From the March-April 2019 issue of News & Letters
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond, Broadway Books, NY (2016), won a Pulitzer Prize and revealed housing conditions that shocked a slew of book reviewers. Sociology student Desmond’s research in Milwaukee in 2008-2009 left him satisfied with neither the “structural [economic] forces” nor the “cultural [individual shortcomings]’’ theories of poverty. He looked for answers in the idea that “Poverty was a relationship…involving poor and rich people alike” (pp. 316-317).
He presents the experiences of eight families and their landlords, unfolding them in anecdotes that bring readers into their lives. Desmond intersperses data within the stories, substantiated by 72 pages of endnotes, which provide a context to the stories. His conclusions may well shock middle-class educated readers, but would come as no surprise to residents of the neighborhoods in question.
• Nearly half of Milwaukee renters experience evictions without any “due process.” These forced moves are invisible to official statistics and the renters themselves, who don’t call a forced move an eviction unless sheriffs come. Desmond’s survey that accounts for informal evictions revealed that between 2009 and 2011 more than one in eight Milwaukee renting families were forced to move (p. 330).
• 83% of landlords evicted women who made domestic violence complaints to the police (pp. 191-192).
• By all measures, Black families fared worse than white. For example, Black women make up 9% of Milwaukee’s population and 30% of its evicted tenants (p. 332).
• The book opens with two boys throwing snowballs at cars; one driver was hit; he stopped and broke down their apartment door. The landlord immediately evicted the family. Families with children are likely to be turned away seven times out of 10 housing searches, and are three times as likely to be evicted than adult renters (pp. 332, 231).
CAPITAL WINS, TENANTS LOSE
Desmond, though he might not describe it as such, depicts one arena of class struggle as it plays out in the rental market. Government policies have allowed landlords to exploit the poor since the 1800s. Even policies designed to help the poor, like subsidized construction of rental units and housing assistance, end up providing landlords with more and the tenants with less.
He proposes a universal housing voucher program which would regulate rents, relax some building codes and outlaw discrimination against voucher holders. He compares this to food stamps, which are supposed to allow families access to food anywhere, but are used primarily in overpriced urban and rural food markets that serve the poor. Desmond fails to appreciate that, under the capitalist system, the best-intentioned programs will always become conduits to extract money from the poor.
Nevertheless, this book is an important contribution to understand the workings of exploitative housing in the U.S. It provides a basis for progressive housing activists to understand the scope and depth of the crisis and to think about ways to overcome these inequities in a better society.
—Susan Van Gelder