Evicted — Matthew Desmond

“Substandard housing was a blow to your psychological health: not only because things like dampness, mold, and overcrowding could bring about depression but also because of what living in awful conditions told you about yourself.”

Review:

What an insanely powerful and perspective-changing book. For someone who has spent most of his life in middle or upper-middle class neighborhoods on the east coast, I was rather quickly disabused of my vague conceptions of what low-income America looked like as I started reading this book. Evicted follows the stories of multiple families, both tenants and landlords, in the Milwaukee’s inner cities and poverty-stricken neighborhoods. It details the struggle of the modern-day poor renter as they try to manage their personal relationships, their careers (or their unemployment), their housing, their finances, their families’ wellbeing, and sometimes their addiction.

The main argument of the book is that a stable home is the very foundation for both a stable life and a chance at the American dream. While incomes have stagnated over the years and have failed to keep pace with rents, a larger and larger portion of Americans’ income is going toward housing at a rather unsustainable rate. This perhaps disproportionately affects poor renters who 1) are receiving welfare checks that haven’t changed since they were established 10–20 years ago and 2) are paying rents not so different from those in middle-class neighborhoods but for sometimes uninhabitable living conditions. Evictions have become far more commonplace as people increasingly cannot make rent, leading to huge disruptions in family stability. The stories Desmond tells are harrowing and convincing — evictions really can lead to a downward spiral that is almost impossible to escape from. He argues that if renters didn’t have to devote so much of their income towards rent, they could spend more on their children, on their own education, on finding a stable job, and on their community.

It was really difficult for me to even imagine the hardship some of the characters in this book go through. They get kicked out of their home regularly, they don’t have stable employment, they often don’t have family they can call on reliably, they have some drug addiction, they have multiple children they have to care for, and usually when they do manage to land an apartment, it’s often uninhabitable (no shower, sinks backed up, roach infestations, appliances not working, etc). Many of these people come from nothing, don’t have a finished high-school education, and live in dangerous neighborhoods. The welfare payments and food stamps they receive barely cover the cost of living, and most are one small, unexpected expense away from not making rent (or are perpetually behind). Learning about how landlords profit handsomely off of dilapidated apartments because rents aren’t much cheaper than nicer areas is disgusting to say the least. Desmond seems to paint a fair picture of the scenario — you do get to see the landlord’s perspective and the troubles/stresses she has to deal with, and her attempts to help some of her tenants. But in the end, the system is clearly rigged in the landlord’s favor, and a tenant who is perpetually behind on rent has little protection or ability to better their situation.

This book was written extremely well, and you can really tell the amount of time and research that went into both the story-telling and the arguments. Often times the scenes Desmond describes are so vivid and filled with despair, the reader needs little explicit convincing that something about this system needs to change, and quickly. I would highly recommend this book for anyone seeking to get out of their bubble. Sometimes we forget how not homogeneous this country really is, and that our immediate area is a terrible reflection of the disparate neighborhoods that make up this nation. Books like these are incredibly valuable to us as individuals (perspective-broadening, empathy-exercising) and as a society.

Score: 10/10


Notes:

· Incomes have stagnated while housing costs have soared. Today, most of poor renting families in America spend over half their income on housing, while a quarter spends over 70%. Millions are evicted each year because they can’t make rent. Losing a home sends families to shelters, abandoned houses, or the streets — leading to depression/illness, crime, and harm to children.

· Cost of fuel and utilities have risen by more than 50% since 2000; almost 20% of poor renting families across the country missed utility payments and received a disconnection notice. Some who can’t make both rent and utilities end up illegally rerouting their meters. Many tenants who in the winter stayed current on their rent at the expense of their heating bill (when there is a moratorium on disconnections) tried in the summer to repay the utility company while shorting their landlord.

· Shifts in the labor market and globalization play a role in widespread unemployment in certain areas like Milwaukee, where many manufacturing jobs went overseas or elsewhere. Those who took new work in the service sector usually ended up taking a pay cut. When manufacturing plants closed, they tended to close in the inner city, disproportionately affecting blacks.

· When city or state officials pressured landlords (ordering them to hire outside security or have a building inspector come over), landlords often passed the pressure on to their tenants. The easiest way to reestablish control was to simply evict the more troublesome tenants.

· All over the country, even though housing costs have soared, welfare payments haven’t budged. Most families would found it hard to survive on those payments in the 2000s, and now it is becoming increasingly impossible. Access to subsidized housing is very limited, with wait lists lasting decades. 75% of families who qualified for assistance usually received nothing. That assistance would make the difference between grinding, brutal poverty and something more stable.

· Evictions tend to destabilize entire communities. A healthy and engaged community requires the presence of people who are simply present and look after the neighborhood. Neighborhoods with high turnover rates and frequent evictions mostly house people who dream of leaving that area, and won’t waste the energy of investing in it. This creates a vicious circle of sorts, usually leading to more crime and more turnover.

· Cash-strapped tenants sometimes try to withhold some rent from landlords who are extremely slow to do any maintenance, often resulting in their eviction. When this happens, the tenant usually just withholds all of the rent to save for the next move. Sometimes they had to initiate an eviction just to afford the next place to live.

· Rent in some of the worst neighborhoods are often not drastically cheaper than rent in much better areas. Landlords at the bottom of the market generally did not lower rents to meet demand and avoid the costs of all those missed payments and evictions. Sometimes it’s cheaper to deal with the expense of eviction than to maintain a property. It was also possible to skimp on maintenance if tenants were perpetually behind as they had limited options. When tenants fell behind (which they often did given how large a chunk of their income their rent was) they lost the privilege to call an inspector without fear of eviction.

· Family ties were often hard to call upon when eviction was commonplace in your life. Some were saved for real emergencies or opportunities to get ahead. People were careful not to overdraw their account because when family members with money grew exhausted, they often withheld support for long periods of time, pegging their relatives’ fortunes to individual failings.

· The same thing that made homeownership a bad investment in poor, black neighborhoods made landlording a potentially lucrative one. Property values for similar homes were double/triple in white, middle-class sections of the city, but rents in those neighborhoods were not.

· People in low-income areas living off welfare or SSI lived with so many compounded limitations that it is difficult to imagine the amount of self-control necessary to save an entire month’s worth of rent, let alone lift themselves out of poverty. Some, seeing the distance between grinding and stable poverty as too far a reach, choose not to even try to save. They spend what little is left over of their income after rent on some simple luxuries — cable, a nice dinner, a night at the casino.

· Job loss could lead to eviction, but the reverse is also commonplace. The time and emotional stress involved in being evicted could cause renters to act out at work or simply be late or miss a day — leading to a vicious cycle.

· Stable housing is really at the core of a stable life. If people didn’t have to dedicate 70–80% of their income to rent, they could keep their kids fed and clothed and off the street. They could settle down in one neighborhood, allowing them to form long-lasting relationships with friends and role models. They could start a savings account. The time and emotional energy they spent on making rent or dealing with eviction could be spent on life-enriching things — community college, exercise, finding a stable job, or finding a stable partner.

Phrases/Quotes:

· If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.

· Just a week earlier, a man had told Sheriff John to give him a minute. Then he shut the door and shot himself in the head. But the squalor was what got under your skin; its smells and sights were what you tried to drink away after your shift.

· Her face had that look. It was the look of someone realizing that her family would be homeless in a matter of hours. It was something like denial giving way to the surrealism of the scene: the speed and violence of it all; sheriffs leaning against your wall, hands resting on holsters; all these strangers, these sweating men, piling your things outside, drinking water from your sink poured into your cups, using your bathroom. It was the look of being undone by a wave of questions.

· They say the foreclosure crisis started on Wall Street, with men in power ties trading toxic assets and engineering credit default swaps. But in the ghetto, all you needed was a rapid rescore coach and a low-income tenant hungry for a shot at the American Dream.

· Trailer park residents rarely raised a fuss about a neighbor’s eviction, whether that person was a known drug addict or not. Evictions were deserved, understood to be the outcome of individual failure. They “helped get rid of the riffraff,” some said. No one thought the poor more undeserving than the poor themselves.

· Substandard housing was a blow to your psychological health: not only because things like dampness, mold, and overcrowding could bring about depression but also because of what living in awful conditions told you about yourself.

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