Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

by Matthew Desmond

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2132

Author: Matthew Desmond (b. 1980)

Publisher: Crown (New York). 432 pp.

Type of work: Sociology, economics

Time: Present

Locale: Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Evicted is a heartrending study of inner-city poverty as it directly relates to housing affordability and to failures in the social safety net of the United States. Taking Milwaukee as its case study, Evicted follows the stories of tenants for whom the experience of eviction initiated a downward spiral.

Principal personages

Arleen Belle, a single mother of six who is caring for her two youngest sonsCourtesy of Penguin Random House

Crystal Mayberry, a young woman recently aged out of foster care

Doreen Hinkston, the matriarch of an extended family

Kamala, a young mother of three

Lamar Richards, a double amputee

Larraine Jenkins, a woman with learning impairments

Pam Reinke, a pregnant woman living with her boyfriend, the father of two of her children

Sherrena Tarver, the owner of dozens of properties on Milwaukee’s impoverished North Side

Quentin Tarver, her husband, the property manager for their rental units

Scott Bunker, a former nurse

Tobin Charney, owner of the College Mobile Home Park

Though the figures followed throughout Evicted have been anonymized, their tragic stories are real. Author Matthew Desmond traces the web of poverty that swallows up lives in the inner cities of the United States, pursuing his line of inquiry via the critical lack of affordable rental housing, and the narrative that he spins is urgent and devastating. He follows a central cast of personages whose experiences exemplify the faults in a system designed to confine the many to a life of miserable insufficiency while lining the pockets of a more fortunate few. Certainly the renters that Desmond follows are imperfect, themselves causing some of the unfortunate circumstances in which they find themselves. However, Desmond’s unsparing assessment of their financial and social conditions makes clear that they face unsurmountable obstacles in their day-to-day battle for survival, many of which are caused by the existing system of housing legislation and markets. Desmond also sheds some light on the landlords who house them, using the contrasts and tensions between landlord and tenant to help build his narrative. Adopting a model of scholarship that he describes as reinserting the perspective of the poor into the “inequality debate,” Desmond approaches poverty as “a relationship . . . involving poor and rich people alike” in “mutual dependence and struggle.” In this relationship between poverty (tenants) and wealth (landlords), current eviction legislation favors enriching the wealth of landlords while wiping out the few remaining resources of the poor. Desmond’s tale is organized around the city of Milwaukee, selected as a mid-sized city that could plausibly offer a representative study for issues at play nationwide. Thus, while his stories are intensely personal and particular, they are also intended to shed light on the nationwide epidemic of housing insecurity, at the heart of which is the practice of eviction.

Evicted is organized in a way that foregrounds the stories of Milwaukee’s poor and de-emphasizes Desmond’s interpretive presence. The book begins with a prologue that sets the scene for the cascading tales of hard luck and systemic inequality that follow, and its three main sections of text (“Rent,” “Out,” and “After”) follow the arc of a renter’s route toward eviction and subsequent housing insecurity. An epilogue offers some sweeping recommendations for improvements to the policies and perspectives in the current system.

A reader interested in understanding the inner workings of Desmond’s research may want to defy this inherent order of the text and instead begin by turning to the final section, a twenty-two-page essay titled “About This Project,” in which he explains in great detail the philosophy, rigor, and process of his research. Many readers will be touched and perhaps transformed by what they learn from Evicted, but the stunning contributions of this book cannot be fully grasped until this concluding section. It is stated from the outset that the book is the product of field research completed in a little over a year and a half, spanning 2008 and 2009. In this final essay, Desmond reveals the intensity and immersive nature of his time studying poverty and the rental market in Milwaukee. Living full time in a trailer in College Mobile Home Park and also renting a boarder’s quarters from Sherrena and Quentin Tarver, Desmond experienced firsthand a version of the life that he studies (albeit with the safety net of his own race and class, which he acknowledges affords him many protections, even in Milwaukee’s North Side). During these months, he developed lasting relationships with community members, privileged relationships that allowed him access to many aspects of the system that would otherwise have remained invisible to a more distant viewer. Beyond the fieldwork, this essay also reveals that many of the facts and figures cited throughout the text are the result of monumental efforts to collect data on the dynamics of Milwaukee’s rental housing. The information gathered by the Milwaukee Area Renters Study (MARS), which Desmond designed and spearheaded, provided the first body of evidence about the prevalence, demographics, and financial dynamics of eviction and, thus, serves as an invisible backbone to this book. Desmond asserts that he was forced to develop this system of data collection because no such study had been conducted previously. In this way, again, Milwaukee is a case study, but one that suggests concerning trends at a national level.

Organizing Evicted along the arc of displacement narratives allows Desmond to establish a structure wherein the stories of the impoverished, mostly white community at College Park Mobile Homes are presented alongside those of the tenants of Milwaukee’s North Side, a predominantly African American section of the city. Although Milwaukee is not a geographically large city, there is no interchange between these two communities, which have a long history of segregation and are worlds apart in terms of the social networks of their residents. Nevertheless, many of the systemic issues that the residents face are similar. The stories of Arleen Belle, who is black, and Pam Reinke, who is white, are the closest parallels that Desmond offers. Both women have children that are liabilities to them, though in different ways. Both struggle to maintain housing for their families while faced with income levels that are blatantly insufficient to house and feed a single individual, let alone a family. Both also have histories of abusive relationships and other traumas in their own childhoods, which continue to have an impact on their lives, relationships, and opportunities later in life. In Evicted, Arleen, Pam, and their families experience further reduction of their circumstances as eviction causes them to experience homelessness. Without a home, individuals can face the loss of their government support payments and also numerous obstacles to identifying and obtaining new housing. Arleen and Pam’s stories also have significant differences—hinging, in particular, around Pam’s drug use—but they serve to make Desmond’s central point, which is that the issue of eviction is not a “black” or a “white” concern, but rather one that has harsh impacts on all individuals within a certain socioeconomic bracket. This point is further emphasized by the MARS statistic that one in eight renters in Milwaukee experienced one “forced move” within the two-year period studied, of which only 24 percent were formal evictions—stark numbers indeed when viewed in light of the impact of these practices on the vulnerable populations in question.

A central point of Desmond’s argument is that the realities faced by Milwaukee’s poorest renters are incomprehensible to members of the middle class, or even to their siblings or other family members who might have risen to more comfortable circumstances. The economic realities are, in fact, hard to grasp. Many of the tenants that Desmond meets face housing costs, including rent, that approach 100 percent of their monthly income, sometimes affording them less than just a few dollars a day to feed and clothe their families, pay utilities, and meet all other expenses. As Desmond assesses, rent in economically distressed neighborhoods is not much more affordable than in modest, middle-class renting markets. If these apartments are not highly affordable, they are nonetheless flagrantly unsafe and without basic amenities. Appliances are lacking or malfunctioning, hot water does not run, and windows may be broken, and these are just the obvious failures in buildings where fire hazards (from nonfunctioning smoke detectors to poor electrical wiring) and safety issues may be less apparent. One of the most devastating passages in Evicted, in which an infant dies in a fire at one of the Tarver properties, hinges on precisely this fact, starkly revealing the lack of protections for tenants and of punishments for landlords who willfully put them in harm’s way. Landlords are largely free to cut corners because tenants face strong disincentives, such as homelessness and retribution, to reporting housing problems to the authorities. Further, as Desmond makes clear, the market for even such horrendous housing options is tight, the turnover is frequent, and landlords are motivated economically by a system that encourages them not to maintain or improve their properties. This same system also encourages them to pursue evictions aggressively. The fallout from both formal and informal evictions is profoundly devastating, as lack of transportation, Internet access, telephone service, affordable storage for their possessions, or other financially linked resources makes identifying and obtaining future housing an almost-insurmountable obstacle for these families. Desmond brings this point home through tragic stories of moving companies carrying out evictions by piling the contents of a refrigerator on the curb, alongside children’s toys and all the family’s winter clothes. With few resources at the outset, recovery from the loss of all one’s worldly possessions is nearly impossible.

Many aspects of Evicted should give the reader pause, but surely its most important contribution is the clarity with which it shows the impact of insufficient social policies and protections on the nation’s poorest children. Daily life in these unsanitary and unsafe rental units is bad enough, but experiencing eviction is even worse. Faced with homelessness, along with insufficient clothing, malnutrition, and anxiety, children experience damages that last a lifetime. The long-term psychological, emotional, and physical repercussions of such experiences are profound and are compounded by educational loss, as these children move from school to school and eventually stop attending. Desmond’s book introduces the reader to a number of children, but it is perhaps Arleen’s sons Jafaris and Jori who leave the most haunting impression. These young boys seem to hold great promise and potential at the outset of the narrative, yet by its conclusion, the evident psychological toll of their experiences forecasts a sad future.

Of all the tenants in Evicted, only Scott Bunker manages to improve his situation after eviction, though not without reaching some serious lows along the way. Having once held a rewarding career as a nurse, which he lost due to his substance abuse, Scott is able to slowly reverse his fortunes through the desire to resume his chosen profession. Single, white, male, and childless (and thus unencumbered by many of the obstacles that face others in this story), Scott is able to overcome addiction and get back on his feet.

Desmond’s assessment of the current urban rental system is damning and complete. His epilogue moves from the case-study approach to a sweeping condemnation of housing policies in the United States to hopes for the future. Asserting that “all this suffering is shameful and unnecessary. Because it is unnecessary, there is hope,” Desmond reminds the reader that the United States has the resources to solve the systemic issues that fuel an eviction-driven rental economy. Calling for a “big solution,” though only offering the most skeletal suggestions as to what such a solution might look like, Desmond urges the nation’s policy makers to take up the work of making housing affordable to the urban poor of the United States.

Review Sources

  • DeParle, Jason. “Kicked Out in America!” Review of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond. The New York Review of Books, 10 Mar. 2016, www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/03/10/evicted-kicked-out-in-america. Accessed 18 Sept. 2016.
  • Ehrenreich, Barbara. Review of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond. The New York Times, 26 Feb. 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/books/review/matthew-desmonds-evicted-poverty-and-profit-in-the-american-city.html. Accessed 18 Sept. 2016.
  • Lozada, Carlos. “If You Lose Your Home, You Lose Everything Else, Too.” Review of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond. Washington Post, 3 Mar. 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/news/book-party/wp/2016/03/03/if-you-lose-your-home-you-lose-everything-else-too/. Accessed 18 Sept. 2016.
  • Pollit, Katha. “What If the Problem of Poverty Is That It’s Profitable for Other People?” Review of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond. The Guardian, 7 Apr. 2016, www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/07/evicted-poverty-and-profit-in-the-american-city-matthew-desmond-review. Accessed 18 Sept. 2016.

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