Evicted is a book by Matthew Desmond that tells the story of eight real families caught in the affordable housing crisis.
- While pursuing his PhD, Desmond began doing field research on the housing crisis. He follows the stories of various tenants at the College Mobile Home Park and in a building owned by Sherrena Tarver.
- Almost all of the subjects of the book are poor, urban black folks, many of whom have either criminal or substance abuse histories.
- Desmond explores the exploitative role of landlords, details the oftentimes complex circumstances of renters, and highlights the consequences of eviction on people's future housing prospects.
Matthew Desmond's Evicted is a stark and unflinching portrait of poverty in America. It draws on firsthand accounts of real events Desmond either witnessed or heard about while conducting field research for the book. Though present for most of the events related in the book, Desmond doesn't insert himself into the narrative, instead narrating it all in the third person, allowing the characters to speak for themselves as much as possible. Still, it's helpful to establish a timeline: the events of Evicted take place between 2008 and 2009 (with a few rare exceptions). Desmond started his field research in 2008, while a PhD student in sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He then moved into the College Mobile Home Park, a trailer park owned by gruff, seventy-something Tobin Charney, one of the landlords featured in this book. There, he met Scott, a kind but defeated man who'd lost his nursing license after becoming addicted to pain medication; Larraine, a fifty-four-year-old white woman suffering from fibromyalgia; and Pam and Ned, two crack addicts with four children between them (three from previous relationships and one on the way). Pam was pregnant at the time of their eviction. Her family's story is just one of eight told in this book.
In the prologue to Evicted, Desmond introduces readers to Arleen Belle, a poor black woman with two sons: Jori, thirteen, and Jafaris, five. When we first meet her, she's being evicted, and she and her sons are forced to move into a homeless shelter known as "the Lodge." It's winter, and she struggles to find an apartment in Milwaukee's black inner city, the North Side. She rents a rundown four-bedroom house there but is kicked out just a few weeks later when the city decides the property is "unfit" for human habitation. She finally finds an apartment on Thirteenth Street in a building owned by Sherrena Tarver. Desmond doesn't use the word "slumlord," but when Arleen moves in, the duplex is in terrible shape. There's a fist-sized hole in the wall, the carpets are filthy, and the front door has to be locked with a wooden plank. She doesn't know it yet, but she won't be staying here long.
Sherrena is a stern, entrepreneurial, but not uncaring woman who owns a slew of largely rundown properties in North Side. A former schoolteacher, Sherrena turned to real estate after a brief failed attempt at running a daycare. She realized that a lot of money could be made in the rental market, and she decided to specialize in renting to the black poor—not entirely out of solidarity. In fact, as Desmond points out, landlords in the inner city enjoy some of the largest profits, because they can rent their properties at the same rates as similar properties in higher-class neighborhoods, but they don't have to keep them up half as well, because their tenants are so poor and desperate that they'll take anything. It doesn't help that most landlords in nice neighborhoods will reject applicants with criminal records and evictions, which shuts out much of the black poor population. Knowing this, Sherrena starts her own small business, and her husband, Quentin, quits his job as a police officer in order to become her property manager.
Desmond also introduces readers to a number of Sherrena's other tenants: Lamar, the Vietnam War veteran and father who loves to play cards with the neighborhood kids; Doreen Hinkston, the mother of four forced to live with her children Patrice, Natasha, C.J., and Ruby, and grandchildren Mikey, Jada, and Kayla; and Crystal, who briefly sublets to Arleen before being...
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evicted. Lamar's disability (he lost his leg, not in the war but when he jumped out of a window while high) makes it near impossible for him to work, and he lives primarily off his welfare check, which barely covers the rent. When he falls short, Sherrena sometimes allows him to do odd jobs like painting recently vacated apartments or cleaning the basement to make up the difference; but she doesn't always pay him well, if she bothers to pay him at all. He's evicted, just like all the other tenants in the book.
Doreen and her children and grandchildren live in the house across the street from Lamar's. Doreen is described as a "mother hen," and her children are fun-loving by nature and enjoy playing pranks. Financial hardship, however, leaves them listless and depressed. Doreen rarely leaves the house, so she rarely puts on shoes; she shuffles around, tending to her family. Patrice and her children briefly move into the upstairs unit in the duplex but are unable to afford the rent on their own for long. In a few months, they move back in with Doreen, making the total number of occupants in the bottom unit of the duplex eight, not including the baby Natasha later has. Natasha, the second eldest child, isn't ready to be a mother, and it's assumed that Doreen will have to take on added responsibility as the baby's grandmother. In this light, Natasha and Patrice are lucky, because not everyone in South Side has the luxury of a family to help support them. Most struggle alone, and women in particular are left to care for their families by themselves as increasing numbers of young black men are incarcerated thanks to the racist and prejudicial War on Drugs.
Eventually, Doreen, Lamar, and Arleen are all evicted. Crystal Mayberry moves into Arleen's place but allows Arleen to stay in exchange for help with the rent. Crystal is eighteen years old, Christian, and psychologically unstable, having been diagnosed with a number of psychological disorders. Crystal and Arleen only get along when the rent is paid and there's food on the table. When there isn't, fights break out, some threatening to be physical. Crystal turns to sex work in order to pay the rent. Arleen's son even walks in on Crystal having sex. Finally, things come to a head, and Sherrena takes both Crystal and Arleen to eviction court. Following the eviction, Crystal moves into the Lodge. She meets Vanetta, a black woman who will soon stand trial for robbery. Vanetta is hoping to avoid jail time, because she wants to raise her children. She and Crystal arrange to split the rent on an apartment, but when Crystal becomes violent and throws a woman out of a window, Vanetta tells her to find somewhere else to live. Vanetta is later sentenced to fifteen months in prison, and her children are sent to live with her family.
Perhaps the only glimmer of real hope in the book is Scott's commitment to getting clean. It takes an extraordinary amount of self-restraint and courage, but he finally manages to complete rehab, stick with his methadone treatments, and manage his addiction. This makes regaining his nursing license a distant but achievable goal. It doesn't make finding housing any easier, however, and like Desmond's other subjects, Scott struggles to keep a roof over his head. He's eventually able to find housing via a program operated by Guest House. Unfortunately, things do not go as well for Arleen. Her lights are shut off, and Child Protective Services place Jafaris with his aunt, Arleen's sister. Jori lives with his father's family. Arleen dreams of a day when this is all behind them and they're able to look back on these evictions and laugh. Readers can only hope that this dream comes true.