Review: ‘Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City’

Amy Waldman is a regular writer for the Chronicle. As a librarian with the Milwaukee Public Library, Waldman has led discussion groups on the Pulitzer Prize winning book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.” Here, she shares her thoughts on the book.

Perhaps because it’s set in Milwaukee, Matthew Desmond’s immersive study of eviction and its effect on tenants, landlords and society at large has gotten a lot of local attention. Which is good, because there’s a lot to chew on in this sweeping saga of life in (and out) of the mostly substandard housing in the city’s least desirable neighborhoods.

Like David Shipler’s “The Working Poor,” Desmond’s book weaves hard facts with their real-life effects on a particularly vulnerable subset of humanity. Unlike Shipler, though, Desmond’s focus on a single aspect of life at the bottom gives readers the ability to get a close look at a problem that is far more complex than anyone – including Desmond – realized.

By embedding himself in the lives of the eight families he chronicled over a five-year period, Desmond was able to see in intimate detail eviction’s effect on tenants, landlords, law enforcement and taxpayers.  It’s not just one problem easily tackled by individuals or single policy changes here and there, but a deeply-rooted system that is difficult to address in any kind of meaningful way, without changes at the federal or state level.

In addition to the more-than-occasionally homeless renters Desmond follows are two different types of landlords and their tenants. With 36 rental units in the inner city, Sherrena, a former fourth-grade teacher, “knew the ghetto’s value and how money could be made from a property that looked worthless to people who didn’t know any better.”

Tobin, the owner of a 131-unit trailer park on the city’s far south side, has his own system of deciding who gets to make up missed rent payments and who gets an eviction notice. All of his tenants are poor, many are also drug-addicted and/or alcoholic.

Over the course of the book, we see repeatedly the ways in which the renters leverage the power they have in order to survive, both on and off the streets. Desmond describes the ways in which some, facing eviction, are able to negotiate with their landlords in order to stay where they are or move without an eviction on their records. He details on-the-fly alliances of strangers who move in together within hours of meeting.

In excruciating detail, Desmond illustrates exactly what it means to have an eviction on your record. In addition to coming up with rent and a security deposit, there’s the challenge of finding a landlord willing to risk renting to you. If you have furniture and other possessions, you need to figure out how to get those to a new place – if you can find one. Your children will likely have to change schools. And if you can’t find anywhere to go before the sheriff arrives, your choices are to have them put your furnishings in storage – for a fee – or see them moved to the curb. Food in the refrigerator or cupboards is also put on the curb.

This photo shot by Matthew Desmond as he visited Milwaukee to work on his Pulitzer Prize winning book. Courtesy of Penguin Random House.

The strength of the book lies in its balance between showing the human cost of eviction and reaching back through the history of housing and housing policy to show how we landed here.

For some of the families he follows, stable housing leads to stable lives. For others, the struggle extends beyond the pages of Desmond’s book. Without what he sees as the most humane and sensible solution – the expansion of housing vouchers to cover all low-income families – it’s likely that struggle will continue.

* * *

Event: Home and Hope – A Community Call to Action

Jewish Family Services is hosting this community wide “call to action” event to showcase the urgent need for safe and affordable housing.

What: Matthew Desmond, author of “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.”

When: Wednesday, May 16, noon to 3:30 p.m.

Where: Potawatomi Hotel and Casino – Event Center, 1721 W. Canal St., Milwaukee.

Cost: Individual ticket $125.

More information at JewishChronicle.org or contact Andrea Robertson, Jewish Family Services, 414-225-1336 or ARobertson@JfsMilw.org.