Review: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Penguin Random House, 2016)

[1] Evicted has won multiple book awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. Its author, sociologist Matthew Desmond, received his doctorate from UW Madison and currently teaches sociology at Princeton. The book centers around several characters and their search for safe, habitable housing, and a pair of landlords making a living by leasing units to low income renters in Milwaukee. Desmond grew up on the fringes of poverty, and when he was an adult his childhood home was repossessed by a bank. He and a friend helped his industrious and frugal parents move out, and it seems that this experience and the shame associated with it impelled his career choice.

[2] There’s a reason a book by an academician has won so many mainstream awards. Desmond is a very engaging writer, and he finds plenty of rich and complex stories to tell in the lives of Lamar, Arleen, Vanetta, Crystal, and Scott. It is Arleen’s story, as a mother and woman of color, that left the most lasting impression of the constant and nigh impossible struggle to survive on public assistance in the United States. Even the cheapest housing requires nearly all of Arleen’s meager income. The calculus of poverty is writ large here: when you don’t have enough to meet basic needs on a regular basis, what’s the point of paying rent? Lamar, a neighbor of Arleen’s, is consigned to live on less than $3 a day once he pays his rent, and of course falls behind on his rent. He is disabled, and survives on public assistance, if I were to use the term “survive” loosely.

[3] I was by turns horrified, saddened, angered, and frustrated by Arleen’s story. Desmond’s journalistic style is a product of his approach to ethnography, which is “…what you do when you try to understand people by allowing their lives to mold your own as fully and genuinely as possible.” (317-318) Even though Desmond is narrating a series of horrendous, dehumanizing circumstances, the vulnerability and humanity of his characters shine through. What I particularly enjoyed about the book was the way Desmond could lay out the various complexities of Arleen’s situation—her son’s asthma, his father’s violence, the difficulties of a child welfare system that traps low income people of color, and her longing to establish long term relationships, and how all of those relate back to her financial situation.

[4] The system in which Arleen is caught creates alienation and dehumanization. Landlords make little investment in their properties and their tenants, and in return, their tenants make little investment in them. The conditions under which our fellow citizens live is appalling. Sinks and toilets don’t work, Desmond himself has no hot water for the months he lives in a trailer park he profiles. Refrigerators do not run. Tenants who are foolish enough to call housing authorities, or threaten to call, are easily evicted. There’s not much incentive for landlords to fix anything for such a transitory population, and there’s pretty much nothing in the way of consequences if they don’t. And since landlords can always find another tenant who might be able to pay the security deposit and a month or two, there’s not much in the way of a relationship between landlords and tenants that would facilitate humane treatment.

[5] The landlords are making a good living by the standards of their tenants. Arleen’s landlord, who had been a teacher, has certainly improved her standard of living. Tobin, the landlord of the trailer park, makes a large profit, but is on the brink of being shut down. Landlords have to badger residents to be paid, and they dance a complicated dance between housing inspectors, tenants, and eviction courts. Their decisions about who goes and who stays, keeping in mind that very few people have the resources to pay rent regularly in this scenario, are arbitrary at best, capricious at worst. Tenants can be evicted almost at will. All of them have prior evictions on their records, and all of them are behind on their rent.

[6] Much of what landlords do is illegal, but legality and reality are entirely separate. It is illegal for landlords to rent houses with broken toilets and clogged up sinks, but it happens all the time because the people who might complain, the tenants, will simply be evicted if they do. In fact, Desmond finds in a survey he designed after completing Evicted, that only a third of evictions are carried out formally through the court systems—two thirds are informal evictions whereby a landlord doesn’t even have to enter the legal system.

[7] Of course, being evicted means that one had found housing in the first place. Desmond follows Arleen and Vanetta as they search for housing, and it is a full time job, particularly for a woman of color without a car. One of the women looks at fifty different apartments. She’s often turned down because she is not white, and almost as often because she has children. Desmond visits an apartment where she’s been turned away by the landlord, presenting himself as having the same monthly income and number of children, and he is offered an even nicer apartment. He calls the housing authorities to report the landlord but never hears back.

[8] Wisconsin does not consider housing a matter of public interest. The difficulty of obtaining a housing voucher is positively Kafkaesque: Milwaukee’s waiting list is over 3,000 people long, and has been closed since July of 2015. It gets left to the private markets, but obviously private markets are not producing affordable housing. Desmond’s coup de grace is comparing rents in middle class areas of Milwaukee and finding they are not much more than the rents for the apartments Desmond has been frequenting to research this book. That society is failing low-income renters is a given, and many would like to think that the solution is found in free market principles. Virtually no new public housing has been built in decades, and yet when developments like Chicago’s Cabrini Green are torn down, they are replaced with, at best, mixed income housing that excludes most of the former residents of that particular square mile. Anyone reading Evicted would be hard pressed to argue that market forces are working to create sufficient livable housing in the United States.

[9] The only problem I see with this book is that those who don’t want to believe simply won’t believe. They will find a way to discount the narrative that Desmond gives us. I discussed the book with one white woman from a wealthy suburb whose first question was “Doesn’t Arleen have a job?” The drumbeat of our lawmakers, that we as a society are going to cut back on entitlements, is so at odds with the lived experience described in this book, I don’t even know where to begin. Just what do they think they’re talking about when they talk about cutting government benefits. I suspect they just don’t know how little people receiving benefits actually receive, and how forcefully the market works against them to keep them in poverty.

[10] This eye-opening book is ideal for congregational discussion groups and college courses. I hope that many people will read it. In particular, I hope that upper middle class white people like me read this book with a mind open to discovery and a heart open to empathy. The existence that Desmond describes is simply unimaginable to many people (and shameful in a country as wealthy as ours), and they will have to move beyond their own experience to take in what Desmond presents. When I first read the book, I wished that Desmond had made more thorough and specific policy recommendations. Now, in hindsight, I realize that Desmond begins with stories rather than complex policy because we as a nation don’t even really believe housing is a problem. That’s why we underfund housing assistance, cut benefits to low income people, tear down public housing and replace it with inaccessible mixed income units.

[11] Desmond says in an epilogue that the work left him depleted and depressed, and who can blame him? The complex ways in which poverty entangles people and our financial systems work against them is illustrated at once beautifully and mournfully by this book. All people of good conscience, and particularly lawmakers, should read Evicted as a way of understanding the urgency of the housing crisis and its connection to a plethora of social ills.

Kaari Reierson

Kaari Reierson is the founding editor of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics and is the Chair of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics Advisory Council.