Evicted

Poverty and Profit in the American City
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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE • One of the most acclaimed books of our time, this modern classic “has set a new standard for reporting on poverty” (Barbara Ehrenreich, The New York Times Book Review).

In Evicted, Princeton sociologist and MacArthur “Genius” Matthew Desmond follows eight families in Milwaukee as they each struggle to keep a roof over their heads. Hailed as “wrenching and revelatory” (The Nation), “vivid and unsettling” (New York Review of Books), Evicted transforms our understanding of poverty and economic exploitation while providing fresh ideas for solving one of twenty-first-century America’s most devastating problems. Its unforgettable scenes of hope and loss remind us of the centrality of home, without which nothing else is possible.

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY President Barack Obama • The New York Times Book Review • The Boston Globe • The Washington Post • NPR • Entertainment Weekly • The New Yorker • Bloomberg • Esquire • BuzzFeed • Fortune • San Francisco Chronicle • Milwaukee Journal Sentinel • St. Louis Post-Dispatch • Politico • The Week • Chicago Public Library • BookPage • Kirkus Reviews • Library Journal •  Publishers Weekly • Booklist • Shelf Awareness

WINNER OF: The Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction • The National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction • The PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction • The Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction • The Hillman Prize for Book Journalism • The PEN/New England Award • The Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize • The Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award • Eastern Sociological Society Komarovsky Book Award • American Bar Association Silver Gavel Award • The Robert F. Kennedy Book Award • The Order of the Coif Biennial Book Award • The Stowe Prize

FINALIST FOR THE LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK PRIZE AND THE KIRKUS PRIZE

Evicted stands among the very best of the social justice books.”—Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto and Commonwealth 

“Gripping and moving—tragic, too.”—Jesmyn Ward, author of Salvage the Bones

Evicted is that rare work that has something genuinely new to say about poverty.”—San Francisco Chronicle

Praise

“Astonishing... Desmond has set a new standard for reporting on poverty.”—Barbara Ehrenreich, New York Times Book Review

“After reading Evicted, you’ll realize you cannot have a serious conversation about poverty without talking about housing. . . . The book is that good, and it’s that unignorable.”—Jennifer Senior, New York Times Critics’ Top Books of 2016

“This book gave me a better sense of what it is like to be very poor in this country than anything else I have read. . . . It is beautifully written, thought-provoking, and unforgettable.”—Bill Gates

“Inside my copy of his book, Mr. Desmond scribbled a note: ‘home = life.’ Too many in Washington don’t understand that. We need a government that will partner with communities, from Appalachia to the suburbs to downtown Cleveland, to make hard work pay off for all these overlooked Americans.”—Senator Sherrod BrownWall Street Journal

“My God, what [Evicted] lays bare about American poverty. It is devastating and infuriating and a necessary read.”—Roxane Gayauthor of Bad Feminist and Difficult Women

“Written with the vividness of a novel, [Evicted] offers a dark mirror of middle-class America’s obsession with real estate, laying bare the workings of the low end of the market, where evictions have become just another part of an often lucrative business model.”—Jennifer Schuessler, New York Times

“In spare and penetrating prose . . . Desmond has made it impossible to consider poverty without grappling with the role of housing. This pick [as best book of 2016] was not close.”—Carlos Lozada, Washington Post

“An essential piece of reportage about poverty and profit in urban America.”Geoff Dyer, The Guardian’s Best Holiday Reads 2016

“It doesn't happen every week (or every month, or even year), but every once in a while a book comes along that changes the national conversation. . . . Evicted looks to be one of those books.”—Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review

“Should be required reading in an election year, or any other.”—Entertainment Weekly

“Powerful, monstrously effective . . . The power of this book abides in the indelible impression left by its stories.”—Jill Leovy, The American Scholar

“Gripping and important . . . [Desmond's] portraits are vivid and unsettling.”—Jason DeParle, New York Review of Books

“An exquisitely crafted, meticulously researched exploration of life on the margins, providing a voice to people who have been shamefully ignored—or, worse, demonized—by opinion makers over the course of decades.”—The Boston Globe

“[An] impressive work of scholarship . . . As Mr. Desmond points out, eviction has been neglected by urban sociologists, so his account fills a gap. His methodology is scrupulous.”Wall Street Journal

Reader's Guide

1. Have you ever been evicted or do you know anyone who has? If the answer is yes, what was your/their experience like, and how has it affected your/their life?

2. What was your experience reading Evicted? Were you surprised by what you learned? Was any particular scene or character’s story emotionally painful for you to witness?

3. Many people have very codified perceptions of “people who get evicted” and suspect that those people are largely responsible—through bad decision making—for their circumstances. Did you feel this way before reading Evicted? Why or why not? Did your opinions change after reading the book? If so, how?

4. In Evicted, author Matthew Desmond takes a narrative approach to an important topic and follows the stories of several real people. Which person’s story were you most drawn to and why?

5. Sherrena Tarver claimed to have found her calling as an inner-city entrepreneur, stating, “The ’hood is good. There’s a lot of money there” (page 152). How did Sherrena profit from being a landlord in poor communities? Do you think her profits were justified? What responsibilities do landlords have when renting their property? What risks do they take? Do you sympathize with Sherrena or not?

6. On Larraine and her late boyfriend Glen’s anniversary, she spends her monthly allocation of food stamps on “two lobster tails, shrimp, king crab legs, salad, and lemon meringue pie” (page 218). Can you relate to her decision? How might you have judged her differently without knowing the backstory that Desmond provides?

7. Because they have children, Arleen, Vanetta, and Pam and Ned frequently find themselves shut out of available housing and resort to lies in order to secure a place to live. Are these lies justified? If you have children, how far would you go to shelter your family?

8. Although eviction is the central issue in Evicted, affordable housing interacts intimately with many other social issues. For example: Do parents who have trouble finding/providing safe housing for their children deserve to have their children taken away and put in foster care? Would affordable housing make it easier for addicts and recovering addicts (such as Scott) to enroll in programs that increase chances of rehabilitation? What other major issues can you think of that eviction affects, whether in this book or in the world in general?

9. How does race factor into the types of struggles faced by the individuals profiled in Evicted? What about being a woman? Or a single parent?

10. Did reading Evicted inspire you to want to help others in positions similar to those of the people in the book? If so, how do you think you might get involved? (Hint: Visit JustShelter.org to learn more about groups and organizations in your local area who are already fighting the good fight!)

11. Why do you think Crystal made the decision to let Arleen and her sons stay until they found another residence? How did tenants such as Crystal and Arleen rely on friends and extended kin networks to get by? Did this do anything to lift them out of poverty or distress? What limitations do these short-term relationships have? Why do you think agencies such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children seek to limit kin dependence?

12. Landlords repeatedly turned down Pam and Ned’s rental applications because they have children. Why? Do you think families with children should have any protection when seeking housing? Why do you think families with children were not considered a protected class when Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968? Do you think it is fair for landlords to charge tenants with children monthly surcharges and children-damage deposits? Why or why not?

13. Why did Doreen choose not to call Sherrena when the house was in desperate need of repair? Do you agree that “The house failed the tenants, and the tenants failed the house” (page 256)? What effects does living in a home that is not decent or functional have on a person’s psychological and emotional health?

14. Do you think housing should be a right in America?

15. Many Americans still believe that the typical low-income family lives in public housing. Unfortunately, the opposite is true; only 1 in 4 families who qualify for any kind of housing assistance receive it. In Evicted, Desmond proposes a universal housing voucher program. What do you think of that idea?

16. The government spends much more money on homeowner tax benefits for affluent families than on housing assistance to poor families. Is this situation justified? How would you address this issue?

Q & A

A conversation with Matt Desmond, author of EVICTED

Why did you choose to write about this aspect of poverty in America?
 
If I had to answer this question in a word, it would be Arleen. When I first met Arleen, she was living in a small apartment in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Her rent took 88 percent of her income. I watched Arleen try to raise two boys and confront impossible choices: Should I help pay for my sister’s funeral costs or pay the rent? Should I buy my children school clothes or pay the rent? I saw Arleen get evicted several times. She lost her possessions. Her children lost their schools and communities. Landlords wouldn’t rent to the family because of Arleen’s eviction record. People like Arleen forced me to see poverty in a whole new way. I used to think eviction and homelessness were the result of poverty. But I came to recognize that eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty in America. The lack of affordable housing is driving families to financial ruin and is one of the most important drivers of inequality in the nation today.
 
How did you research EVICTED?
 
I began the old-fashioned way. I moved into a poor trailer park nicknamed “The Shame of the Southside” by the news media. I lived there for about five months before moving into a rooming house in the middle of the inner city, where I’d live for nine months. Living in those neighborhoods, I met families facing eviction and began spending my days with them. I sat beside families at eviction court, followed them into shelters, slept at their houses, and joined them at births and funerals.

As I spent more time with tenants, as well as with landlords, I found myself needing answers to basic questions that were beyond the reach of my fieldwork. How prominent is eviction? What are its consequences? Who gets evicted? So I went looking for studies that answered these questions. Surprisingly, I found no study—and no readily available data—that adequately addressed my questions. So I decided to gather the data myself. I interviewed 250 tenants in eviction court, surveyed over a thousand renters in Milwaukee, and analyzed hundreds of thousands of eviction court records. This research showed how common eviction is, and some of the most important findings had to do with the consequences of eviction. The data linked eviction to heightened residential instability, substandard housing, declines in neighborhood quality, depression, and even job loss.

EVICTEDdraws on all these endeavors while letting people’s stories drive the narrative. Working in concert with one another, each method I used enriched the others. And each kept the others honest.

Why did you choose to include landlords’ stories in your book, too?
 
Landlords literally own poor communities. They decide who gets to live where. They choose which families to evict and which to spare. They set rents, buy property, and make or neglect repairs. They are major players in the urban housing market. I realized early on that, if I really wanted to understand the dynamics of eviction and the link between housing and poverty, it was essential to capture landlords’ perspectives.

There is a larger point here about the way we think about poverty. With books about single mothers, gang members, or the homeless, social scientists and journalists have a tendency to write about poor people as if they are cut off from the rest of society. These accounts exclude rich people—or, at least, non-poor people—who wield enormous influence over the lives of low-income families and their communities. I’ve always wondered why we have documented how the poor struggle to make ends meet without asking why their bills are so high or where their money is flowing. With EVICTED, I wanted to try to write a book about poverty that didn’t focus exclusively on poor people or poor places. If poverty is a relationship, involving poor and rich people alike, I wanted to plumb that relationship.
 
Why did you choose Milwaukee?
 
Milwaukee moved me. I felt drawn to the place and its people, history, and culture. I am from a small town in northern Arizona, but there is something familiar to me about the Rust Belt. Cities like Milwaukee, Buffalo, Detroit—which have lost their economic base and are working to reinvent themselves—fascinate me, and I feel, in some way, at home in them.

But there was something else, too. Wisconsin’s largest city is not every city, but it is considerably less unique than the small clutch of iconic but exceptional places that have come to represent the American urban experience. Every city creates its own ecosystem, but in some cities this is much more pronounced. Milwaukee was far better suited to represent the experiences of those living in Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Baltimore, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Gary, Raleigh, Utica, and other cities generally left out of the national conversation. As for America’s large, global cities—San Francisco, New York, Seattle—they are where the lack of affordable housing is felt most acutely. New York City processes 80 eviction cases a day. 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.
 
How did you gain the trust of those whose stories you tell in the book?
 
Living in the community helped. Many evicted families I met were my neighbors, and daily interactions helped us establish a foundation of trust. Some people opened up immediately. The first day we met, Scott told me that he was a fired nurse, consumed by a heroin addiction. Others took things more slowly. At first, Arleen suspected I worked for Child Protective Services and kept her distance. But with enough time, I was able to earn her trust. Showing her my previous work helped clarify what I did. Many of the landlords, too, were eager to talk. Arleen’s landlord, Sherrena Tarver, was in love with her work and proud of it. She told me that she wanted people to know “what landlords had to go through.” After a while, both tenants and landlords began to accept me and get on with their lives. They had more important things to worry about.
 
Most people think that eviction is the result of poverty, but you say above that eviction can actually cause poverty. Can you elaborate?

Eviction causes loss. Families lose their homes, schools, and neighborhoods—but also their possessions: furniture, clothes, books. It takes a good amount of money and time to establish a home. Eviction can erase all that. It also comes with a court record. Many landlords won’t rent to recently evicted families, and housing authorities treat eviction as a strike against those applying for public housing. The result is that evicted families often relocate to worse housing in more distressed neighborhoods. Eviction can cause workers to lose their jobs, because the stress and consuming nature of being forced from their homes wreaks havoc on people’s work performance.

Then there is the toll eviction takes on a person’s spirit. The violence of displacement can drive people to depression and, in extreme cases, even suicide. One study I published found that two years after their eviction, mothers still reported higher rates of depression than their peers. When you add all this up, the evidence is overwhelming. The lack of affordable housing the gap between the need and the amount of housing aid offered, and the resulting common occurrence of eviction in struggling communities—these are main causes of poverty in America. We can’t fix poverty without fixing housing.

If people are evicted, isn’t it their own fault, because they didn’t pay their bills? If they can’t afford their rent, why not just live in public housing?
 
I think the first thing we need to understand about this issue is that, today, the majority of poor renting families in America are spending more than half of their income on housing, and at least 1 in 4 dedicate over 70 percent to paying the rent and keeping the lights on. These families have watched their incomes stagnate, or even fall, while their housing costs have soared. But at a time when more and more families are in need of government support to afford housing, fewer and fewer are getting it. Today, only about 1 in 4 families who qualify for housing assistance receive it. The need far outpaces the aid. In larger cities like Washington, DC, the wait for public housing is counted in decades. There, a mother of a young child who put her name on the list for public housing might be a grandmother by the time her application is reviewed.

When we imagine where the typical low-income family lives in America, we should not picture a public housing complex or a subsidized apartment. Instead, we need to recognize that the typical low-income family doesn’t receive any government housing assistance and tries to make ends meet in the private housing market, where they spend most of what they have on rent. Under these conditions, eviction is more an inevitability than the result of personal irresponsibility. Between 2009 and 2011, 1 in 8 Milwaukee renters were involuntarily forced from their homes. A few generations ago, eviction used to be rare enough to draw crowds; today, eviction has become a way of life for many poor American families.
 
You spent a year living with people going through this experience. How did that change you?
 
It shook me to my core. I saw mothers trying to decide between feeding their children and paying the rent. I saw children so used to being batted around from one place to the next that they gave off no emotion during an eviction: no tears, no running to grab a favorite possession, nothing. I remember meeting Larraine, a grandmother who endured a winter in Milwaukee without heat because she simply couldn’t afford her gas bill.

I will never forget one eviction I saw. The sheriff and movers showed up to a house and found only kids inside, the oldest one a teenager. Their mother had died two months earlier, and the children had simply gone on living in the house by themselves. Inside, the house looked like a house run by children. It was raining. The deputies went ahead with the eviction, moving the children’s toys and mattresses onto the wet sidewalk.

It’s depressing to see this degree of inequality, this denial of basic needs. But I also saw a lot of spunk and brilliance and strength. I heard a lot of laughter. It was humbling to see families confronting huge, exhausting challenges and refusing to be reduced to their hardships.

I remember one day I was with Crystal and Vanetta, who were both homeless at the time. We were eating lunch at a McDonald’s and a boy walked in. He was maybe nine or ten, in dirty clothes and with unkempt hair. One side of his face was swollen. The boy didn’t approach the counter. Instead, he wandered slowly through the tables, looking for scraps. Crystal and Vanetta noticed him at the same time. “What you got?” Crystal asked, riffling through her pockets. The women pooled what they had to buy the boy dinner. Staring up at the menu, Crystal wrapped her arm around the boy as if she were his auntie or big sister. She made sure he was okay, handed him the food, and sent him on his way with a hug. Moments like this remind me that poverty has not prevailed against people’s deep humanity.

How can we fix this problem?

The good news is that much has already been accomplished. America has made impressive strides over the years when it comes to housing. In generations past, the poor crowded into wretched slums, with many apartments lacking toilets, hot water, heat, or windows. But over the generations, the quality of housing improved dramatically. And today, there are nonprofit and community-based organizations all around this country working hard to keep people in their homes and to promote affordable housing initiatives. I’ve built a website called justshelter.org that allows you to search over 600 organizations from all 50 states. So if you want to get involved in the work of decreasing homelessness, preventing eviction, and alleviating housing poverty, go there and see how you can get involved in your community.

And yet, it has become more and more difficult just to keep a roof over your head. Powerful solutions are within our collective reach. But those solutions depend on how we answer a single question: do we believe that the right to a decent home is part of what it means to be an American? We have affirmed provision in old age, twelve years of education, and basic nutrition to be the right of every citizen because we have recognized that human dignity depends on the fulfillment of these fundamental human needs. And it is hard to argue that housing is not a fundamental human need. Decent, affordable housing should be a basic right for everybody in this country. The reason is simple: without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.

America is more than capable of delivering on this right. And I think the most effective way to do that would be to expand our current housing voucher program so that all low-income families could benefit from it. Universal housing programs have been successfully implemented all over the developed world. The idea is simple: every family below a certain income level receives a voucher, so that instead of paying 60 or 80 percent of their income to housing, they now pay 30 percent. A universal voucher program would change the face of poverty in this country. Evictions would plummet. Homelessness would almost disappear. Families would immediately feel the income gains and be able to buy enough food, invest in themselves and their children through schooling or job training, and start modest savings. They would find stability and have a sense of ownership over their home and community. We can do this. We can make our cities livable again.
 
What do you hope readers will take away from your stories of Vanetta or Arleen or the others? What do you want us to understand about them?

I want them to remember how Vanetta organized an Easter egg hunt in a homeless shelter, bringing her children joy in the midst of a despairing time. I want them to remember how much satisfaction Arleen took when she caught a break and was able to buy her thirteen-year-old a new pair of shoes, a beautiful smile flashing across his face. People like Vanetta and Arleen, all they want is to provide for their children.

The faces of America’s eviction epidemic are the faces of mothers and children. The majority of households evicted in Milwaukee have children living in them. If mothers like Arleen and Vanetta 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. They could settle down in one neighborhood and enroll their children in one school, providing them the opportunity to form long-lasting relationships with friends, role models, and teachers. They could start a savings account or buy their children toys and books, perhaps even a home computer. The time and emotional energy they spent making rent, delaying eviction, or finding another place to live when homeless could instead be spent on things that enriched their lives: community college classes, exercise, finding a good job.

When families finally receive housing vouchers after years on the waiting list and only have to spend a third of their income on rent and utilities, the first place many take their freed-up income is to the grocery store. They stock the refrigerator and cupboards. Their children become stronger, less anemic, better nourished. But the majority of poor families aren’t so lucky, and their children—Vanetta’s kids, Arleen’s—are not getting enough food, because the rent eats first.

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