Thursday, January 19, 2017

Evicted: A Heartbreaking, Rage-Inducing Study on Poverty and Profit in the American City

Sociologist Matthew Desmond's New York Times Top 10 of 2016 book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, is an extremely important, vital book in these troubled times. That's because the problem of frequent evictions among the poor, a problem not often discussed, is, as Desmond argues here, a foundational problem to a lot of others in America — including crime, education, and the lack of possibilities for upward mobility for many people.

Desmond's assertion here, made through a combination of meticulous research and the stories of eight Milwaukee families, is that, like health care and voting, housing should be a guaranteed American right.  However, as the book makes starkly clear, the availability of adequate housing for all is far from the current state of things. And what's especially troubling is that a single eviction (sometimes the tenant's fault, just as often not) can send a person and his or her family into a downward spiral from which it's nearly impossible to recover.

For instance, the first person we meet in the prologue of this book is a single mother with a teenage and a middle grade son. She is evicted when her bored elder son, just goofing off, throws a snowball at a motorist, and the motorist stops his car, and kicks in their front door. The landlord thinks they're trouble, so he boots them, as his is right. They find another house, but soon have to leave because the house is condemned by the city for being unlivable. And then, for the rest of the book, this woman and her kids struggle to find any stability in their housing situation — this affects her sons' attendance at school and basic faith in the system. At one point, after an eviction, this woman has to beg the new tenant at an apartment from which she's been evicted to let them stay for a few weeks until they can find somewhere else to live. It's just heartbreaking.

The strength of this book is these personal stories that connect the cold data to real people. Desmond did nearly a year of fieldwork for this book — living both in a predominately white trailer park on the South Side of Milwaukee, and then in a small room in the city's mostly African American North Side. He tells the stories of the people he met and followed for this year — both tenants and landlords, people deserving of our sympathy and those deserving of our anger (neither is often who you think, or fit neatly into often preconceived notions). 

There are few winners and tons of losers in this book. And there's plenty of blame to go around for this broken system, in terms of tenants, landlords, policy makers, law enforcement, etc.

This is such an essential book — I'm really glad it landed on the NY Times list. I may not have read it otherwise. It's not a difficult read at all — its narrative non-fiction structure and Desmond's talent as a writer make this a smooth and easy read. It doesn't feel academic at all.

To me, the lack of empathy and often willful ignorance of others' situations is also a foundational problem to many other problems right now. And reading this book can be a small step toward working on both. Extremely highly recommended.

(And if you'd like to help right away, please consider a donation to Matthew Desmond's charity, Just Shelter.)


  1. This sounds like such an important read - definitely on my wishlist and I'm looking forward to digging in. I recently read the anthology Policing the Planet and one essay in that collection talks about how landlords in places evict tenants every 28 days to move them into different apartments in the building so that they don't become eligible under rental laws - so many horrifying aspects of the problem. Thanks for the review.

    1. That practice is, indeed, horrifying. There just seem to be no winners the way the system is set up now - landlords spend all their time collecting delinquent rent and suing for eviction, and tenants are constantly worried about eviction for no reason, or falling behind on rent if met with a single misfortune. It's so sad. We have to do better!