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Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American…

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

by Matthew Desmond

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,8081516,439 (4.41)1 / 389
"[The author] takes us into the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee to tell the story of eight families on the edge. Arleen is a single mother trying to raise her two sons on the 20 dollars a month she has left after paying for their rundown apartment. Scott is a gentle nurse consumed by a heroin addiction. Lamar, a man with no legs and a neighborhood full of boys to look after, tries to work his way out of debt. Vanetta participates in a botched stickup after her hours are cut. All are spending almost everything they have on rent, and all have fallen behind. The fates of these families are in the hands of two landlords: Sherrena Tarver, a former schoolteacher turned inner-city entrepreneur, and Tobin Charney, who runs one of the worst trailer parks in Milwaukee. They loathe some of their tenants and are fond of others, but as Sherrena puts it, "Love don't pay the bills." She moves to evict Arleen and her boys a few days before Christmas. Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare. But today, most poor renting families are spending more than half of their income on housing, and eviction has become ordinary, especially for single mothers. In vivid, intimate prose, Desmond provides a ground-level view of one of the most urgent issues facing America today. As we see families forced into shelters, squalid apartments, or more dangerous neighborhoods, we bear witness to the human cost of America's vast inequality-- and to people's determination and intelligence in the face of hardship. Based on years of embedded fieldwork and painstakingly gathered data, this masterful book transforms our understanding of extreme poverty and economic exploitation while providing fresh ideas for solving a devastating, uniquely American problem. Its unforgettable scenes of hope and loss remind us of the centrality of home, without which nothing else is possible"--Amazon.com.… (more)

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A fascinating and tragic revelation of the institutional and systemic epidemic of eviction. Each story is a powerful testimony of the vicious cycle of eviction—of the fact that each misfortune that befalls an individual or a family means a strike against them in the form of disqualification for governmental assistance or rental applications, thus cumulatively incapacitating them and deepening the spiral of poverty. Not only does Evicted compellingly tell the stories of these individuals and families, but it lets Desmond's narrative and editorial voice shine through, his despair and passion evident in the way stories and characters are presented with empathy and humanity. A critical book for the modern age, and feeling especially relevant to me given where I am now. ( )
  piquareste | Jun 3, 2020 |
This book tackled discussion of poverty by exploring the lives of people affected by it on a very personal level. It treated those people as HUMANS which is something that needs to be done more. Must read. ( )
  Hilaurious | Jun 2, 2020 |
Compelling. Eye-opening. Infuriating. Heartbreaking.

This book will stay with me. It's so well-researched, so intimate, so gripping. It made me so thankful that I lucked out being born into a financially-stable family. I got lucky. Poverty is such a hard cycle to break. Almost impossible. I have so much to say but don't know that a Goodreads review is the place to say it.

I'll just recommend this book wholeheartedly. It humanizes the very poor and brings up more questions than answers. ( )
  gakgakg | May 28, 2020 |
Best for:
Those interested in poverty, society, and housing. People who appreciate less academic, more narrative non-fiction books.

In a nutshell:
Ethnographer Desmond follows a couple of landlords (really slumlords) and a handful of tenants through housing struggles.

Worth quoting:
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.

Between 2007 and 2010, the average white family experienced an 11 percent reduction in wealth, but the average Black family lost 31 percent of its wealth. The average Hispanic family lost 44 percent.

Why I chose it:
I heard many good things about this when it first came out a few years ago but waited for the paperback version. I decided to finally take it off my TBR pile given what we’re seeing now with the influx of people unable to pay rent due to lost wages stemming from the pandemic.

I am both a tenant and a landlord. It’s a weird situation to be in. After we bought our home in Seattle, we ended up with the opportunity to move to London, and so have been renting out our house because we want to come back some day. That means we also rent in London, and have a pretty shitty landlord. Our flat is fine, but we haven’t had gas since mid-October (we now rely on small propane tanks for heat and hot water that give no warning before they run out. It’s super fun). In one week, both the hot water heater in the house we own and the one in our apartment broke. We (eight time zones away) were able to get someone out to the house to fix it that day; our landlord didn’t pick up the phone for a few hours even though the hot water heater had literally flooded and was pooling water in the kitchen.

So what I’m saying it, I have experience in general on both ends, but my god do I have zero respect for landlords who are out to make a profit off of housing. Like healthcare, I think housing is a human right that should not be withheld for lack of payment,I also don’t think someone should be driven further into debt or poverty while attempting to secure housing.

Desmond follows two landlords - Sherrena, who owns many very low-quality housing units, and Tobin, who owns a trailer park. Sherrena starts out looking like perhaps she cares about her tenants; in reality she cares about squeezing as much money from them as possible. Tobin doesn’t really ever look good. The tenants Desmond talks to either rented from Sherrena or Tobin, such as Arleen, Scott, Patrice, and Larraine (many of whom had children) and all were evicted due to variations on a theme. A missed welfare check. Laid off from work. Unexpected repairs they somehow had to pay for themselves. Having to choose between utilities or rent or food.

In the US there seems to be a real focus on the deserving vs the undeserving poor. People are much more sympathetic to someone who comes upon hard times unexpectedly (like, say a pandemic forcing the restaurant they work at to close) than someone who starts from a tough place. You can see that with all the legislation being passed to help people right now, even though there were plenty of people before COVID-19 who could have used the exact same help. There such a morality attached to being poor compared to being broke, and how people react when they learn the details of someone’s life circumstances shows a lot about their character, in my opinion.

There’s so much in this book to be angry about, but one thing I wanted to highlight was how the criminal punishment complex really plays in here. In one chapter, Desmond talks about evictions related to ‘nuisance’ calls. In Milwaukee, the police could issue nuisance citations if they received three calls to a residence in 30 days. They considered calls regarding domestic violence to be ‘nuisance’ calls. Which means a person being beaten by their husband better not call the cops if, say, the cops have been called before, lest they also get an eviction to go alongside their broken nose. And of course there’s a huge racial element here. Per Desmond, “in white neighborhoods, only 1 in 41 properties that could have received a nuisance citation actually did receive one. In Black neighborhoods, 1 in 16 eligible properties received a citation.”

Desmond does a great job with this book. He tells multiple stories, weaving them together as a narrative. This book could have felt dry and academic; instead I was learning intimate details of these lives, with statistics interwoven to accentuate their lived experiences. It was heartbreaking and frustrating and infuriating.

Right now we’re seeing a lot of people talking about those who were already precarious who are going to face more hardship because of the world’s economic collapse in relation to the pandemic. And that’s good! These folks will need as much help as we can provide (and we, especially in the US, can always provide more if we shift our priorities), but I would encourage people to also consider those who were facing housing challenges before the economy cratered, and who may still be struggling after it has come back.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Pass to a Friend ( )
  ASKelmore | Apr 13, 2020 |
The day Arleen and her boys had to be out was cold. But if she waited any longer, the landlord would summon the sheriff, who would arrive with a gun, a team of boot-footed movers, and a folded judge’s order saying that her house was no longer hers. She would be given two options: truck or curb. “Truck” would mean that her things would be loaded into an eighteen-footer and later checked into bonded storage. She could get everything back after paying $350. Arleen didn’t have $350, so she would have opted for “curb,” which would mean watching the movers pile everything onto the sidewalk. Her mattresses. A floor-model television. Her copy of Don’t Be Afraid to Discipline. Her nice glass dining table and the lace tablecloth that fit just-so. Silk plants. Bibles. The meat cuts in the freezer. The shower curtain. Jafaris’s asthma machine.

As the reader follows Arleen's family and other individuals in this airy tome of current-day problems that are affecting the poor and, actually, the not-so-poor persons in the USA, your eyes will widen and your jaw slacken at the sheer magnitude, complexity and most horrid situation that persons who find themselves on the verge of becoming homeless face, not only in the USA, but nearly everywhere, mainly due to how bad societies treat their poor.

I, who am writing this, belong to the middle-class in Sweden. I bask in having been carried by a quite big social-security safety net that's been behind me for the past decades. This, however, is changing. The average time it's taken for a Swedish person who has been evicted from their rented (i.e. not bought and owned) apartment after they haven't paid their rent, is two weeks. This is extremely worrying. People do not talk about this. Things are, clearly, worse in a lot of ways in the USA which is highlighted by Matthew Desmond's powerful book. Here's an example of how evictions were seen less than a century ago:

Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare. They used to draw crowds. Eviction riots erupted during the Depression, even though the number of poor families who faced eviction each year was a fraction of what it is today. A New York Times account of community resistance to the eviction of three Bronx families in February 1932 observed, “Probably because of the cold, the crowd numbered only 1,000.”

There is nothing special about Milwaukee when it comes to eviction. The numbers are similar in Kansas City, Cleveland, Chicago, and other cities. In 2013, 1 in 8 poor renting families nationwide were unable to pay all of their rent, and a similar number thought it was likely they would be evicted soon. This book is set in Milwaukee, but it tells an American story.

There are so many factors to think of other than finding a living space, for anybody. Here's a simple paragraph on Sherrena, a landlord:

Landlords operated in different neighborhoods, typically clustering their properties in a concentrated area. In the segregated city, this meant that landlords focused on housing certain kinds of people: white ones or black ones, poor families or college students. Sherrena decided to specialize in renting to the black poor.

As racism plays part of a lot of places in US culture, this also generates more problems where segregation and discrimination is rife:

These economic transformations—which were happening in cities across America—devastated Milwaukee’s black workers, half of whom held manufacturing jobs. When plants closed, they tended to close in the inner city, where black Milwaukeeans lived. The black poverty rate rose to 28 percent in 1980. By 1990, it had climbed to 42 percent.

There are many personal stories told throughout the book, not in a sensational way, but seemingly to highlight how often extraordinary things happen to ordinary people:

Lamar paused to take in the scene. Just the previous winter, he had climbed into an abandoned house, high on crack. When the high wore off, he found he couldn’t climb out; his feet had frozen. Lamar kept partying after returning home from the navy. In the mid-1980s, crack hit the streets of Milwaukee, and Lamar started smoking it. He got hooked. His coworkers at Athea knew it because he wouldn’t have cigarette money a couple days after payday. Lamar remembered losing his job and apartment. After that, he took Luke and Eddy to shelters and abandoned houses, tearing up the carpet so they could have a blanket at night. Luke and Eddy’s mother was around back then, but her addiction eventually consumed her, and she gave up her boys. Lamar ate snow during the days he was trapped in the abandoned house. His feet swelled purple and black with frostbite until they looked like rotten fruit. He was delirious when, on the eighth day, he jumped out of an upper-floor window. He would say God threw him out. When he woke up in the hospital, his legs were gone. Except for two brief relapses, he had not smoked crack since.

Just because you may be fortunate enough to have somewhere to live, that's not the end of problems inside of those four walls:

Tenants could trade their dignity and children’s health for a roof over their head.13 Between 2009 and 2011, nearly half of all renters in Milwaukee experienced a serious and lasting housing problem.14 More than 1 in 5 lived with a broken window; a busted appliance; or mice, cockroaches, or rats for more than three days. One-third experienced clogged plumbing that lasted more than a day. And 1 in 10 spent at least a day without heat. African American households were the most likely to have these problems—as were those where children slept. Yet the average rent was the same, whether an apartment had housing problems or did not.

The horrid, rugged, complacent and even torpid stories of people actually becoming evicted cut to the bone of me:

“Can I have until Wednesday?” she asked. The deputies shook their heads no. She nodded with forced resolve or submission. Dave stepped onto the porch. “Ma’am,” he said, “we can place your things in our truck or on the curb. Which would you prefer?” She opted for the curb. “Curbside service, baby!” Dave hollered back to the crew. Dave stepped into the house and tripped over a Dora the Explorer chair. He reached over an older man sitting at the table and flipped on more lights. The house was warm and smelled of garlic and spices. One of the deputies pointed to the built-in cabinets in the kitchen. “This is the kind of shit I like,” he told his partner. “They don’t make this stuff anymore. Tight.” The woman walked in circles, trying to think of where to begin. She told one of the deputies that she knew she was being foreclosed but that she didn’t know when they were coming. Her attorney had told her that it could be a day, five days, a week, three weeks; she decided to ride it out. She and her three children had been in the house for five years. The year before, she had been talked into refinancing with a subprime loan. Her payments kept going up, jumping from $920 to $1,250 a month, and her hours at Potawatomi Casino were cut back after her maternity leave. Hispanic and African American neighborhoods had been targeted by the subprime lending industry: renters were lured into buying bad mortgages, and homeowners were encouraged to refinance under riskier terms. Then it all came crashing down. Between 2007 and 2010, the average white family experienced an 11 percent reduction in wealth, but the average black family lost 31 percent of its wealth. The average Hispanic family lost 44 percent.

...and people would do nearly everything to avoid eviction:

Men often avoided eviction by laying concrete, patching roofs, or painting rooms for landlords. But women almost never approached their landlord with a similar offer. Some women—already taxed by child care, welfare requirements, or work obligations—could not spare the time. But many others simply did not conceive of working off the rent as a possibility. When women did approach their landlords with such an offer, it sometimes involved trading sex for rent.

People who look for somewhere to live often found out how this affects not only race, age and money but whether you have children or not:

The cheapest motel Pam could find charged $50 a night. They checked in and started calling friends and relatives, hoping someone would take them in. Two days passed without any luck, and Pam began to worry. “Everybody we knew weren’t answering our phone because they knew we needed a place to stay,” she said. Then Ned lost his part-time construction job. He was fired for the two days of work he missed when helping his family move from the trailer park. Job loss could lead to eviction, but the reverse was also true.

When house hunting a few days earlier, two landlords had turned her away on account of her kids. One had said, “We’re pretty strict here. We don’t allow no loud nothing.” The other had told Pam it was against the law for him to put so many children in a two-bedroom apartment, which was the most Pam and Ned could afford.

In 1980, HUD commissioned a nationwide study to assess the magnitude of the problem and found that only 1 in 4 rental units was available to families without restrictions. Eight years later, Congress finally outlawed housing discrimination against children and families, but as Pam found out, the practice remained widespread. Families with children were turned away in as many as 7 in 10 housing searches.

Yes, if you're a convicted felon, you're basically lost as well:

One day with Vanetta’s boyfriend, the two women sat in a van and watched another pair of women walk into a Blockbuster carrying purses. Someone suggested robbing the women and splitting the money; then all of a sudden, that’s what they were doing. Vanetta’s boyfriend unloaded his gun and handed it to her friend. The friend ran from the van and pointed the pistol at the women. Vanetta followed, collecting their purses. The cops picked them up a few hours later.5 In her confession, Vanetta had said, “I was desperate to pay my bills, and I was nervous and scared and did not want to see my kids in the dark or out on the street.” When she turned eighteen, Vanetta had put her name on the list for public housing. Becoming a convicted felon meant that her chances of ever being approved were almost zero.

All in all, this work could be seen as dystopic, but I simply see it as a matter-of-factly statement of where we are; how we treat those that are the most in need, is really a clear measurement of how well society is doing.

The author is clear in his statements, the book as a whole is a magnificent piece of work; I was wondering how he fared from writing it, just as I ventured upon this paragraph where he answered my question:

I am frequently asked how I “handled” this research, by which people mean: How did seeing this level of poverty and suffering affect you, personally? I don’t think people realize how raw and intimate a question this is. So I’ve developed several dishonest responses, which I drop like those smoke bombs magicians use when they want to glide offstage, unseen. The honest answer is that the work was heartbreaking and left me depressed for years. You do learn how to cope from those who are coping. After several people told me, “Stop looking at me like that,” I learned to suppress my shock at traumatic things. I learned to tell a real crisis from mere poverty. I learned that behavior that looks lazy or withdrawn to someone perched far above the poverty line can actually be a pacing technique. People like Crystal or Larraine cannot afford to give all their energy to today’s emergency only to have none left over for tomorrow’s. I saw in the trailer park and inner city resilience and spunk and brilliance. I heard a lot of laughter. But I also saw a lot of pain. Toward the end of my fieldwork, I wrote in my journal, “I feel dirty, collecting these stories and hardships like so many trophies.” The guilt I felt during my fieldwork only intensified after I left. I felt like a phony and like a traitor, ready to confess to some unnamed accusation. I couldn’t help but translate a bottle of wine placed in front of me at a university function or my monthly day-care bill into rent payments or bail money back in Milwaukee. It leaves an impression, this kind of work. Now imagine it’s your life.

Read this, which I think is one of the best non-fiction books that I've come across, which has been released in 2016. ( )
  pivic | Mar 20, 2020 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Matthew Desmondprimary authorall editionscalculated
Graham, DionNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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I wish the rent
was heaven sent.
 Langston Hughes,
 "Little Lyric (Of Great Importance)"
For Michelle, who's been down the line
First words
Jori and his cousin were cutting up, tossing snowballs at passing cars.
If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up.  Poor black women were locked out.
No one thought the poor more undeserving than the poor themselves.
A community that saw so clearly it's own pain had a difficult time also sensing its potential.
What the chief failed to realize, or failed to reveal, was that his department's own rules presented battered women with the devil's bargain: keep quiet and face abuse or call the police and face eviction.
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Contents: Cold city -- Rent. The business of owning the city ; Making rent ; Hot water ; A beautiful collection ; Thirteenth Street ; Rat hole ; The sick ; Christmas in Room 400 -- Out. Order some carryout ; Hypes for hire ; The 'hood is good ; Disposable ties ; E-24 ; High tolerance ; A nuisance ; Ashes on snow -- After. This is America ; Lobster on food stamps ; Little ; Nobody wants the North Side ; Bigheaded boy ; If they give momma the punishment ; The serenity club ; Can't win for losing -- Home and hope -- About this project.
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