Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

Bob Bates —

matthew-desmond-photo-and-book-01292016Sociologist Matthew Desmond’s widely acclaimed book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016), a study of the city of Milwaukee, pounds at a reader’s emotions until they become raw. Daily struggles and their grinding effects on America’s poor who are forced to rent housing in contexts of landlord neglect of substandard structures will likely make you both nauseated and enraged that such extensive injustices can exist in our supposedly enlightened culture.

A sampling of Desmond’s 24 chapter titles covering his Milwaukee experience include: “This Is America,” “Nobody Wants the North Side,” “Can’t Win for Losing,” “Rat Hole,” “The Sick,” ” A Nuisance,” “Ashes on Snow,” and “The ‘Hood is Good.” Each chapter reveals circumstances and happenings of daily existence within conditions of poverty. From May 2008 to December 2009, Desmond writes, “I was a full-time field worker” carrying digital recorder, notepad, and camera, conducting “more than one hundred interviews with people not featured in this book, including 30 landlords … court officers, social workers, building inspectors, property managers, and other people who lived in the trailer park or inner city.” Upon compiling his findings, prior to readying for publication, he utilized dozens of project staff and an array of other resources to carry out extensive fact-checking so as to verify the credibility and accuracy of the wider context of events and dialogue connected to what he personally witnessed and experienced.

Desmond spent six months living in a trailer park and another fourteen months living in the inner city. Of this he writes, “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 their rent. … This book is set in Milwaukee, but it tells an American story.”

“Fewer and fewer families can afford a roof over their head. This is among the most urgent and pressing issues facing America today, and acknowledging the breadth and depth of the problem changes the way we look at poverty. For decades, we’ve focused mainly on jobs, public assistance, parenting, and mass incarceration. … We have failed to fully appreciate how deeply housing is implicated in the creation of poverty. Not everyone living in a distressed neighborhood is associated with gang members, parole officers, employers, social workers, or pastors. But nearly all of them have a landlord.”

“Families have had their incomes stagnate, or even fall, while their housing costs have soared. Today, the majority of poor renting families  in America spend over half their income on housing, and at least one in four dedicated over 70% to paying the rent and keeping the lights on.” This leaves precious little to cover necessities of food and clothing, to say nothing of recreation and other enjoyments of life, and permits no room for health concerns or unanticipated emergencies.

A half-century ago Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “Every condition exists simply because someone profits by its existence … economic exploitation is crystallized in the slum” where money is placed above the well-being of people. Desmond, in examining housing available to the poor, writes, “Exploitation within the housing market relies on government support. It is the government that legitimizes and defends landlords’ right  to charge as much as they want; that subsidizes the construction of high-end apartments, bidding up rents and leaving the poor with fewer options; that pays landlords when a family cannot, through one time or ongoing housing assistance; that forcibly removes a family at landlords’ request by dispatching armed law enforcement officers; and that records and publicizes eviction as a service to debt collection agencies.” He further admonishes, “Regardless of how landlords came to own property—sweat, intelligence or ingenuity for some; inheritance, luck or fraud for others—rising rents mean more money for landlords and less for tenants.” Bottom line: “Their fates are bound [in complex relationships of inequities] and their interests opposed. … If the profits of urban landlords were modest, that would be one thing. But often they are not. The annual income of the landlord of perhaps the worst trailer park in the 4th poorest city [Milwaukee] in America is 30 times that of his tenants working full time for minimum wage, and 55 times the annual income of his tenants receiving welfare or SSI [Supplemental Security Income]. These are two freedoms at odds with each other: the freedom to profit from rents and the freedom to live in a safe and affordable home.”

Desmond steps back to take a perspective focusing on some basic American premises at the very roots of the establishing of this nation. “The United States was founded on the noble idea that people have ‘certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’ Each of these three unalienable rights—so essential to the American character that the founders saw them as God-given—requires a stable home.”

eviction1“Life and home are so intertwined that it is almost impossible to think about one without the other. The home … protects and nurtures. The ideal of liberty has always incorporated not only religious and civil freedoms but also the right to flourish: to make a living however one chooses, to learn and develop new skills. A stable home allows us to strive for self-reliance and personal expression, to seek gainful employment and enjoy individual freedoms.”

“The purpose of happiness undeniably includes the pursuit of material well-being: minimally being able to secure basic necessities. It can be overwhelming to consider how much happiness has been lost, how many capabilities snuffed out, by the swell of poverty in this land and our collective decision not to provide all our citizens with a stable and decent place to live.”

“We have affirmed provision in old age, twelve years of education, and a basic nutrition to be the right of every citizen because we have recognized that human dignity depends on the fulfillment of these fundamental needs. And it is hard to argue that housing is not a fundamental 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.”

However, historically, American institutions as applied to marginalized people, including the poor, have fallen far short of delivering on the stated unalienable rights supposedly at the root of the nation’s entire populace. In general throughout worldwide history as well as in America, Desmond writes, “the ghetto had always been more of a product of social design than desire. It was never a by-product of the modern city, a sad accident of industrialization and urbanization, something no one benefited from nor intended. The ghetto had always been a main feature of landed capital, a prime money-maker for those who saw ripe opportunity in land scarcity, housing dilapidation, and racial segregation.” Predominantly the property owners and landlords “had a segregated and captive tenant base and had nothing to gain by improving their run-down houses.” Desmond cites study after study documenting America’s housing record for the poor being replete with examples from city upon city in which landlords could manipulate legal frameworks to their advantage, setting in motion an ongoing system with institutionalized injustices and hardships.

28ehrenreich-jp-master675Desmond witnessed and experienced daily occurrences of this. During his six months in a Milwaukee trailer park in 2008, most notable was the Catch-22 situation renters found themselves in. Trailer park owners/landlords can simply give ownership of each trailer to an incoming tenant or family. They then become, as owners, responsible for all maintenance, repairs, and other mandatory code-costs. The landlord receives their  total rent payment as a “lot space” rental fee, ensuring an up-front, clear profit. Renters know or soon learn that the only benefit of owning the trailer they live in is psychological.

During his year in Milwaukee’s inner city, Desmond observed landlord manipulations to be much more harsh and oppressive. He was accepted as an unofficial “apprentice” by a landlord and her “enforcer” husband, so traveled with them regularly from property to property. This landlord quickly learned that inner city foreclosed or undesirable properties could be picked up for as little as five to ten thousand dollars and routinely for less than $20,000 and then, with minimal or no expensive repairs, rented “as is” almost immediately thereby yielding quick and prolonged profits. Within a 7-8 year span, between 2002 and 2009, this landlord went from a former 4th-grade teacher’s salary to a net worth of $2 million. Indeed, for landlords operating in this manner, “The ‘Hood is Good!”

160208_r27607-1200x800-1453936749Beyond overpriced rents for unattractive and marginally-livable housing, always looming for poor renters is the threat of imminent eviction. For landlords this ensures a quick tenant turnover and usually uninterrupted rent cash flow. For poor occupants contending with an ongoing struggle to come up with full rent money month after month, it is life-altering to find in their mailbox a depersonalized but keenly directed, personal letter stating: CURRENT OCCUPANT: You are hereby notified that the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office has a court order requiring your immediate removal from the premises. Failure to vacate immediately will be cause for the Sheriff to remove your belongings from the premises.

Desmond states, “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, their crews working all day, every weekday. There are hundreds of data-mining companies that sell landlords tenant screening reports listing past evictions and court filings. These days, housing courts swell, forcing commissioners to settle cases in hallways or makeshift offices crammed with old desks and broken file cabinets—and most tenants don’t even show up.” When they do, it is the landlords who have lawyers in court representing them and protecting their interests, but rarely do tenants facing eviction have legal advice or representation. Desmond continues, “Low-income families have grown used to the rumble of moving trucks, the early-morning knocks at the door, the belongings lining the curb.” Landlords can initiate the eviction process with a 28-day “No Cause” filing, usually resulting in automatic—and always traumatic—eviction. Upon arrival of designated court date, evictions can be as immediate as 24 hours to five days—all this needing no cause other than failure to pay full rent for a particular month.

All this was eye-opening to Desmond, even though he had for years participated in or headed up studies of the dynamics of being poor. As he states it, “I went looking for studies [with answers to his many questions], but I found none—and no readily available data—that adequately addressed my questions. … I wondered how we in the research community could have overlooked something so fundamental to poverty in America: the dynamics of the private housing market [where] the vast majority of poor people lived, playing such an imposing and vital role in the lives of families … consuming most of their income; aggravating their poverty and deprivation; resulting in their eviction, insecurity, and homelessness; dictating where they lived and whom they lived with; and powerfully influencing the character and stability of their neighborhoods. And we hardly knew anything about it.”

Consequently, Desmond initiated the Milwaukee Area Renters Study (MARS) from 2009 to 2011, conducted through extensive data collection coordinated by the University of Wisconsin Survey Center. One of the most shocking statistics to emerge was that “1 in 8 Milwaukee renters experienced at least one forced move—formal or informal eviction, landlord foreclosure, or building condemnation —in the two years prior to being surveyed.” Half were off-the-record “informal evictions.” Starkly, the “presence of children in the household almost tripled the tenants’ odds of receiving an eviction” notice.

On this last point Desmond found that for “every eviction executed through the judicial system, there are two others executed beyond the purview of the court, without any form of due process. This means that estimates that do not account for informal evictions downplay the crisis in our cities.” A significant factor in these skewed ratios is that “families struggling to make ends meet in the low-income housing market are simply too poor or too vulnerable to assert their obvious rights” under the law. Desmond emphasizes that “the limitations of human capacity in the teeth of scarcity and suffering … the sheer emotional and cognitive burden that accompanies severe deprivation.”

Collective data, Desmond concludes, “provide a new portrait of the powerful ways the private housing sector is shaping the lives of poor American families and their communities. … Problems endemic to poverty—residential instability, severe deprivation, concentrated neighborhood disadvantage, health disparities, even joblessness—stem from the lack of affordable housing in our cities.” Pertinent to this, Desmond’s observations while with a family that went through three evictions in the course of his fieldwork, cite, “Poverty could pile on; living it often meant steering through gnarled thickets of interconnected misfortunes and trying not to go crazy. There were moments of calm, but life on balance was facing one crisis after another.”

In all these ways, “Evictions unravel the fabric of a community, helping to ensure that neighbors remain strangers and that their collective capacity to combat crime and promote civic engagement remains untapped. … Eviction does not simply drop poor families into a dark valley, a trying yet relatively brief detour on life’s journey. It fundamentally redirects their way, casting them onto a different, and much more difficult, path. Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.”

In stressing the devastating effects of eviction, resulting in unstable homes and neighborhoods, affecting ultimately the course of American society as a whole, Desmond writes at length about the psychosocial realities of “home,” especially on families. Desmond’s personal observations from living with families in the midst of poverty show, “Along with instability, eviction also causes loss. Families lose not only their home, school, and neighborhood 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 . . . Eviction can cause workers to lose their jobs. …. If housing instability leads to employment instability, it is because the stress and consuming nature of being forced from your home wreak havoc on people’s work performances. … And so, people who have the greatest need for housing assistance—the rent-burdened and evicted—are systematically denied it.”

All of this, “the loss of your possessions, home, job, and access to government aid helps explain why eviction has such a pronounced effect on what social scientists call ‘material hardship,’ a measure of the texture of scarcity … whether families experience hunger or sickness because food or medicine is financially out of reach or go without heat, electricity, or a phone because they can’t afford those things. … Eviction families continue to have higher levels of material hardship at least two years after the event.”

Studies of personal and group dynamics show that among those oppressed it is not enough just to perceive systemic injustice, but for effective functioning to occur it requires “identifying with the oppressed and counting yourself among them,” which the poor tend not to approach, mainly because of “their focus on smaller, more tangible problems” of basic survival needs. Additionally, “when people begin to view their neighborhood as brimming with deprivation and vice, they lose confidence in their political capacity” to contribute constructively.

Desmond observed the effects of concentrated poverty both on families and neighborhoods to be strongly connected to “the toll eviction takes on a person’s spirit. The violence of displacement can drive people to depression and, in extreme cases, even suicide.” Psychiatrists have identified eviction as a “significant precursor of suicide . . . eviction must be considered a traumatic rejection, a denial of one’s most basic human needs, and an exquisitely shameful experience.” Statistics support this.

Perhaps Desmond’s most effective appeal for readers to grasp the enormity of the complex torn fabric of poverty and its consequences in America, he eloquently writes in realities we all can hold dear. “Civic life too begins at home, allowing us to plant roots and take ownership over our community, participate in local politics, and reach out to neighbors in a spirit of solidarity and generosity. … It is only after we begin to see a street as our street, a public park as our park, a school as our school, that we can become engaged citizens, dedicating our time and resources for worthwhile causes. … Working on behalf of the common good is the engine of democracy, vital to our communities, cities, states, and ultimately, the nation … with its foundation the home. 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.”

“The persistence and brutality of American poverty can be disheartening, leaving us cynical about solutions. But … a good home can serve as the sturdiest of footholds. When people have a [stable] place to live, they become better parents, workers, and citizens . . . Residential stability begets a kind of psychological stability, which allows people to invest in their home and social relationships. It begets school stability, which increases the chances that children will excel and graduate. And it begets community stability, which encourages neighbors to form strong bonds and take care of the block.”

In summary, “The home is the center of life … the wellspring of personhood. It is where our identity takes root and blossoms, where as children we imagine, play, and question, and as adolescents we retreat and try. As we grow older, we hope to settle into a place to raise a family or pursue work. When we try to understand ourselves, we often begin by considering the kind of home in which we were raised. … The home remains the primary basis of life.”

In his epilogue, Desmond assesses the profound impacts of poverty and housing crises: “Eviction affects the old and the young, the sick and the able-bodied. But for poor women of color and their children, it has become ordinary. … Most evicted households in Milwaukee have children living in them, and across the country many evicted children end up homeless. The substandard housing and unsafe neighborhoods to which many evicted families must relocate can degrade a child’s health, ability to learn, and sense of worth. …  Our cities have become unaffordable to our poorest families, and this problem is leaving a deep and jagged scar on the next generation.”

Within a crisis of such vast and complex proportions, there are no easy solutions. Desmond advocates variations of a national voucher system as offering a timely attainable approach. He states bluntly, “If poverty persists in America, it is not for lack of resources.” And he closes his book with these words:

“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 principles, no piece of scripture or holy teaching, can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become.”

6 thoughts on “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

  1. I will play the devil’s advocate. Desmond says “This book is set in Milwaukee, but it tells an American story.” For sure this is a story about the state that is governed by Scott Walker, but I doubt that this is an American story. I can honestly say that this story does not apply to California where I live. I’m not saying that California doesn’t have poverty or a housing crisis. However, I do not believe that the demonization of landlords applies to every corner of America. I know some landlords. None of them are who I would call rich (unless the definition of rich is the ability to retire). California itself provides considerable protections against evictions (although those protections did not stop the meth dealers and prostitute who once lived across the street from me from being evicted).

    Desmond writes that “The annual income of the landlord of perhaps the worst trailer park in the 4th poorest city [Milwaukee] in America is 30 times that of his tenants working full time for minimum wage, and 55 times the annual income of his tenants receiving welfare or SSI [Supplemental Security Income].” Okay, maybe that’s true of the worst trailer park in Milwaukee. But it sounds like Desmond wants to generalize this statement to all of America. In any case, comparing the income of a corporate landlord who owns hundreds of housing units to the income of one renter is a comparison of apples and oranges. More pertinent is the landlord’s “return on investment”. But the return is difficult to evaluate, because so much of it is dependent on real estate inflation over time. It also depends on the size of the mortgage if one exists and on whether the landlord is paying a property manager or putting in the time to manage the property himself (or herself). If the purchase was leveraged by a mortgage, there is an opportunity for a much greater return, as well as an opportunity to lose the entire investment (which is what happened to me in the recession of 1992-1994). That being said, if Desmond’s 4th grade teacher was able to generate a net worth of 2 millions dollars in 8 years starting with an initial investment of say less than $100K and without borrowing a lot of money, then I would say that something is indeed wrong with the state of Wisconsin. (Desmond implied that a 4th grade teacher wouldn’t have started with much money, but I can’t make that assumption.)

    Again, I’m not denying that there is a housing crisis in America or that there are negligent slum landlords. I’m also not denying that the state of Wisconsin allows landlords to abuse renters. I’m only saying that it is wrong to blame all of the housing crises in America on landlords (i.e. real estate investors).


  2. One thing you can be assured of in reading Desmond’s book is his integrity in presenting both the Big and Little pictures. It may well be true that while the more enlightened West Coast skews toward sunshine the harsh realities of poor renters and the systems that maintain them, study upon study has shown this is not the case with wider urban America. Desmond has 336 pages of text and 63 of notes; throughout, when establishing factual circumstances, he cites support in depth.Starkly, studies show that “over 1 in 5 of ALL renting families in the country spends half its income on housing” — a challenge just to make it month to month and, yes, an American story.

    No, critiquing with absolute descriptions of “all,” “every,” and “none” will not universally apply. But, Desmond’s extensive supporting notes do present a deeply systematized reality — and systems are comprised of many individuals and groupings active within the landlord class.Desmond stresses this when he states, “I wanted to write a book about poverty that didn’t focus exclusively on poor people or poor places. Poverty was a relationship, involving poor people and rich people alike. To understand poverty, I needed to understand that relationship.”

    The two Milwaukee landlords Desmond observed were not “corporate.” One ran a 130 unit trailer park; the other accumulated housing properties through shrewd purchases. Desmond devotes the entirety of page 370’s fine print to breaking down the trailer park’s financial details, netting a half million dollars annually. The housing landlord incrementally accrued her $2 M profits, rarely taking out loans for over $20,000 at a time. Neither landlord voluntarily initiated upgrades to their units; maximizing profits while minimizing expenses was a winning strategy passing muster within institutionalized rules and regulations. This is not an “apples and oranges” generalization, but a widely applied practice.Nor is it “demonization” of landlords when financial operating sheets and court and other records reveal such practices as commonplace. Moreover, your “one renter” is in reality, on average, a family of ≥ 3-4 without realistic means of gaining opportunities to work their way out of poverty.

    It likely offends the sensibilities of many (most?) Americans to confront the picture Desmond puts before us. Borderline ruthlessness exists in, say, business and politics, but we do not like to see it as a primary contributor to sustaining an underclass which is, to varying degrees, unable to protect itself from systems stacked against the poor.


    1. This is a rare acknowledgement of complexity in a complex socio-economic problem: “I wanted to write a book about poverty that didn’t focus exclusively on poor people or poor places. Povery (sic) was a relationship, involving poor people and rich people alike. To understand poverty, I needed to understand that relationship.” I once heard a friend of mine who had income property (apartment houses) complain about problems he had with renters along the lines of not paying rent on time, abusing the property, etc. The relationship cuts both ways. It is as complex as most human relationships are. Unfortunately, our legal system usually favors the property owner over all others. And, in a marketplace economy, where the maximization of profit is the gold standard, the buyer (renter) beware.


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