By Eyal Press
In the spring of 2008, a graduate student named Matthew Desmond began renting out a trailer in a mobile-home park on the south side of Milwaukee. Like much of the south side, the park’s population was predominantly poor and white, with an outsize number of its residents addicted to drugs or working as prostitutes. After four months, Desmond moved to an equally impoverished, predominantly black neighborhood on the north side of Milwaukee, into a duplex bordering an alley covered in gang graffiti. Unlike most of his neighbors, Desmond didn’t live in these places because he had no better options. He was an ethnographer interested in studying the dynamics of eviction, a familiar ritual at his fieldwork sites, where movers arrived seemingly every day to dump the possessions of another evicted tenant on the curb. How often did this actually happen? No one knew. When Desmond searched for data on the eviction rate in Milwaukee, he couldn’t find much.
The dearth of information might have discouraged some researchers. Desmond took it as a sign that he was onto something. Countless studies have traced the way factors like jobs, wages, and mass incarceration fuel urban poverty, but the role of housing had been curiously overlooked. Since no good data existed, he decided to oversee a survey of his own. When Desmond crunched the numbers, the results were astonishing. As it turned out, eviction wasn’t a daily event in Milwaukee; it was more like an hourly one. In a city with less than 105,000 renter households, 16,000 adults and children were being evicted every year, amounting to one in eight renters between 2009 and 2011. The movers were especially ubiquitous in black neighborhoods, where female renters were nine times as likely to be forced out of their homes as women in poor white neighborhoods.
The calamitous effects of this mass displacement are not likely to be overlooked in the study of poverty much longer, thanks in no small part to Desmond himself. His new book, Evicted, published on March 1 by Crown, is already a national best seller, debuting at No. 6 on the New York Timesnonfiction hardcover list. Full-page ads have appeared in The New Yorker, where the book was also excerpted. Evicted has received rapturous reviews in publications ranging from The Washington Post to Kirkus Reviews, which described it as a “21st-century How the Other Half Lives.” In a cover essay for The New York Times Book Review, Barbara Ehrenreich hailed it as “astonishing.” Another reviewer in the Times called it “unignorable,” predicting that Desmond’s revelations would make it impossible “to have a serious discussion about poverty without having a serious discussion about housing.”
This is certainly conceivable, not least because Evicteddebunks a series of misconceptions about where “the other half” typically ends up living these days. In public housing projects or rent-stabilized units, many middle-class Americans may think. In fact, just 15 percent of poor renters live in public housing; the rest must navigate the private market, where the demand for affordable housing is so great that the average rent in desolate slums is only marginally less than in middle-class neighborhoods, even for decrepit units with moldering walls and broken appliances. (Since the pool of renters is so vast, landlords have as little incentive to perform basic maintenance as they do to lower prices.) Evictions are an epidemic because “the majority of poor renting families in America spend over half of their income on housing,” Desmond notes. One in four spend more than 70 percent.
As one might expect in a work of sociology, Evicted has its share of statistics like this. But the book draws its force from something often underappreciated by the quantitative scholars who have come to dominate Desmond’s discipline: graceful writing and a vivid cast of characters, whose struggles are captured in unflinching detail. Among them is Arleen Beale, an African-American woman who falls behind on her rent after helping to pay for her sister’s funeral. (To protect their privacy, Desmond has changed the names of the tenants he profiles.) Two days before Christmas, Arleen is summoned to Housing Court, which on that morning, as on most days, is packed with black women, who are as overrepresented in eviction proceedings as their male counterparts are in prison. “Poor black men were locked up,” Desmond writes. “Poor black women were locked out.” One reason is that the factories where half of Milwaukee’s black residents once worked have also closed their doors. Since the age of 18, Arleen has mopped floors, waited tables, and endured more evictions than she can recount. “Do you have minor children at home?” a commissioner asks at her court appearance. “Yup,” she says, in a tone that betrays little hope of eliciting mercy. Her jaded attitude proves justified: By New Year’s Day, the court informs Arleen, she and her two sons must be out.
Evictions don’t just upend the lives of individuals, Desmond demonstrates; they destroy communities as well. The sociologist Robert Sampson has shown that social cohesion and shared norms can significantly lower the level of violence even in poor neighborhoods. Evictions have the opposite effect, destabilizing blocks, dislocating children from schools, and stretching families to the breaking point. For all of these reasons, Desmond argues, “Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.” It is also, he shows, a lucrative business for landlords, who turn a handsome profit by overcharging—and, when need be, kicking out—poor tenants who have nowhere else to turn. Arleen’s landlord Sherrena, who initiated the process that led to her eviction, patronizingly tells her after the court hearing: “If you ever thinking about becoming a landlord, don’t. It’s a bad deal. Get the short end of the stick every time.” To Desmond, however, she confides something different. “The ’hood is good,” says Sherrena, who vacations in Jamaica and has a net worth of $2 million. “There’s a lot of money there.”