number of poor families who faced eviction each year was a fraction of what it is today. A New York Times account of community resistance to the eviction of three Bronx families in February 1932 observed, “Probably because of the cold, the crowd numbered only 1,000.”

There is nothing special about Milwaukee when it comes to eviction. The numbers are similar in Kansas City, Cleveland, Chicago, and other cities. In 2013, 1 in 8 poor renting families nationwide were unable to pay all of their rent, and a similar number thought it was likely they would be evicted soon. This book is set in Milwaukee, but it tells an American story.

There are so many factors to think of other than finding a living space, for anybody. Here’s a simple paragraph on Sherrena, a landlord:

Landlords operated in different neighborhoods, typically clustering their properties in a concentrated area. In the segregated city, this meant that landlords focused on housing certain kinds of people: white ones or black ones, poor families or college students. Sherrena decided to specialize in renting to the black poor.

As racism plays part of a lot of places in US culture, this also generates more problems where segregation and discrimination is rife:

These economic transformations—which were happening in cities across America—devastated Milwaukee’s black workers, half of whom held manufacturing jobs. When plants closed, they tended to close in the inner city, where black Milwaukeeans lived. The black poverty rate rose to 28 percent in 1980. By 1990, it had climbed to 42 percent.

There are many personal stories told throughout the book, not in a sensational way, but seemingly to highlight how often extraordinary things happen to ordinary people:

Lamar paused to take in the scene. Just the previous winter, he had climbed into an abandoned house, high on crack. When the high wore off, he found he couldn’t climb out; his feet had frozen. Lamar kept partying after returning home from the navy. In the mid-1980s, crack hit the streets of Milwaukee, and Lamar started smoking it. He got hooked. His coworkers at Athea knew it because he wouldn’t have cigarette money a couple days after payday. Lamar remembered losing his job and apartment. After that, he took Luke and Eddy to shelters and abandoned houses, tearing up the carpet so they could have a blanket at night. Luke and Eddy’s mother was around back then, but her addiction eventually consumed her, and she gave up her boys. Lamar ate snow during the days he was trapped in the abandoned house. His feet swelled purple and black with frostbite until they looked like rotten fruit. He was delirious when, on the eighth day, he jumped out of an upper-floor window. He would say God threw him out. When he woke up in the hospital, his legs were gone. Except for two brief relapses, he had not smoked crack since.

Just because you may be fortunate enough to have somewhere to live, that’s not the end of problems inside of those four walls:

Tenants could trade their dignity and children’s health for a roof over their head.13 Between 2009 and 2011, nearly half of all renters in Milwaukee experienced a serious and lasting housing problem.14 More than 1 in 5 lived with a broken window; a busted appliance; or mice, cockroaches, or rats for more than three days. One-third experienced clogged plumbing that lasted more than a day. And 1 in 10 spent at least a day without heat. African American households were the most likely to have these problems—as were those where children slept. Yet the average rent was the same, whether an apartment had housing problems or did not.

The horrid, rugged, complacent and even torpid stories of people actually becoming evicted cut to the bone of me:

“Can I have until Wednesday?” she asked. The deputies shook their heads no. She nodded with forced resolve or submission. Dave stepped onto the porch. “Ma’am,” he said, “we can place your things in our truck or on the curb. Which would you prefer?” She opted for the curb. “Curbside service, baby!” Dave hollered back to the crew. Dave stepped into the house and tripped over a Dora the Explorer chair. He reached over an older man sitting at the table and flipped on more lights. The house was warm and smelled of garlic and spices. One of the deputies pointed to the built-in cabinets in the kitchen. “This is the kind of shit I like,” he told his partner. “They don’t make this stuff anymore. Tight.” The woman walked in circles, trying to think of where to begin. She told one of the deputies that she knew she was being foreclosed but that she didn’t know when they were coming. Her attorney had told her that it could be a day, five days, a week, three weeks; she decided to ride it out. She and her three children had been in the house for five years. The year before, she had been talked into refinancing with a subprime loan. Her payments kept going up, jumping from $920 to $1,250 a month, and her hours at Potawatomi Casino were cut back after her maternity leave. Hispanic and African American neighborhoods had been targeted by the subprime lending industry: renters were lured into buying bad mortgages, and homeowners were encouraged to refinance under riskier terms. Then it all came crashing down. Between 2007 and 2010, the average white family experienced an 11 percent reduction in wealth, but the average black family lost 31 percent of its wealth. The average Hispanic family lost 44 percent.

…and people would do nearly everything to avoid eviction:

Men often avoided eviction by laying concrete, patching roofs, or painting rooms for landlords. But women almost never approached their landlord with a similar offer. Some women—already taxed by child care, welfare requirements, or work obligations—could not spare the time. But many others simply did not conceive of working off the rent as a possibility. When women did approach their landlords with such an offer, it sometimes involved trading sex for rent.

People who look for somewhere to live often found out how this affects not only race, age and money but whether you have children or not:

The cheapest motel Pam could find charged $50 a night. They checked in and started calling friends and relatives, hoping someone would take them in. Two days passed without any luck, and Pam began to worry. “Everybody we knew weren’t answering our phone because they knew we needed a place to stay,” she said. Then Ned lost his part-time construction job. He was fired for the two days of work he missed when helping his family move from the trailer park. Job loss could lead to eviction, but the reverse was also true.

When house hunting a few days earlier, two landlords had turned her away on account of her kids. One had said, “We’re pretty strict here. We don’t allow no loud nothing.” The other had told Pam it was against the law for him to put so many children in a two-bedroom apartment, which was the most Pam and Ned could afford.

In 1980, HUD commissioned a nationwide study to assess the magnitude of the problem and found that only 1 in 4 rental units was available to families without restrictions. Eight years later, Congress finally outlawed housing discrimination against children and families, but as Pam found out, the practice remained widespread. Families with children were turned away in as many as 7 in 10 housing searches.

Yes, if you’re a convicted felon, you’re basically lost as well:

One day with Vanetta’s boyfriend, the two women sat in a van and watched another pair of women walk into a Blockbuster carrying purses. Someone suggested robbing the women and splitting the money; then all of a sudden, that’s what they were doing. Vanetta’s boyfriend unloaded his gun and handed it to her friend. The friend ran from the van and pointed the pistol at the women. Vanetta followed, collecting their purses. The cops picked them up a few hours later.5 In her confession, Vanetta had said, “I was desperate to pay my bills, and I was nervous and scared and did not want to see my kids in the dark or out on the street.” When she turned eighteen, Vanetta had put her name on the list for public housing. Becoming a convicted felon meant that her chances of ever being approved were almost zero.

All in all, this work could be seen as dystopic, but I simply see it as a matter-of-factly statement of where we are; how we treat those that are the most in need, is really a clear measurement of how well society is doing.

The author is clear in his statements, the book as a whole is a magnificent piece of work; I was wondering how he fared from writing it, just as I ventured upon this paragraph where he answered my question:

I am frequently asked how I “handled” this research, by which people mean: How did seeing this level of poverty and suffering affect you, personally? I don’t think people realize how raw and intimate a question this is. So I’ve developed several dishonest responses, which I drop like those smoke bombs magicians use when they want to glide offstage, unseen. The honest answer is that the work was heartbreaking and left me depressed for years. You do learn how to cope from those who are coping. After several people told me, “Stop looking at me like that,” I learned to suppress my shock at traumatic things. I learned to tell a real crisis from mere poverty. I learned that behavior that looks lazy or withdrawn to someone perched far above the poverty line can actually be a pacing technique. People like Crystal or Larraine cannot afford to give all their energy to today’s emergency only to have none left over for tomorrow’s. I saw in the trailer park and inner city resilience and spunk and brilliance. I heard a lot of laughter. But I also saw a lot of pain. Toward the end of my fieldwork, I wrote in my journal, “I feel dirty, collecting these stories and hardships like so many trophies.” The guilt I felt during my fieldwork only intensified after I left. I felt like a phony and like a traitor, ready to confess to some unnamed accusation. I couldn’t help but translate a bottle of wine placed in front of me at a university function or my monthly day-care bill into rent payments or bail money back in Milwaukee. It leaves an impression, this kind of work. Now imagine it’s your life.

Read this, which I think is one of the best non-fiction books that I’ve come across, which has been released in 2016.

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