Evicted is a book I have been talking about since the first day I began reading it and one that I am sure to continue to talk about for many years.
Matthew Desmond follows the intertwined lives of eight families and a host of minor characters in an extraordinary ethnographic study of tenants in low-income housing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Among the main "characters" are Arleen Belle and Doreen Hinkston who are black mothers struggling to keep their broken families sheltered and off the streets; Crystal and Trisha who are fragile young black women whose upbringing was violent and chaotic; Lamar who is a caring black father of two boys who lost both of his legs to frostbite when he passed out on crack in an abandoned house, and Scott who is a white male nurse who lost his nursing licence when he began using opioids stolen from the analgesic patches of his dying patients. I found it hard to keep up with the personal storylines because they are told in a disorderly style, but Desmond's ultimate message is perfectly clear. Rent is the main condition dragging down a large population of individuals and families in America and there is an urgent need to sort out this major housing crisis.
The standard measure is that your rent should be no more than 30% of your income, but for poor people it can be 70% or higher. Tenants are continuously forced to make a choice about what to do with their meager paychecks- pay the rent, pay a bill to keep their water or heat on, or to put food on their table. Rent often seems to be the only negotiable payment, so tenants find themselves paying their landlords only a portion of the rent and then remaining in chronic debt to them. Debt of this type allows for landlords to evict their tenants whenever it is convenient such as when they ask for something to be necessarily repaired like a hole in the window or a non-working sink or toilet, or when police are called to the property for any reason (a domestic violence incident or if a child gets into trouble at school). This fact was one of the most haunting ones that I learned from this book. It most certainly should make us reconsider why women do not call the police when their partners are violent with them or their children...
Each year, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of renters are put out on the street and most of those who are evicted are women, black women more specifically. Eviction is socially damaging to those involved. It puts immense stress on families. It prevents people from saving even small sums of money that would let them eventually stabilize their situation. They are always starting over from scratch, losing their possessions in the chaos of forced removal, or putting them in storage and losing them when they can’t pay the excessive monthly fees. An eviction on your record makes the next apartment harder to get. Eviction damages children, who are always changing schools, giving up friends and toys and pets – and living with the exhaustion and depression of their parents. Eviction makes it hard to keep up with the many appointments required by the courts and the welfare system: several characters have their benefits cut because notices are sent to the wrong (previous) address. Eviction destroys communities: when people move frequently, they don’t form the social bonds and pride in a place that encourage them to care for their block and look out for their neighbors. Rather than living collectively, people live alone and only have the energy to try to look out for themselves.
Desmond's work is heartbreaking. He did a commendable service portraying the chaotic, frustrating, and bleak situation of housing in America. It is a must read.