‘Evicted’ author Matthew Desmond, who lived with Milwaukee’s poor

March 28, 2016

There is sweating rent, and then there is not making rent.

The latter is worse by far, because of the threat of eviction and everything that follows.

"Eviction is not a condition of poverty but a cause," said Matthew Desmond, who researched and wrote "Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City."

Without stable shelter, Desmond said recently, everything else falls apart.

To study the toll that eviction takes in the lives of urban poor, Desmond, a Harvard University sociologist, spent about 18 months in 2008 and 2009 living in two low-income Milwaukee, Wis., locations: a trailer park and rooming house.

Some tenants accepted him immediately; some wondered if he was from children’s services. Eventually all of his neighbors, faced with the more urgent task of getting through the month, talked to him.

"I felt that writing about peoples’ lives was a heck of a responsibility, and I wanted to know them in a deep way," Desmond said.

Desmond estimates that while many Americans spend 30 percent of their income on housing and related utilities, the majority of poor renting families devote at least 50 percent to that, with some paying more than 70 percent.

And, once that nut cannot be met, bad things happen.

Once families are forced out of their permanent address, children will be vulnerable to being removed from their school. When looking for their next home, those same families find it harder to find the next landlord.

"A lot of landlords won’t rent to families with a recent eviction," Desmond said. "Evictions come with a record, like a criminal record, and that record can follow you around."

Even in working poor neighborhoods, the sight of an evicted family’s chairs and tables on the sidewalk once was considered rare, according to Desmond.

But today eviction has become more routine. In Milwaukee, which has about 105,000 renter households, landlords evict about 16,000 adults and children each year. The numbers, he writes, are similar in Cleveland, Chicago and Kansas City, Mo.

Sometimes, he added, family furnishings will end up in storage facilities, and families will begin missing payments on those.

The biggest moving company in Milwaukee working evictions told him that, in about 70 percent of the cases, "the family’s possessions just go to the dump."

Trying to deal with all this takes a mental and spiritual toll.

"We have evidence that eviction actually causes job loss and anyone who has been through an eviction knows why," Desmond said.

"The experience can cause people to make mistakes on the job. Mothers who are evicted show higher levels of depression symptoms two years later."

Desmond was startled to learn that eviction, as a scholarly topic, had received little attention. Under his supervision, interviewers quizzed more than 1,000 tenants about rents and conditions.

But those who are expecting a grim slog through data will be surprised: "Evicted" reads like a novel, with vivid dialogue and compelling characters.

"I see myself working in the tradition of sociology and journalism that tries to bear witness to poverty," Desmond said.

Desmond has placed his statistics in notes, and there readers can find plenty of drama as well. Go to the notes on Page 370, where Desmond breaks down the income and expenses of a mobile home park owner and estimates that during one year he cleared $446,635.

Desmond made a point of interviewing landlords.

"These are the people who literally own poor neighborhoods," Desmond said. "I wanted to understand them, too."

Desmond acknowledges that poverty today looks different than during the Great Depression. He concedes that many social service agency employees and volunteers have devoted much of their lives to improving the quality of life of poor renting families.

The book even includes moments of uplift.

One character wrestling with addiction gets accepted into a stable housing program.

"There is evidence of how stable, affordable housing can be a sure foothold into a life of sobriety and stability," he said.

But that is more the exception than the rule.

"The high cost of housing is crushing poor families and sending them to a state of desperation," he said.



McClatchy-Tribune Information Services