Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond lived in the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee for years, studying a seldom-analyzed housing crisis engulfing poor communities. Evictions used to be relatively rare events, even during times of economic distress. When they did take place, they often occasioned community resistance, as memorably documented in the 1977 book Poor People’s Movements and as depicted in Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man. But Desmond’s new book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, demonstrates that this phenomenon has become devastatingly common, wracking whole neighborhoods and destabilizing poor, and usually black, communities.
Evicted successfully interweaves the narratives of white characters living in a trailer park at the most southern point of Milwaukee with landlords and tenants in the sprawling black ghetto of the city’s North Side. (Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities in the country and one of the worst places for black people to live in America.) Desmond’s findings are grim, but he relates them accessibly. In one subtly horrifying chapter, he profiles a moving company that gets many of its jobs from booting families from their houses.* Desmond follows a moving crew as it works its way through the black neighborhoods of the North Side, the Latino communities of the near South Side, and that trailer park at the bottom of the city, where it kicks one of Desmond’s central characters out of her home.
Desmond’s book manages to be a deeply moral work, a successful nonfiction narrative, and a sweeping academic survey—all while bringing new research to his academic field and to the public’s attention. One of Evicted’s most significant contributions is its focus on the vulnerability of the vast majority of low-income renters who are not covered by public subsidies or affordability controls. Without those protections, they’re left vulnerable in a grossly unequal marketplace that is exploitative by its very nature. As Desmond shows, the only profitable way to rent to poor people is by putting very little money into a property while taking a huge chunk of a household’s income.
That doesn’t mean we should vilify landlords, even as it helps explain how evictions have become so common, as Desmond told me in an interview about his book. Our conversation has been edited for concision and clarity.
In the beginning of the book, you point out that evictions used to be rare, even during the Great Depression. Today, you argue that millions are being evicted every year. Why has it become so common?
That’s one of the big things you see when reading urban history of the 1930s and 1940s. Evictions are these moments of scandal and mass community resistance. There’s a little note in the book about an eviction [in February 1932] of three Bronx families, which brought out a thousand people. The New York Times wrote about it like that was a poor showing because it was too cold.
Now we are evicting hundreds of thousands of people, probably in the millions, every year. There’s this divergence between what low-income families are making and what they have to pay to keep a roof over their heads and heat in their house. Between 1995 and today, median rent increased by over 70 percent. In the 2000s the cost of fuel jumped by 53 percent.
When you ask people why they were evicted the big reason is nonpayment of rent. They can’t afford to keep a roof over their heads. Utilities are a big part of the story too, while the third leg on the table is the lack of government help with housing. Most Americans think that the typical low-income family lives in public housing or gets housing assistance. The opposite is true. In years where you’ve had a growing gap between incomes and housing costs, only 1 in 4 families that qualifies for housing assistance gets any.
Why has so much scholarly and journalistic attention been paid to that one-fourth? I’m as guilty of that as anyone; I’ve written more about public housing and the Section 8 programs than about the private market for low-income renters. Even in terms of the other afflictions of poverty, drugs and gangs receive more attention than housing.
It’s hard to answer that question. Issues like joblessness, welfare reform, and mass incarceration are essential to understanding inequality in America today, but so is housing. We paid a lot of attention to public housing because it was a really important story. There’s this growing field of study and journalistic attention to the neighborhood and the effects poor neighborhoods can have on kids. In that research housing is a stepping stone to get to larger issues of ecology.
But what I was seeing on the ground was here’s this housing market where the vast majority of poor families live and spend most of their incomes just to live in it. The market dictates where they live, who they get to live with. It plays a vastly important role in destabilizing their communities, but we just didn’t know a lot about it.
This eviction epidemic you describe is racialized. You found that among Milwaukee renters 1 in 5 black women report eviction, versus 1 in 15 white women. What kind of social effects does this have on, say, the ability to do well in school or keep a job? What effect does it have on neighborhood violence?
The consequences of eviction are so much greater than I was fully aware of when I started the work. Families not only lose their homes. Kids lose their schools. They also lose their things, which are piled on the sidewalk. It’s a lot of time and money to establish a home, and eviction erases all that. It comes with a record, which affects your chances of moving into stable housing because a lot of landlords will turn you away. Even in public housing an eviction record is counted as a strike.
So we see families move from poor neighborhoods to poorer ones and neighborhoods with high violence rates to even more dangerous neighborhoods. When I started I thought that job loss would lead to an eviction, but we found better evidence of the opposite. Then there’s the effect eviction has on your mental health. There are higher rates of depression even two years later, and we know that suicides attributed to eviction have doubled [between 2005 and 2010].
Evictions can ripple through multiple neighborhoods. When Doreen [one of Evicted’s central characters] and her family moved from a neighborhood where they’d been a long time, a stabilizing presence was lost. After the eviction they moved to a neighborhood they didn’t like, into substandard housing. They didn’t invest in that neighborhood, and they didn’t contribute, so one neighborhood loses a stabilizing presence, and the other doesn’t gain one. It’s really hard to invest in a neighborhood and try to drive down crime if you don’t know your neighbors because so many people are being tossed every year.
You note that a landlord can expect about $750 a month in a white middle class suburb of Milwaukee but $550 a month in the most desperate ghetto. Why this small disparity?
When we looked at the distribution of rent in the city only 260 bucks separated the 90th percentile from the 10th percentile. Some of the most expensive and some of the least expensive apartments are not actually separated by all that much. A two-bedroom apartment in the poorest neighborhood in Milwaukee, where upward of 40 percent of people are below the poverty rate, its only $50 less a month than the citywide median.
You can buy in the neighborhood for much lower than you can in the suburbs, but you can still rent it at a decent amount. Your mortgage bills are lower, your tax bills are lower, and your return on investment is often better. There is a moment where Sherrena [a landlord in Evicted] is buying a duplex for $8,000, putting a bit of money into it, and recouping her total costs in a year. That’s the kind of return that attracts some folks.
You don’t demonize the landlords. You really emphasize how difficult the business is and how close to disaster many of these operators frequently are when they get an unexpected bill. What do you think is the most useful way for reform-minded readers, who might be tempted to villainize these people, to understand these actors?
I think we are letting ourselves off easy if we just say, “Oh those landlords they’re so greedy,” or “Oh these tenants are so irresponsible.” If we as a nation are going to house the vast majority of our low-income families in the private market, landlords have to be at the table. We have to understand their perspective; we have to understand their incentives. The book does not shy away from moments where landlords have massive discretion over families’ lives or where landlords drive their properties into the ground. But it also documents when landlords work with families and let them slide sometimes.
There’s one part, in rent court—the busiest courtroom in Wisconsin—where your main landlord character is grousing about the system. To hear her tell it, “It’s still not fair nobody ever does anything to these tenants. It’s always the landlord. This system is flawed ...” But there’s no sense in which that’s true. There are reams of research that show rent court almost always favors the landlord—in some studies over 99 percent of the time. Why is rent court stacked in the favor of the landlord?
We don’t fundamentally solve the affordable housing crisis, that’s the answer to your question. If you have someone who is paying 88 percent of her income on rent and we have laws that allow a landlord to evict a tenant who falls behind under those circumstances, eviction becomes an inevitability.
If you are someone like Arlene [a tenant in Evicted] and you move into a place, paying 88 percent of your income, and you have to pay first [month’s rent], last, and security deposit … that’s impossible, so you start off behind. You start off in a legally precarious position. We do have laws on the books that protect tenants from indecent conditions and allow them recourse if landlords don’t have heat or running water.*
Then you have a situation where there is no right to counsel in housing court or civil court in general. In many housing courts 90 percent of landlords have lawyers, and 90 percent of tenants don’t. It’s very difficult for tenants to have a fair hearing. In Milwaukee 70 percent of tenants just don’t show up because they don’t think they’ll have a shot.
Why are protections for renters so weak? You note that if a tenant in Milwaukee is current on the rent, he or she can withhold payments to force repairs. Those who are most likely to need repair, poor people living in dilapidated housing, are most likely to be behind on their rent. Is that true in other cities too?
Most cities don’t have a just-cause eviction law. Most allow no-cause evictions, as well as evictions for nonpayment. But if you looked at the eviction laws on the books in Milwaukee you’d say these are pretty good, these are pretty fair. In Milwaukee you can withhold rent from a landlord if they don’t address particularly bad housing conditions. Not even withhold your rent but literally keep it. On paper those laws aren’t weak, but they become weak in practice. They are weak when the majority of renting families are spending at least half their income on rent and 1 in 4 are spending over 70 percent on housing costs.
Considering conditions, why has tenant activism receded as eviction rates have gone up? I can’t imagine renters are poorer than their counterparts during the Great Depression. Is it that evictions are so common now?
There’s a scene in the book where [a black woman] is getting evicted, and it was her first one. She was 24. I remember asking if she was worried, and she said she wasn’t: “Everyone I know, except my white friends, has an eviction record.” It’s this massive thing that has massive consequences, that creates a record, that can bar them from housing programs. That has become normalized in poor communities.
I do wonder if this is changing. Renters today may be reaching a point where they are growing to see themselves again as a class with shared interests and organizing together.
Where are you seeing that?
I’ve seen it in places with organizations working toward establishing just-cause eviction laws, in cities like Boston. Organizations like CASA [Community Action for Safe Apartments] in the South Bronx. These organizations are out there, and they are vocal and they get stuff done.
As a reform you propose a universal housing voucher for low-income renters, basically a massive expansion of the Section 8 program.
I always come back to the question of scale. Do we believe housing is a right and that affordable housing is part of what it should mean to be an American? I say yes. Then the question becomes how do we deliver on that obligation? I think taking this program that works pretty darn well and expanding it to all families below the poverty line is the best way to do that. These families spending 80 percent of income on rent would be paying 30 percent. They’d be saving and spending money on their kids. We know from previous research that when families get a housing voucher after years on the waiting list, they buy more food, they go to the grocery store, and their kids become stronger. The book goes into how much that would cost and how to do that. But first we have to recognize how essential housing is to driving down poverty and recognize that we can’t fix poverty without fixing housing.
*Correction, March 17, 2016: This article originally misstated that Evicted includes a profile of a moving company that gets most of its work from evictions. The company gets many of its jobs that way, but not most. (Return.) It also misquoted Desmond as saying that “we don’t have laws on the books” to protect tenants from indecent conditions. He said that “we do” have such laws. (Return.)