Friday, February 9, 2018
Evicted: Poverty & Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
This book won a number of awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, for uncovering a housing problem in America that appears to disproportionately affect low-income renters and keep them in a cycle of perpetual uncertainty: eviction. A beautifully written and involving set of individual family case studies, this sociological work casts light on a problem that has developed over time and has not been well understood to date.
Desmond is able to involve his readers in the lives of the people he describes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin because he includes many details of their circumstances which we may recognize. The decision-making and determination of these folks to get out of the cycle of eviction they face is not flawed. They work with imperfect tools and face a constantly renewing mountain to climb starting from a new lower low with each instance of rent non-payment and subsequent eviction.
Addiction doesn’t appear to be the most common cause of eviction, at least among the people whose stories Desmond shares with us, though it does figure in the lives of many families he describes. Lending money to addicts is a constant drain on everyone’s scarce resources. Neither does wild over-spending appear to be a common cause of poverty. Desmond will argue that wild overspending on inappropriate items is a result of poverty, not a cause.
Hard as it is for us to admit, exploitation by landlords appears to contribute hugely to reasons low-income tenants cannot be free from the cycle of eviction. The slumlords to whom Desmond introduces us extract outsized profits from very low-end housing without necessary inputs like plumbing, painting, repairs. This leads to families not valuing their abode, children being placed in unsafe conditions, and adds to the burdens of rent-payers.
Recognizing that renting out housing at the low end of the market is not a charity, we must still condemn excessive profit at the client’s expense. What are excessive profits? If these notions are not universally recognized, they need to be challenged in court. Desmond points out that most tenants facing eviction do not show up in court to challenge charges against them or to raise property maintenance issues. These huge, messy problems involve individuals with extenuating circumstances. Sometimes the problems appear circular, and insoluble.
Desmond will argue that housing should be considered a basic human right, like clean drinking water, protection for elders, and universal education. This proposal may cause catalepsy among libertarians. Conservatives for small government might agree, however, that we don’t want to live in a country where people are living and/or dying on the streets, unable to free themselves from a cycle of dependence. I think we all can agree with that. The question remains: what is the best way to evict people from poverty?
Desmond suggests a universal voucher for all low-income families in his epilogue, but I won’t repeat his argument here. You need all the pieces to make sense of what he is proposing. It helps to see the scope of the problem by reading the book—no hardship because it is so well written—but you can also just go to the Epilogue. I do want to point to a couple of interesting observations he makes earlier regarding fixes made so far to address poverty and homelessness but which developed unexpected consequences.
People using vouchers are allowed to use those vouchers in any community in states that accept vouchers, which means low-income renters could try to escape the inner city which can be dangerous and unkempt. However, prospective tenants often encounter a reluctance on the part of landlords to rent to families with children, pets, or smoking habits. Renters themselves don’t like the greater adherence to immutable rules that are common in more upscale locations, and the lack of leniency in the case of under-payments.
Currently landlords in low-income housing areas do not want to accept housing vouchers and rent assistance in most of their properties because “they didn’t want to deal with the program's picky inspectors.” There are legal limits to the degradation on a property which accepts government-issued vouchers. This is true everywhere, but those on housing assistance get checked on. This “government interference” some conservatives (and slumlords) decry. So much for the market policing itself.
The option of “working off the rent” is only taken advantage of by male tenants, Desmond found. This option should have appeared more possible for women as well, it seems, but it parallels the phenomenon of exchanging sex for rent which appears to be an exclusively a female option. Desmond did not encounter this among his interviewees.
Among interviewees who were evicted, few felt pity for others in similar circumstances: they often felt “it was their own fault” for unsound choices they’d made and were disinclined to help. This included Christians and church-going neighbors, though examples of times they’d helped in the past were evident. Evicted tenants were reluctant to ask family, or were refused if asked.
This is one problem among many in this country. The world is changing utterly, and fast. We need to fundamentally rethink how we want business and government to run going forward. Looking back nostalgically is the wrong solution, I am convinced.
Perhaps something like an offer for free college but also a requirement for national service could be brainstormed. If we sent youth out to be witnesses in these problem areas, have them suggest & develop solutions, and follow through, e.g., gaining new skills building better housing, repairing old housing stock, using their legal skills attending law court for strapped tenants, I think both sides might get something from the experience. Sociologists, finance, nursing, social welfare, law, teachers...everybody has something to offer.
One of the most heartbreaking results of this cycle of evictions is its effect on the children. Trying to round up the children for schooling each day when they have been displaced so many times--in one case Desmond found the child moved schools five times. Some of the children watch a parent hauled off for doing something illegal under pressure to round up enough cash to keep themselves housed. Violence explodes suddenly and cannot be controlled. The children need more attention, and protection, but the adults do, too. Few among us have that kind of resilience.
The problems that befall individuals and families are inconceivable to those among us without similar constraints. Religious groups could ramp up their services and showcase their empathy and yet not feel as though they were laboring alone in the wilderness. We can see how that has impacted their outreach in the past.
Does it make any difference if low-income people live among wealthier neighbors? I believe it could allow them to see how others live, what other choices and opportunities are out there, and allow them to get help from neighbors in the normal way we all do. Dilution of the problem—is it coercive if we eliminate “low-income” housing altogether? Anyway, just thinking…
You can buy this book here: Tweet