Jori and his cousin are throwing snowballs at passing cars in the South Side neighborhood of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which is the fourth-poorest city in the United States. It is January 2008, and Milwaukee is experiencing record-breaking snowfall. One of their snowballs hits a car, and a man jumps out. He chases the boys to the apartment where Jori lives with his mother, Arleen Belle, and his little brother, Jafaris. They slam the door behind them, but the lock is weak. The man kicks the door open before returning to his car. Arleen and the boys are evicted because of the damage.
Arleen takes the boys to a homeless shelter, which everyone calls the Lodge because it sounds more like a motel than a shelter. They live at the Lodge until April, when Arleen finds a house in the inner city. However, after only a few weeks, the building is deemed “unfit for human habitation.” Arleen is evicted again. She moves her boys to an apartment on a dangerous street. After four months, they move to a two-bedroom duplex in one of the worst neighborhoods in Milwaukee, on Thirteenth and Keefe. Arleen makes the best of it, though the rent is 88% of her monthly welfare check. She would rent something cheaper, but no landlord will rent a smaller unit to a mother with two children.
Author Matthew Desmond says evictions used to be unusual in the United States. They would attract crowds and inspire riots, as they did during the Great Depression—though a smaller percentage of impoverished families faced eviction during the 1930s compared to today. Neighbors might sit on the evicted family’s furniture so it could not be removed. They would even move everything back inside, disregarding the judge’s eviction orders. Marshals disliked carrying out evictions—“it wasn’t why they carried a badge and a gun.”
More recently, squads of sheriffs, moving companies, and data-mining companies enforce evictions and foreclosure orders. Housing costs have skyrocketed while salaries have stalled or decreased. Today, poor families spend more than half of their income on rent and utilities. In Milwaukee, nearly 16,000 people are evicted every year—and there are fewer than 105,000 total rented households. Landlords have resorted to more informal ways of evicting tenants, including paying them to leave or removing the front door of a unit. Between formal and informal evictions, more than one in eight Milwaukee renters were evicted between 2009 and 2011.
Though Evicted follows eight families—“some black, some white; some with children, some without”—in Milwaukee, it tells a story that resonates with all Americans. The fallout from eviction is significant, not only for evicted families but for loved ones, landlords, homeless shelters, and more. The housing crisis continues to grow as more families struggle to afford to rent, let alone to buy, a home. Housing problems play an integral role in the creation of poverty and must be considered alongside other crucial problems like employment and mass incarceration.