I’m taking advantage of the quarantine to get caught up on a lot of my long-overdue reading and this week I finished Evicted by Matthew Desmond and it was incredible (it won a Pulitzer, so it’s not like I’m the first person to say that).
The book does an incredible job of blending ethnographic study with policy analysis in a way that brings the actual problems that actual poor people face to light. None of the characters are lovable — they’re all deeply flawed in various ways. From the landlord wringing money out of her impoverished tenants and constantly complaining about it, to the tenants themselves who use drugs, and get into fights, and often seem to make decisions at odds with their best interests.
However, all of the people who appear in the book are very real, and even if you don’t love them, you can surely empathize with them. Desmond does a very good job of illuminating the catch-22s and double-binds these people are put into — if you’re poor and living in an urban center, there really are no good options. All it takes is one emergency to fall behind on rent, get evicted, lose your house, and then everything else just falls apart.
Below I’ve included some of my notes and key quotes form the book highlighting how bad policies force poor people to untenable situations:
Landlords are frequently extracting more than 60% of their renter’s incomes, leaving very little leftover to put food on the table, save money, or handle emergencies. Our public assistance does very little for the majority of poor renters
Most poor people in America were like Arleen: they did not live in public housing or apartments subsidized by vouchers. Three in four families who qualified for assistance received nothing.
The apartments that impoverished people rent aren’t actually much cheaper than apartments in nicer parts of town and they are way, way shittier — because it’s so difficult to find any landlord who will rent to you if you have a criminal record or a past eviction, landlords who are willing to rent to you can charge a premium
Landlords were allowed to rent units with property code violations, and even units that did not meet “basic habitability requirements,” as long as they were up front about the problems.
The economics of the rental market in inner-city slums are fascinating. Because property values are so low, landlords can buy up lots of cheap properties and rent them out at enormous profit. They use the court system and the police to evict tenants and extract ludicrous amounts of rent for sub-standard housing stock.
The same thing that made homeownership a bad investment in poor, black neighborhoods—depressed property values—made landlording there a potentially lucrative one. Property values for similar homes were double or triple in white, middle-class sections of the city; but rents in those neighborhoods were not.
Wealthy renters can use their rent as leverage against their landlord to make sure broken things in an apartment get fixed — however if you’re poor and you’re behind on your rent, that leverage goes away.
- If you are even $100 behind on your rent and you call your landlord to fix a busted pipe, they can tell you they won’t fix it until you’re caught up on rent (while you can’t use your sync.
- If you call the housing inspector, your landlord can evict you immediately for being behind on your rent
Tenants able to pay their rent in full each month could take advantage of legal protections designed to keep their housing safe and decent. Not only could they summon a building inspector without fear of eviction, but they also had the right to withhold rent until certain repairs were made. But when tenants fell behind, these protections dissolved. Tenants in arrears were barred from withholding or escrowing rent; and they tempted eviction if they filed a report with a building inspector. It was not that low-income renters didn’t know their rights. They just knew those rights would cost them.
Laws regarding “nuisance” tenants, designed to encourage landlords to evict trouble-makers who might be harming the neighborhood, have the unfortunate effect of discouraging women from calling the police on their domestic abusers. Because if the police are called, say, three times to do the same address within a certain period of time the tenant can be evicted, women who are being battered by their domestic partners are forced to endure it for fear of being evicted if they call for help.
What the chief failed to realize, or failed to reveal, was that his department’s own rules presented battered women with a devil’s bargain: keep quiet and face abuse or call the police and face eviction.
Surprising no one, our social safety net is failing these people. What you come to realize in the book is that eviction is caused not by bad behavior per se, but it is the necessary result of being poor in the city — if you’re a poor renter in the inner city it’s almost inevitable that you’ll be evicted at least once in your lifetime (or at the very least you’ll know people close to you who are).
Unfortunately, because our policies treat evictions as a reason not to qualify for public housing assistance, we deny the people most in need of assistance the ability to get it.
When I ran the numbers, I was shocked to discover that 1 in 8 Milwaukee renters experienced at least one forced move—formal or informal eviction, landlord foreclosure, or building condemnation—in the two years prior to being surveyed. The survey also showed that nearly
Often, evicted families also lose the opportunity to benefit from public housing because Housing Authorities count evictions and unpaid debt as strikes when reviewing applications. And so people who have the greatest need for housing assistance—the rent-burdened and evicted—are systematically denied it. This—the loss of your possessions, job, home,
Overall this was a really eye-opening book. I had had a vague sense that all of these problems were real, important, and oppressive, but Desmond’s style really brings them to life in a powerful way. I will not forget it soon.