In ‘Evicted,’ home is an elusive goal for America’s poor

Matthew Desmond is author of the book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.”
Matthew Desmond is author of the book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.” New York Times

One of the most heartbreaking moments in Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” – and there’s a shameful assortment to choose from – is when 13-year-old Ruby Hinkston takes refuge in the public library. She’s come to use the computer. It turns out that she’s been slowly building her dream house with a free online game, and she wants to visit it again.

“It had clean, light-reflecting floors,” Desmond writes, “a bed with sheets and pillowcases, and a desk for doing schoolwork.”

This cheerful vision in pixels forms an almost unbearable contrast to the filth of Ruby’s own apartment. The kitchen sink is stopped up, as is the bathtub and toilet. There are mattresses everywhere, their exposed innards revealing humming burrows of cockroaches – and the mattresses may be the least terrifying of their redoubts. They also fill the kitchen drawers and erupt from the nonworking drains.

Living in extreme poverty in the United States means waging an almost gladiatorial battle for creature comforts that luckier people take for granted. And of all those comforts, perhaps the most important is a stable, dignified home. Yet as a culture, notes Desmond, we have somehow failed to commit ourselves to providing this most fundamental and obvious necessity.

“Every year in this country,” he writes, “families are evicted from their homes not by the tens of thousands or even the hundreds of thousands, but by the millions.”

“Evicted” is a regal hybrid of ethnography and policy reporting. It follows the lives of eight families in Milwaukee, some black and some white, all several leagues below the poverty line. Desmond, a sociologist and a co-director of the Justice and Poverty Project at Harvard University, lived among them in 2008 and 2009 – first in the poor, white College Mobile Home Park, a dark hole of vanished ambitions and drug abuse (one woman is “Heroin Susie,” not be confused with “Office Susie”); and then in a rooming house run by the landlords Sherrena and Quentin, who eventually introduced him to many of their black tenants in other properties. One of those units was Ruby’s, with the volcanic cockroach problem.

The result is an exhaustively researched, vividly realized and above all, unignorable book – after “Evicted,” it will no longer be possible to have a serious discussion about poverty without having a serious discussion about housing. Like Jonathan Kozol’s “Savage Inequalities,” or Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickeled and Dimed,” or Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” this sweeping, years-long project makes us consider inequality and economic justice in ways we previously had not. It’s sure to capture the attention of politicians. Through data and analysis and storytelling, it issues a call to arms without ever once raising its voice.

What makes “Evicted” so eye-opening and original is its emphasis. Most examinations of the poorest poor look at those in public housing, not those who’ve been brutally cast into the private rental market. Yet this is precisely where most of the impoverished must live. Sixty-seven percent of poor renting families received no federal assistance for housing at all in 2013 – there simply weren’t enough vouchers or subsidized apartments to go around. The very people least capable of spending 70 to 80 percent of their incomes on rent are exactly the ones forced to do so.

“If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods,” Desmond writes, “eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”

With vacancy rates for cheap housing in the single digits, the moment is ripe for exploitation. It’s a landlord’s market. So exploit they do.

They keep the rents at punishingly high levels – if their latest tenants can’t pay, they can always evict them, pocket the security deposit, and move on to the next desperate soul. They rent units that run afoul of the property code, which is perfectly legal in Milwaukee as long as tenants are told in advance – caveat rentorem. They deny their tenants basic appliances, which the law also, amazingly, permits – not just in Wisconsin, but in most states.

“If you didn’t include a stove or a refrigerator,” Desmond explains, “you didn’t have to fix it when it’s broke.”

The greatest perversity of all? The ghastliest hovels, like Ruby’s house, often yield the highest returns. They cost nothing to maintain, because you owe nothing to a tenant who’s behind on rent. Evictions are cheaper than making repairs; the mortgage payments on these places are minimal; if all goes to hell, you can always stop paying taxes and surrender the place back to the city. It’s win-win. As Sherrena, Ruby’s landlord, likes to say, “The ’hood is good.”

“Evicted” is filled with such infuriating paradoxes and demon’s loops. Desmond explains them one by one, sometimes in the main text and sometimes in the footnotes, which make for an engrossing reading experience all on their own. (Think of them as the director’s cut.) They’re filled with history, theory and original tenant survey data. There’s even additional dialogue.

But “Evicted” is most memorable for its characters, rendered in such high-resolution detail that their ghost images linger if you shut your eyes. To respect their privacy, Desmond has given them pseudonyms, but their voices are as distinct as fingerprints, their plights impossible to invent. (If you doubt they’re real, read Desmond’s last chapter, “About This Project,” and come to your own conclusions.)

There’s Doreen, Ruby’s mother, who presides over a three-generation household of eight. There’s Doreen’s neighbor, Lamar, a black single father, who’s facing eviction and can’t collect disability, even though he has no legs. There’s Arleen, who’s evicted or forced out of her house so many times over the course of the book that I lost count, at one point calling on 90 landlords before finding another home – only to be kicked out a few days later.

The portrait of Sherrena is priceless. She loves her gambling, loves her red Camaro, loves her annual trips to Jamaica. “If you ever thinking about becoming a landlord,” she earnestly tells Arleen, after taking her to eviction court, “don’t. It’s a bad deal. Get the short end of the stick every time.”

And then there are Ned and Pam, a pair of crack addicts with five evictions and a scroll of a rap sheet between them, who still have an easier time finding housing than any of the black men and women. “They were white,” Desmond explains.

As these people brokenly shuttle from pillar to post, their lives inevitably decline. How can you hang on to a job, send your child to school, or build roots in a community if you are constantly changing homes, each one more dilapidated and dangerously located than the next?

“Just my soul is messed up,” Arleen says after her being thrown back out on the street. Her children can see it. They’re the emotional seismographs in “Evicted,” detecting every tremor in their mother’s mood. Her son, Jori, dreams of making things right. He wants to become a carpenter one day. He wants to build her a house.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

Author: Matthew Desmond (418 pages, Crown. $28)