(Review by Margaret Rhodes)
In his important, recent book, Evicted, Matthew Desmond provides a devastating appraisal of the U.S. housing crisis. He follows eight families in Milwaukee as they move from one dilapidated apartment to the next, and then finally to homelessness. On average, tenants spend 60 or 70 percent of their income on housing, with little leftover for other expenses. Inevitably they fall behind on rent, often resulting in an eviction. After an eviction, landlords are less willing to accept tenants, forcing them into worse neighborhoods where landlords are less choosy and apartments in worse repair. Families find it even harder, with fewer landlords accepting children. Desmond found that one in eight renters in Milwaukee experienced at least one forced move.
The personal stories Desmond relates are filled with misfortune, often stretching back generations, misfortune fueled by poverty. Through the stories Desmond ably conveys the stress of facing homelessness and hunger, the sadness of not being able to give your children what they need, as well as the incredible resilience and often resourcefulness that his subjects demonstrate. As Desmond points out in the conclusion, home gives us our sense of safety and well-being. For most of us in stable housing, it is a refuge from the rebuffs of society. It is where we find community, have time with our children, heal from the rebuffs of daily life. When your housing keeps changing or is taken from you, it is a traumatic experience, sometimes resulting in your furniture being piled on a sidewalk outside. It can mean sudden changes in your children’s schooling, food stamps not being sent to the correct address, and of the community supports that are found in a stable neighborhood.
We already know these stories, but Desmond focuses our attention on how the private housing market, with its often exploitative rents, has become a key factor in families’ slide into extreme poverty. At times he argues that it is the central cause: he states that the problems endemic to poverty “…stem from the lack of affordable housing in our cities.” (333) This overstates what he has shown, but still he is making an important point, backed up by the eight tenants he follows and the statistical evidence he presents.
Equally important, although he paints a grim picture of eviction, he does not view the problem as hopeless. He argues in the conclusion that the suffering he has pictured throughout the book is unnecessary.. One of the biggest problems to a solution, according to Desmond, is the exploitative rental practices in the private housing market. Apartment prices are often increased in areas where tenants have little choice, and since housing is scarce in many cities, landlords can charge what they want. Desmond suggests that the solution does not reside in more public housing, but in making available a housing voucher for any poor family. He suggests ways to monitor its use, so that neither tenant nor landlord can use it exploitatively. He also argues for legal representation for any poor tenant facing eviction. A legal program in the South Bronx for poor families that ran from 2005-8 prevented eviction in 86% of the cases (1300 altogether.) It cost $450.000. but saved the city more than $700,000 in estimated shelter costs.. Solutions are possible, but they depend on our acceptance of housing as a basic right and a public willingness to bear the cost.
In his final section, “About this project,” Desmond addresses some of the problems and challenges of doing this sort of ethnographic work. He raises the question of his exploitation of those he has interviewed, though he does not address it fully, beyond expressing his gratitude and guilt and detailing a few ways he tried to help those whose lives he was documenting. He does not discuss the ethical issues he confronted, leaving me wondering about them. What sort of permission did he obtain from each of them? Did he show what he had written to them before he published it? What sort of responsibility does he feel towards them now? I wish he had said more in answer to these questions.
The book is an important one, and his affection for those he interviewed shines through, as well as his outrage that so many in our society are forced to live this way. Read it.