Evicted : Poverty And Profit In The American City / Matthew Desmond

Matthew Desmond convincingly argues in Evicted that policy makers have overlooked a major cause of poverty in this country – the high cost of rental housing in cities across America. In this ethnographic study, he follows eight families/individuals in Milwaukee, showing how they struggle (and often fail) to keep a roof above their heads. Desmond interweaves the narratives of individuals living in a trailer park on the fringes of the city’s south side with those of tenants on the poverty-ridden north side. Both have become areas where the economically disadvantaged are usually restricted to when seeking housing.

As he shows, this is not because the rental properties in these areas are more affordable; it turns out to be just the opposite. Housing is typically expensive, and yet, worse still, barely habitable. So why do the people Desmond follows in this study live where they do? It is because they have no other choice. Due to poor credit history, being branded with past evictions, and landlords’s racial bias, they are turned away from affordable and more desirable rentals in better parts of the city.

This means that those living below or near the poverty line end up spending at least half of their income on rent alone. To put this into context, the average American is encouraged to set aside 30% of their income to cover housing costs. For the individuals in this study, it is an expense they cannot hope to cover. Any kind of emergency, such as job loss or illness, results in falling behind on their rent as they try to keep the heat on and their families fed. This leads to eviction notices from landlords, which sends these individuals, many with young children, into a mad scramble to find another place to live. Most are forced to move deeper into the ghetto to find a place to live, even if it means accepting a place that lacks a stove, proper plumbing, or is cockroach infested.

The people portrayed here are often their own worst enemies. Desmond does not try to put makeup on them. They often foolishly spend what money they have, are single parents with numerous children, and a good many abuse drugs or are engaged in prostitution to make ends meet. Yet Desmond’s descriptions of their lives also highlight their dignity and generosity. Most of them give money they cannot afford to lose to help friends and family in desperate straits. Although Evicted portrays flawed individuals, by showing their struggles, along with their hopes and dreams, Desmond is nonjudgmental and wins the reader’s sympathy for their plight.

This study, clearly presented and supported by documented facts, goes a long way in outlining the need for affordable housing in this country. In his epilogue, Desmond does offer some workable solutions to the problem. All are common sense and worthy of consideration. But what Evicted does best is to present the cause and effect of this housing issue, putting a human face on a topic most of us would rather ignore or simply place the blame on the poor themselves. The author’s masterful research and writing elevates the issue into one of a basic right. Along with adequate health care for all, affordable and fair housing ranks as a major issue our country must soon address if we are to overcome the poverty problem in America. No matter where one falls on the political spectrum, this is a book that persuades that our country needs to step back and reconsider the issue with fresh eyes.


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