'Evicted' probes the multiple dimensions of the housing crisis

Illuminating a grave yet solvable human crisis

Once bursting with well-paying jobs in the brewing and manufacturing industries, Milwaukee, Wisconsin is now the second-poorest city in America. Over 170,000 people, including 41 per cent of the city's African-American and 32 per cent of the city's Hispanic residents, are living in poverty.

Between 2009 and 2011, one in eight Milwaukee residents were forced from their homes by eviction or foreclosure. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City tells their stories. Written by Matthew Desmond, now a Harvard sociologist, the book follows eight families, Black and white, who struggle to keep a roof over their heads.

The reader meets Arleen and her two boys, Jori and Jafaris, after their rented house is condemned as "unfit for human habitation" by the city. After several short stays in apartments across the inner city, she finds a duplex unit for $550 a month, 88 per cent of her welfare cheque. Desmond introduces us to other Black Milwaukeeans, mostly women, in similar straits, and recounts the stories of a smaller number of poor white residents facing eviction: people like Scott, a young nurse who lost his license when he was overtaken by his drug addiction.

"We have a lot of academic studies about income or incarceration, but housing has been a black box for us," Desmond told me. "I wanted to understand the link between housing and poverty."

As the book's subtitle suggests, Desmond understands that poor people don't live in a vacuum; every renter has a landlord to whom they pay the rent, no matter if they live in a trailer park or the crumbling inner city. And so Desmond wisely includes Sherrena Tarver, a former teacher-turned-landlord, and trailer-park owner Tobin Charney, among his subjects.

During Arleen's first week in Sherrena's rental unit, the landlord drops by with groceries. Months later, the African-American entrepreneur who owns three dozen rental units in the Black North Side brings an eviction application against Arleen for non-payment of rent. Arleen owes Sherrena $870; she's fallen behind after helping pay for a close friend's funeral and having her welfare cheque reduced for missing a scheduled appointment with her caseworker.

Arleen's experience is all too common. Desmond finds that in Milwaukee, women from Black neighbourhoods account for nine per cent of the city's population, but 30 per cent of its evicted tenants. He writes:

"If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished Black neighbourhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor Black men were locked up. Poor Black women were locked out." 

The book is rigorously researched, highlighting housing and welfare policy, historic racist real-estate practices, and other essential context. Where data did not exist, Desmond designed and carried out studies to better understand what he saw.

This combination of novel, experience-driven academic research and reportage is part of what makes Evicted such a valuable contribution to non-fiction literature about the lived experience of poverty. Anecdote and personal history is buttressed by data that speaks to the systemic nature of that experience, and which captures pieces of the puzzle unknown or potentially misunderstood by those living in poverty themselves. If we seek, as does Desmond, to ensure that everyone has a safe, secure and affordable home, then we need to understand the many dimensions of the housing crisis -- both the intimately personal and the impersonally structural.

Evicted makes it clear that eviction is not only a symptom of poverty but also one of its causes. It pushes families like Arleen's into even less desirable and more dangerous areas of the city, prevents them from accessing social housing, disrupts children's education, and can result in the loss of employment and higher rates of depression.

Measures to increase people's incomes would go a long way to addressing the eviction epidemic. But without increased legal protections and rent controls, tenants could still find themselves pushed out of their homes by substandard living conditions or rising rents. And even with higher incomes, African-Americans and people with children are likely to still encounter the kind of landlord discrimination that Desmond documents throughout the book.

All of which makes his call for a universal housing voucher program to help tenants pay the rent, while pragmatic, something of a disappointment. Desmond is trying to "rebalance" the "two freedoms at odds with each other: the freedom to profit from rents and the freedom to live in a safe and affordable home."

After cataloguing the deprivation faced by Arleen, Scott and their neighbours (a woman living in her brother's trailer without heat or her possessions; the lack of working sinks and toilets in some of Sherrena's poorly maintained rental units) and the corresponding wealth of their landlords (Sherrena estimates her net worth at $2 million, with a monthly take-home of about $10,000 a month; Tobin's trailer park provides him with more than $400,000 a year) the idea of balance is a hard pill to swallow. This writer, at least, hopes that we can strive for a new way of providing housing for all, replacing a system that financially rewards anti-social, inhumane behaviours.

Desmond does acknowledge that other solutions will be needed, including enforcement to prevent discrimination and ensure rental units are safe, an increased supply of new social housing, and the provision of legal counsel for low-income tenants facing eviction. Activists in New York City, where 80 eviction cases are processed each day, are rallying behind a city council bill that would institute such a policy in municipal housing court. (Closer to home, tenants appearing before the Landlord and Tenant Board in Ontario can get impromptu legal assistance through the Tenant Duty Counsel Program.*) 

To amplify the efforts of tenant activists, Desmond has created Just Shelter. The online resource is a repository for local community organizations across the U.S. fighting to prevent eviction and preserve affordable housing; it's also a space for people who want to share their stories of how eviction has affected them.

According to Desmond, his research has already had a measurable impact.

Milwaukee's nuisance ordinance allows police to fine landlords for repeated 911 calls to their property if they fail to mitigate the problem. After analyzing two years' worth of nuisance property citations from the Milwaukee Police, Desmond found that domestic violence made up about 4 per cent of calls, but led to 16 per cent of nuisance citations, in many cases leading to the eviction of the survivor by the landlord.

"We published the research and brought it to the Milwaukee PD," Desmond explained to me. "Milwaukee changed the law and the ACLCU put up a campaign called "I'm not a nuisance," to pressure more cities to change their laws." And after reading Evicted, several U.S. Senators demanded the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development end the practice nationwide.

Arleen and Scott's stories are ours as well: one in five renters in Canada spend more than half of their income on rent and almost 150,000 households are living in substandard or overcrowded housing. Indigenous people, recent immigrants, racialized Canadians, people with disabilities and lone-parent families are among the hardest hit. Because of both the broad similarities between the American and Canadian housing crises and the very real, specific differences, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City has much to offer those interested in a critical examination of urban poverty and homelessness. The book illuminates a grave, yet solvable, human crisis and affirms the dignity of the people who experience it.

*Full disclosure: I was employed by the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario (ACTO) from 2008-2014. ACTO funds and coordinates the Tenant Duty Counsel Program across the province.

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