Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
This multi-award winning book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond, deserves all the praise it has received and more, capturing the extreme, routine and heartbreaking conditions of poverty, homelessness and human struggle in American cities.
Based in Milwaukee, sociologist Desmond went into the field between 2008-2009, moving first into a white poor trailer park where many of its tenants were being evicted, and later into men's housing in the inner city. He got to know nearby tenants and the landlords, and recorded their stories. These stories are the ones that unfold, brilliantly, as you read this book, because he does not once take the first person. He is invisible, and we read through the lives of these people with nothing to obstruct us from the truth of their fight for home.
The tenants all face unique sets of adversity, whether it is mental illness, a prior crime record, drug addiction, a full house of dependent children, a disability, etc. Almost all of them rely on some degree of welfare that barely allows them to cover unreasonable rent prices, let alone feed themselves and their families. There's Lamar, who lost both his legs to frostbite, and does his best to raise his two sons up and foster the young men in his neighborhood who need a place to go. There's Scott, a nurse who lost his license and fell into a drug habit and poverty. There's Doreen, with a handful of children and grandchildren living under her roof. There's Crystal, in and out of foster homes until she was 18, diagnosed with a number mental health issues. There is Areleen, trying to raise up her youngest two boys alone and seeking a permanent home, instead of moving in and out of shelters when she is evicted.
On the flip side, of course, there are also the landlords. Not villains, necessarily, but those needing to draw a harsh line between the conditions of others and the priorities they maintain: Get their monthly rent and keep the peace. Through their eyes, we learn about how they negotiate around the lives of others to meet the demands of their business in the low-income housing market. There is Sherrena, who can only be flexible so many times for her tenants. There's Tobin, working to keep the trailer park going so that not all will have to be evicted.
Desmond's narrative brings you face-to-face with the unbelievable circumstances of each of these real-life characters and what you learn, unsurprisingly but in surprising new ways, is the degree of structural violence that binds these people to poverty and struggle. Housing criteria eliminates a number of clean, affordable living options for most of these tenants. And, while applied fairly to all, the criteria itself is based on unequal trends. For instance, common criteria include never having had a felony conviction or been evicted in the past three years. However, based on extensive data Desmond collected following his fieldwork, as well as data already in the public sphere, we know that there is a hugely disproportionate amount of black men who have felony convictions and black women who face regular eviction. Notably, there is also bias toward families with children. How can we give people equal opportunities when our country has built for centuries on an unequal foundation?
What Desmond is also able to show is that people actual face better odds of lifting themselves out of poverty when they have stable housing. Having to fight for a roof over your head every night is demanding. If there was further support to impoverished America that allowed them to pay subsidized prices for housing, they might be able to invest in other things: education, jobs, health, their children's schooling. We all need a home, and one that doesn't demand 70 percent or more of our income. Could America embrace a universal voucher program? Desmond also advises improved legal aid to those facing evictions, as this helps deliver fair notice and opportunity for tenants to contest their landlord's reasoning.
Equally important to the core content of this book is the 'About this Project' section. While Desmond makes it quite clear that he doesn't want the acclaim of this book to be about his research, but rather about the people he grew to know about care about in this work, he cannot go without acknowledgement. Desmond's work and commitment to a growing body of knowledge around eviction sets a new tone for conversations about poverty in American cities. It also serves as a reminder that we have solutions, solutions that will do no harm to those who have homes all the time, but will make a huge difference in the millions of lives of those around us. After reading this book, I hope you agree that we should not hesitate to initiate these efforts.