Matthew Desmond’s compelling and carefully researched new book, “Evicted,” shows that black women with children are disproportionately likely to be evicted from their homes, making it ever more difficult to break the cycle of poverty.
‘Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City’
by Matthew Desmond
Crown, 432 pp., $28
For nearly a decade, Matthew Desmond has studied the relationship between eviction and poverty in a single American city: Milwaukee. The MacArthur Foundation awarded him a “genius” grant last year for his research, including the Milwaukee Area Renters Study he designed and supervised, which yielded this sobering conclusion: “Among Milwaukee renters, over 1 in 5 black women report having been evicted in their adult life, compared to 1 in 12 Hispanic women and 1 in 15 white women.”
“Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” makes this research come alive through the stories of eight Milwaukee families, black and white, and two landlords involved with them. In 2008-09, Desmond spent more than a year alongside his subjects, living first in a battered South Side trailer park, then in a predominantly African-American rooming house. He uses pseudonyms to protect his subjects’ privacy.
“Evicted” should provoke extensive public-policy discussions. It is a magnificent, richly textured book with a Tolstoyan approach: telling it like it is, but with underlying compassion and a respect for the humanity of each character, major or minor. Desmond presents the two landlords, whom he calls Sherrena and Tobin, as hard-nosed entrepreneurs pursuing profit, but he doesn’t demonize them, just as he refrains from airbrushing the tenants, who sometimes make their lives even more difficult through impulsive acts or poor choices.
Arleen’s story typifies the eviction-poverty dynamic: a single mother of two boys trying to live on a monthly check of $628. Had she been able to obtain housing assistance, she would have paid 30 percent of her monthly income for rent; in the private market, she was paying more than 80 percent. After falling behind in rent, she is evicted at the onset of a brutal Milwaukee winter.
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“If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women,” Desmond writes. “Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”
It will take Arleen 90 calls to find another stable place to live. Many landlords screen out applicants who have been evicted during the preceding three years; many also don’t want children. “Milwaukee neighborhoods with more children had more evictions, even after accounting for their poverty rate, racial composition, and a number of other things,” Desmond writes.
Desmond doesn’t subscribe exclusively to either the structural forces (liberal) or personal responsibility (conservative) explanation for this problem. It is hard to see, though, how a single mother of two or more children could bootstrap her way out of poverty while paying more than half her monthly income in rent. After long struggles, two of his subjects who did find and were able to keep decent housing did improve themselves economically.
The affordable-housing crisis “should be at the top of America’s domestic-policy agenda,” Desmond argues, noting that more than 20 percent of all renting families in this country spend half their income on housing. “Public initiatives that provide low-income families decent housing they can afford are among the most meaningful and effective anti-poverty programs in America,” he writes.