Matthew Desmond thinks America needs to commit to a new basic right, to go along with adequate food, twelve years of public education, and security in old age. This new right, he says, is just as fundamental. It’s having a place to live.
“Without stable housing, everything else falls apart,” argues Desmond, author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. The book chronicles the year and a half he spent living in Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods, studying poverty and housing insecurity by immersing himself in the lives of the people who suffer these deprivations. He was at the time (2008 to 2009) a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; he is now a professor in Harvard’s sociology department and was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” grant in 2015.
While in Milwaukee, Desmond lived alongside eight families who have spent much of their lives searching for stable homes, only to be rebuffed by a market that profits from keeping those homes out of reach. With their permission, he documents his subjects’ quests.
Arleen (a pseudonym, as are all the names of Desmond’s subjects) gave up a subsidized apartment that she rented for $137 a month to move in with a friend when she was seventeen. Since then, she and her two sons, Jafaris and Jori, have spent years moving from apartment to shelter and back again, paying rents that eat up as much as 90 percent of their monthly income. Because Arleen has previous evictions, many landlords categorically reject her.
Lamar, a single father and double amputee, spends a week cleaning his apartment building’s mildewed basement in the hopes of paying off his overdue rent. He estimates the job is worth about $250; his landlord credits him $50. Scott, a nurse turned heroin addict, loses his license and is evicted from his home in a decrepit trailer park on the city’s south side. He shows up at a public clinic ready to check himself into rehab only to find a crowd of people jockeying for a few spots.
The eight families report to two landlords. One is the prosperous owner of the trailer park where Scott lived. The other is Sherrena, an inner-city entrepreneur who boasts about how she maximizes her profits from the “low-quality people” she houses. Among her strategies is buying cheap, dilapidated properties, doing little or nothing to fix them up, and renting to desperate tenants for inflated prices. Eventually, she helps tenants buy the properties, with little money down, so they’re forced to take on the mortgages and repairs while she comes out not only unscathed, but richer. “The ’hood is good,” she tells Desmond. “There’s a lot of money there.”
Sherrena doles out eviction notices to her tenants like business cards, though she does have fleeting displays of compassion—she brings Arleen groceries when she first arrives and lets her stay a few extra days after she evicts her.
Families like Arleen’s have no choice but to accept Sherrena’s terms. The Milwaukee Housing Authority’s waiting list has 3,500 families at one time; many have been waiting for several years.
Evicted presents a passionate, intricately crafted argument that access to stable housing makes or breaks a person’s life. Desmond weaves these human stories together with years of additional research, analyses of court records, and results from a comprehensive survey of Milwaukee renters to build a compelling case for drastic overhauls in how the country approaches public housing. He even offers a solution to the problem he describes.
In graduate school, Desmond noticed that academics and policymakers usually explain poverty in one of two ways: Either it persisted due to systemic forces beyond any person’s control, or it stemmed from individual choices, including having children out of wedlock or not holding down a steady job. “Liberals preferred the first explanation and conservatives the second,” he says. “To me, both seemed off.”
He was also struck that accounts of poverty seemed disconnected from its causes. “Why,” he wonders, “have we documented how the poor make ends meet without asking why their bills are so high or where their money is flowing?” He set out to examine a process that makes some people poor and others rich—and landed on eviction.
Desmond’s research reveals that rent prices in poorer neighborhoods aren’t much cheaper than those in more affluent neighborhoods. In Milwaukee, a market comparable to many other American cities, only $270 separates some of the cheapest rents from some of the most expensive. The median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the poorest neighborhoods is only $50 less than the citywide median.
This has been true throughout history. When cities like New York and Philadelphia were in their early stages, rent was often higher for blacks than for whites in similar accommodations. “The poor did not crowd into slums because of cheap housing,” Desmond writes. “They were there—and this was especially true of the black poor—simply because they were allowed to be.”
One family he meets arrives at a new apartment to find filthy carpets, a drooping ceiling in the children’s bedroom, and a balcony on the verge of collapsing. Desmond says landlords “were allowed to rent units with property code violations, and even units that did not meet ‘basic habitability requirements,’ as long as they were upfront about the problems.”
Landlords capitalize on their lopsided power and the lack of oversight. Sherrena and her husband, for example, refuse to accept tenants with housing vouchers because the program’s inspectors are too picky to make it worth their time.
Sherrena is not the only landlord to employ a house-flipping maneuver, in which she makes the majority of her profit from inflated rents and sells properties to avoid being responsible for repairs. “You don’t buy properties for their appreciative value,” another landlord says. “You’re not in it for the future but for now.”
Renters like Arleen and Scott know their landlords are netting large profits and avoiding repairs, but most still hold their landlords in high regard, and do what they can to get by. For instance, to cope with an unreliable furnace that Sherrena hasn’t fixed, Lamar keeps his stove burners on overnight. Desmond says this is a common practice.
Shortly after Arleen and her sons move into their new apartment, her close friend dies. She helps pay for funeral costs when no one else can, which sets her behind in rent and leads to Sherrena serving her an eviction notice.
The string of traumatic events endured by families in the book can start to feel implausible to someone who hasn’t witnessed poverty firsthand. Arleen and her sons are robbed at gunpoint; Scott weans off heroin while living in a homeless shelter because he can’t afford to pay for treatment and rent at the same time; and one of Sherrena’s tenants sees her eight-month-old baby die in a fire started by a lamp.
“After several people told me, ‘Stop looking at me like that,’ I learned to suppress my shock,” Desmond writes. “I learned to tell a real crisis from mere poverty. I learned that behavior that looks crazy or withdrawn to someone perched far above the poverty line can actually be a pacing technique.” Poor people “cannot afford to give all their energy to today’s emergency only to have none left over for tomorrow’s.”
Because they move so often, Arleen and her sons never get the chance to invest themselves in their neighborhoods, schools, or goals. Arleen’s older son, Jori, attends five different schools in seventh and eighth grade. Arleen, while living in a shelter after getting evicted, spends almost all of her time trying to find a new apartment. The most powerful offerings of a home—the comfort of familiarity and an established neighborhood’s network of support—never materialize for people like Arleen and Jori.
When Desmond did his research, roughly sixteen families were being evicted daily through the Milwaukee court system. That came to about 16,000 people being displaced each year, with the burden falling most heavily on black women. “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women,” Desmond writes. “Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”
When Arleen and a fellow tenant named Crystal overhear a woman in the apartment above them repeatedly being abused by a boyfriend, Crystal calls 911 for the third time in a month, which triggers a nuisance citation from the city. To avoid getting fined, Sherrena evicts both Crystal and Arleen. Domestic homicides spiked in Wisconsin that year, and Milwaukee’s chief of police wondered aloud on the news why more victims didn’t call for help.
Arleen knows what her family loses by never having a stable home. The evictions lock them out of certain futures. “I wish my life were different,” she tells Desmond. “I wish when I be an old lady, I can sit back and look at my kids. And they be grown. And they, you know, become something. Something more than me. And we’ll all be together, and be laughing. We be remembering stuff like this and be laughing at it.”
Affirming housing as a basic right might undercut the ability of landlords to maximize profits. Desmond cites Martin Luther King Jr.’s observation that “every condition exists simply because someone profits by its existence.” But, he notes, we’ve challenged profits before. Child labor laws, the minimum wage, and workplace safety regulations each prioritize individuals’ well-being over money.
The United States, Desmond notes, already has a sizable federal housing budget—we just aren’t spending it on the poor. Each year, the government spends three times as much on homeowner tax benefits as Desmond estimates it would cost to run a universal housing voucher program. The majority of housing subsidies benefit families with six-figure incomes, while three in four poor families who qualify for housing assistance get none. He proposes a universal housing system that ensures no family spends more than 30 percent of its income on rent each month. “If poverty persists in America, it’s not for lack of resources,” Desmond says.
When we don’t extend the right to shelter to everyone, we “reduce to poverty people born for better things,” he says, invoking Plato. We deny Arleen the chance to run a charity as she’s always wanted, or the simple pleasure of having a calm moment, years from now, to reflect on her life with satisfaction.
“Eviction does not simply drop poor families into a dark valley, a trying yet relatively brief detour on life’s journey,” Desmond says. “It fundamentally redirects their way, casting them onto a different, and much more difficult, path. Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.”
And that means preventing eviction is part of the solution.
Cara Lombardo is an editorial intern at The Progressive.
From the May issue of the magazine.