Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

Evicted is haunting, compelling, and an absolute must-read.

Matthew Desmond, a sociologist and ethnographer at Princeton University, has written a book that is as challenging as it is important. The book is about the process of eviction, broken into three parts: the struggle to pay rent, the actual eviction itself, and what happens after eviction.

Reading between the lines, however, this book is about our country’s housing crisis, the criminalization of poverty and erosion of our social safety net, the violence inflicted by property owners—vis-a-vis the state—against the poor, and how structural transformations of our economy devastated low-skill (i.e. non-college educated) workers, especially in Rust Belt cities like Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where the events depicted in Evicted take place.

Desmond, a recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” grant, draws on several years of fieldwork in Milwaukee, during which time he gathered an immense about of both quantitative and quantitative data. On the quant side, he conducted the Milwaukee Area Renters Study (MARS) to gain a better understanding of renting and eviction in the city. Qualitatively, the book features several interwoven narratives of a small set of individuals and families, which is interspersed with insights gleaned from MARS and a review of national data sets. His writing is impeccably well-sourced, with a full sixty pages of end notes. And at the end of the text, he explains in detail how he came to know the people whose stories he shares in Evicted.

Things you may learn while reading Evicted

The poor spend significantly more money on housing, as a percentage of income, than non-poor Americans.

How much money do you spend on housing each month? For middle-class and upper-class Americans, the number is typically around 30% of their monthly income. Not so for the poor. Today, the majority of poor renting households spend over half their income on housing. One in four spend over 70% of their monthly income on rent and electricity.

Evictions and forced moves are more common than you may think.

According to data gathered via MARS, Desmond found that not all evictions are formal, which is to say executed via the legal system. Nearly half of all forced moves in Milwaukee are “informal evictions,” and take place in the shadow of the law. These add up quickly: “If you count all forms of involuntary displacement—formal and informal evictions, landlord foreclosures, building condemnations—you discover that between 2009 and 2011, more than 1 in 8 Milwaukee renters experienced a forced move.” [Emphasis mine.] These numbers are not unique to Milwaukee: “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.”

Public housing assistance is broken.

If you had to guess what percentage of people who qualify for housing support are actually enrolled in such a program, what would you guess? Personally, given how important housing is, I would have expected the number to be between 80–90%.

Not even close.

Just under 25% of poor people who are eligible actually receive the assistance for which they qualify. In many cities, the waiting list for public housing assistance is measured in years — in some, it’s measured in decades.

Eviction has a disproportionate impact on black women.

In a typical month, 3 in 4 people in Milwaukee eviction court were black. Of these, 3 in 4 were women. […] Women from black neighborhoods made up 9 percent of Milwaukee’s population and 30 percent of its evicted tenants. 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. (pp 97–98)

Our housing crisis isn’t just affecting the poor.

The affordable housing crisis is not just affecting the poor: “Today, over 1 in 5 of all renting families in the country spends half of its income on housing.” (pp 303) And this crisis is not happening only in America. The last fifty years has witnessed a global surge from rural areas into cities—anyone who has studied economics knows that increases in demand lead to increases in price, unless there is an even greater shift of supply. There has not been a greater shift of supply.

Without radical changes to the stock of available affordable housing—or an unforeseen decline in urbanization—the gap will continue to grow, which will push housing prices higher and higher.

“Property management” as we know it today is a new phenomenon.

From Desmond: “Since 1970, the number of people primarily employed as property manager has more than quadrupled.”

This explosion in growth vastly outstripped growth in the overall workforce, which has expanded by a mere 50% since 1970. It is safe to say that a primary contributor to the professionalization of property management is the growth in demand for urban housing and the profit available to those who rent property.

The story of housing and the story of systemic racism in this country go hand-in-hand.

If you are not already familiar with the history of housing discrimination against non-whites in this country, especially during the post-WWII era, you will get a brief crash course — and you’ll see how and why the legacy of that exclusion is still with us today.

The short version is that black Americans were systematically denied access to the loans required to purchase a home during the greatest expansion of home-ownership and wealth creation in this country’s history, the post-War period. Consequently, opportunities to build equity and a stable foundation on which to raise families and pass down inter-generational wealth were largely limited to white families.

It is nearly impossible to overstate the consequence of white families being able to purchase homes and build long-term wealth and racial minorities being denied the same opportunity. Some of those young non-white people denied the opportunity to buy homes are still alive today. This is not ancient history — for far, far too many people, it is a recent reality.

And then, when the time came where credit was offered to non-white families, it was on terrible terms for the borrowers. In the 1950s, this was known as buying “on-contract.” In the 2000s, we called it “predatory subprime lending.” (pp. 250–251)

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. (pp 125)

Especially for those who believe that system racism is a thing of the past, it is critical we understand this truth:

“[E]qual treatment in an unequal society could still foster inequality.” (pp 252)

You should read this book—and then you should act.

Regardless of what field you work in, whether or not you prefer non-fiction, you should read this book. Not only is Evicted well-researched and well-written, and worth reading for those reasons alone—more importantly, Evicted will show you important truths about the country you call home.

As Desmond writes in the book’s epilogue, the word “home” encompasses not just shelter, but warmth, safety, and family. The Egyptian hieroglyph for “home” was interchangeable with the glyph for “mother.” In Chinese, the word jiā means both family and home. Home is not only the primary basis of life, but the foundation on which families are built, where we can feel safe, and where we can build the strength to face what tomorrow may bring.

The end of the book lays out a call to action for a universal voucher program similar to those in Britain and the Netherlands, which have both served as successful models for housing those countries’ poorest citizens. I hope to learn more about possible solutions there may be to tackling this crisis—but we must first start by acknowledging and saying out loud:

This is a problem.

The rent is too damn high.

Shelter, like healthcare, is a basic human right.

The defunding of our social safety net has had devastating consequences and has decimated the ability of the poor to climb out of poverty.

We must act.

To learn more (and buy the book)

Final Note: On August 28, I will be delivering a short (~40 minute) lecture in Iowa City, Iowa about Housing First initiatives, a new approach to addressing chronic homelessness. This topic is related to, but not precisely the same as, the problems discussed in Evicted. If you will be in Iowa City you can RSVP here: http://iowacityhousingfirst.eventbrite.com

If you enjoyed this review, please let me know in the comments.

You can find me on Twitter, at: http://twitter.com/zachwahls

My website is: www.zachwahls.com and you can stay in touch by subscribing to my e-mail list at http://zachwahls.com/optin/