Posted by: Jeanie F | May 11, 2017

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

 

Some of you may not know this, but I’m married to a real estate attorney. Along with the really dull stuff, like transactions, and the really happy stuff, like people buying new homes, he also has to deal with some of the tragic, such as evictions. When this book came out, I debated whether or not I wanted to read it but, for over thirty years I’ve heard him talk about both sides of this sad story – the evicting and the evicted. Believe me, there is plenty of blame, tragedy, greed, and stupidity on both sides of this issue, but I decided I wanted to know more about it than the frustration that inevitably accompanies a law suit. I wanted to understand something of the human side.

The fact that it won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction helped.

The author, Matthew Desmond, is an “Urban Sociologist” and associate professor at Harvard University. He’s also co-director of the Justice and Poverty Project, so he’s well-qualified to study this subject.

In the Prologue to this devastating, yet compelling, work, Desmond tells us this:

Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare. They used to draw crowds . . . These days, there are sheriff squads whose full-time job is to carry out eviction and foreclosure orders. There are moving companies specializing in evictions . . . data-mining companies that sell landlords tenant screening reports . . . housing courts swell, forcing commissioners to settle cases in hallways.

To write this book, Desmond moved into a trailer park in a poverty-stricken area of Milwaukee. He lived among the poorest of the poor, people scraping by – or not – day by day, sometimes hour by hour, and cataloged their struggles. Of this experience, he wrote in his journal: “I feel dirty, collecting these stories and hardships like so many trophies.”

It’s true that many of his neighbors have contributed to their predicaments through a lifetime of bad choices – many of which began before they had any control over them. They live hand-to-mouth, day-to-day, making heart-wrenching choices about whether to feed their family or pay the rent. When they decide not to starve their children, they have often made a decision that will result on them being – literally – on the street. Or living in their storage shed. Or with an abusive relative. And that, of course, can result in them losing their children to Social Services.

They live, day-to-day, with a Hobson’s Choice – choosing one means losing the other.

The flip side of this story is that of the owners of the park. There are two landlords: Sherrena Tarver, and Tobin Charney. We read of their vacations, their trips to the casinos, their annual income in the millions of dollars as they grow their investments in low-rent properties. I suppose that, depending on whose side of the story you relate to, it would be possible to understand Sherrena and Tobin’s points of view – their tenants flake out on the rent (that is often as high as 80% of their income), they do drugs, they fight, bringing police to the park, they live in filth – but I found it hard to garner sympathy for Sherrena, who says, “Love don’t pay the bills,” and evicts one tenant and her children just before Christmas.

There is little enough hope in this brutal book. There are some important takeaways, that Desmond shares in the Epilogue, titled “Home and Hope.”

  • America is supposed to be a place where you can better yourself, your family, and your community. But this is only possible if you have a stable home.
  • If [the poor] didn’t have to dedicate 70 or 80 percent of their income to rent, they could keep their kids fed and clothed and off the streets.
  • Between 2009 and 2011, roughly a quarter of all moves undertaken by Milwaukee’s poorest renters were involuntary.
  • Evicted families often lose the opportunity to move to public housing because Housing Authorities count evictions and unpaid debt as strikes when reviewing applications.

Perhaps, as a compassionate society, we could look at these markers and make some changes. Personally, I don’t see it happening any time soon.

Desmond ends by telling us that eviction impacts every aspect of the evicted’s life, but it impacts us as a society as well. Neighbors who cooperate with and trust one another can make their community safer and more prosperous, have lower crime rates. Children who are continuously misplaced are far more likely to end up being removed from their homes and placed in social services or foster homes. Desmond sheds some hope with public programs that help support the poor, and legal cases that provide them with legal services, but he leaves us, finally, with words of condemnation, not a solution:

Whatever our way out of this mess, one thing is certain. This degree of inequality, this withdrawal of opportunity, this cold denial of basic needs, this endorsement of pointless suffering – by no American value is this situation justified. No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching, can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become.

Visit Desmond’s website at http://www.evictedbook.com

 


Responses

  1. HI Jeanie,
    Entertaining, but not stupid. That’s a tall order!

    Here are seven I’ve read this year that met that requirement for me.
    ‘A Separation’ by Katie Kitamura
    ‘Miss Jane’ by Brad Watson
    ‘Everything is Possible’ by Elizabeth Strout
    ‘A Horse Walks into a Bar’ by David Grossman
    ‘The Refugees’ by Viet Thanh Nguyen
    ‘Transit’ by Rachel Cusk
    ‘Sudden Death’ by Alvaro Enrique

    For me, the big winner was ‘Miss Jane’ which I gave an A+, but all the others received A or A- grades.

    • Tony, you are AWESOME!! Thanks so much! Will absolutely check out Miss Jane- never even heard of it before!


What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories