Book Review: Evicted, by Mathew Desmond

In his recent book Evicted, Mathew Desmond follows the detailed stories of poor Milwaukee residents as they struggle with the threat of eviction, are evicted, and then subjected to homelessness and struggle to find new housing. The strength of Desmond’s writing is that he is scrupulously non-judgmental in his portrayal of both evicted tenants and their landlords. This gives us a window into how choices that many of us would instinctively consider cruel or outrageous make sense to those involved.

               Desmond tells about one woman, evicted from her home and living on her former neighbor’s couch, who the day she receives her monthly $70 food assistance from the government spends it all on lobster tails and a $13 bottle of cooking sauce, which she recalls even the supermarket cashier giving her funny looks about. The woman consumes the entire shopping trip in one dinner, and the rest of the month lives off food pantries. Why? She says she has nothing to apologize for, she is entitled to enjoy the good things in life as much as anyone else. Desmond remarks insightfully that for her, it’s not that she’s poor because she binge spends her money, but rather she binge spends because she’s poor. She has given up hope of ever achieving any economic stability, so she wants to enjoy whatever comes her way before its lost to her never ending and likely impossible effort to pay rent and bills.

               As for landlords forcing destitute tenants, including sick children, out onto the streets, Desmond illustrates how successful landlords are often the ones who actually cut their tenants quite a bit of slack. Inner city landlords know tenants will often not be able to pay them the rent in full at the first of each month, and evictions are time consuming and expensive. Letting tenants pay late or work off some of the rent by doing renovations and maintenance is standard. Of course, struggling tenants take advantage of every leniency offered, and landlords who never evict lose all leverage and find themselves unable to collect anything from tenants at all.

               Desmond describes a trailer park on Milwaukee’s South side that the city council condemned due to its high number of code violations, rampant prostitution and drug use, and high volume of police calls. Many residents testified to the council and the media about problems. In order to stay open, the city required the owner to relinquish day to day operations and hire a professional management service. Desmond then explained how this was actually the outcome most of the trailer park residents least desired. Yes, the residents wanted to pressure the owner to spend more on maintenance and make improvements, but he at least got to know them and worked with them to keep them in their homes when they were late with rent. Even though the owner cut corners, he managed to operate the park profitably in spite of their late and missed payments with only occasional evictions. The new management company, headquartered in a far away office, was likely to evict tenants much more quickly and send many of the residents onto the streets with little hope of finding new homes.

               This book also gives insight into the economics of real estate in the inner city. Why would anyone invest in property there, where it’s so hard to get tenants to pay their rent? And most important, why would anyone choose to live in the inner city, since rent for equivalently sized apartments in the much more pleasant suburbs is nearly the same?

               The answer to the first question is that while rental rates in the inner city are the same as the suburbs, the cost to purchase property is far lower. A building in the suburbs that has four two bedroom rental units going for $550/ month each might cost $200,000, whereas in the inner city a building with four such apartments renting for the same rate might cost $50,000 or less. One landlord reports buying foreclosed inner city buildings so cheap she could make back the entire purchase price from rental income in just a year. The difficulty, of course, is that inner city tenants are unlikely to pay the rent willingly, and those apartments will likely go through lengthy periods of occupancy by non-paying tenants awaiting eviction. But for landlords savvy enough to collect even a significant fraction of rent due from tenants, inner city property is a lucrative investment.

               As for the tenants, they pay the same rent for decrepit inner-city housing as suburbanites pay for far nicer, better maintained, and safer apartments because suburban landlords won’t take them. While there is an element of racial discrimination, before signing a lease landlords can legally screen tenants for eviction history, criminal record, and income. Only landlords with the lowest level housing will give tenants that have recently been evicted a chance. Ditto for criminal record, and few people supported largely by government assistance will meet the income screening to live in the suburbs. Additionally, many landlords have strict policies about children which serve to exclude single mothers or single mothers living together. So for most people in the inner-city, even when they put together first month’s rent and security deposit on an apartment, they find only inner-city landlords willing to do business.

               While reading the book, the question I kept asking myself is what’s the answer. What can we do to help people out of the vicious cycle of falling behind, and then accumulating debts and an eviction record that makes it impossible to ever hope to catch up?

               One thing that becomes clear while reading the many detailed personal histories in this book is that a modest increase in government assistance wouldn’t have any long term affect. Even a one time grant of thousands of dollars (should such funds somehow be available) probably wouldn’t help. These individuals are in holes far too deep to climb out of like that.

Consider the financial plight of an individual who has been evicted and is staying in a shelter while looking for a new place. Beyond immediate needs, they are likely dogged by large debts from long unpaid utility bills, and with an eviction comes a judgment for the court and moving costs of the eviction process (along with back rent). To find new housing they’ll have to accumulate enough money for a first month’s rent plus security deposit without being forced to use those savings to repay all that. Then remember that while trying to fend off eviction this person has probably tapped out their network of friends and family for all the money and favors they could get. Those debts, while not legally recorded, will still have to be repaid as well. Last, a life of poverty, bad examples, and financial stress often leaves people with poor money management skills. A windfall of assistance might very well not be put to prudent use.

               Desmond devotes the last section of the book to his proposed solution. He argues we should view housing as a human right, but without using those exact words. He explains how secure housing is necessary for every desirable life outcome- emotional and physical health, raising healthy children, community involvement, and so on. So Desmond suggests that government should cap housing expense at approximately 30% of household income, and provide vouchers to compensate if housing is not attainable with that.

               The goal is laudable, but I’m skeptical if that will work. Of course such vouchers would improve many lives, assuming funds could be found. But what overall effect would this have on inner-cities?

               Landlords would certainly benefit, as more rent could be collected with greater ease. But that might cause housing costs to go up, rather than down, as landlords take the government’s money and then still look to collect as much of the tenants’ as they could.

               More important, though, are the many social issues surrounding poverty. Drugs, violence, crime, single parent homes, and so on. Desmond seems to believe that these are the results of poverty, not its causes. He thinks that providing at least some level of financial security will help keep people away from all this and therefore bring about wholesale change in society.

               Others of course argue the reverse. That drugs, violence, crime, and having children at a young age without a committed partner are the causes of poverty, not its result. We have to first find a way to tackle those problems, because otherwise in the long run nothing will help.

               Personally, I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. Desmond shows us persuasively how lack of housing causes devastating, long term harm to every facet of a person’s life. But in so doing he also makes clear how deeply rooted and intractable the problem of poverty is. Government assistance and charities may be able to keep people from starving, but true change will come only through long term, caring relationships between individuals, one person at a time. That’s something we all can contribute to, but government isn’t suited for at all.

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