Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. Broadway, 2017 paper.

Named as one of the ten “Best Books” in 2016 by The New York Times, the reader will, nevertheless, perhaps be as confused as I was. Matthew Desmond follows eight families of various descriptions who are looking for affordable housing for their families in the greater Milwaukee area. They are considering both trailer park and an apartment in an existing rental unit. And landlords are looking for tenants who can pay the rents they are asking. The reader needs a chart to keep the dozens of characters divided into their families. Or perhaps it is the author’s intention to create a confusion that exists in the real world amongst the poor and poorly housed.

Landlords have to overlook the fact that many of those looking for housing have already been evicted several times, either because they can’t pay the rent, or are engaged in illegal activities, or have male companions who are engaged in illegal activities.

Potential landlords have an array of reasons for rejecting applicants because they can’t afford the rent. The applicant may be a first-time renter without someone to cosign the application. He or she may have bad references from a previous landlord.

Potential tenants may be asked whether they have been evicted within the last three years or have a felony drug or violent crime conviction in the last seven years; or a record of disorderly conduct, including domestic abuse.

Eviction may seem like an option for the landlord, but the lost rent resulting from vacancies are almost never recovered. Landlords are in the best bargaining position if the prospective tenant has not yet moved in. Evictions can be a matter of throwing the few possessions their tenants have out on the curb, or inviting a storage facility to collect the possessions and store them, charging a monthly rent. Desmond follows these possessions in and out of rental units in these storage facilities around
South Milwaukee.

The courts preside, more or less, over this complicated system. Both evicted tenants and their former landlords must wait for their case to be heard by a court. Often there is no alternative to eviction. The rents are simply too high for the family’s income. There is back rent that is due. It has to be paid somehow, often by soliciting friends and family for financial assistance. Moving into a homeless shelter, kids and all, is destructive of family life.

The landlord or his agent can legitimately turn off the electricity. There goes the food stored in the refrigerator, and the heating unit. It is difficult for the reader to comprehend and the reviewer to organize this world in order to describe it fully. Hence. the difficulty which the courts face in sorting out the evictions.

Consider the kids, which is something that the courts and the families try to do. Moving in search of affordable rent usually involves a new school. Being homeless means that the kids aren’t getting the education they need to leave this world of misfortune.

Landlords are frequently accused of not keeping up their rental properties. The obvious reply is why not put those delinquent in their rent payments to work repairing and painting their rental properties? The problem is one of matching the skill set of a non-performing tenant with the skills needed for the job.

The confusion over housing for the poor is then complicated further by the problems they have in obtaining short-term loans to be able to afford anything like a security deposit on a new home. They face higher borrowing costs and too frequently banks foreclose on whatever assets they have.

Popular wisdom among real-estate dealers and landlords is that rent, mortgage payments, etc. should amount to about 30% of family income. A journalist who investigated the situation in South Milwaukee found that the rent was 70 to 80% of family income.

Housing vouchers are intended to help those looking for housing but can’t pay the rent because of insufficient income. But many argue that those who receive vouchers should be required to find a job or at least spend a lot of time looking for a job – while they are also looking for affordable housing. The need for this assistance from the city could be avoided with sufficient family income. Unfortunately Milwaukee, like other Midwestern cities, has seen a movement of well-paying jobs out of the central cities. So economic trends are working against that common, easy answer.

Matthew Desmond has made a considerable effort to be “fair” in his analysis of the situation. He has stepped into a very complicated world of poverty and indebtedness. And unfairness!

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