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Book Review: Evicted by Matthew Desmond

Posted by Mark Cantrell on October 4, 2017 at 7:10 PM

Eviction has become a way of life in America’s private rented housing market

It's easy to blame the poor for their plight, writes Mark Cantrell, but it blinds us to the cruel truth revealed in Matthew Desmond's expose of America's private rented housing market – evictions are an essential part of making it a lucrative business

FOR many of us, there's a simple way of escaping a dystopian condition: we just close the book. Do that with Matthew Desmond's Evicted, however, and we just shut our minds to the plight of people who have no such easy option.

We're used to dystopia as fiction, after all, but the sad truth is that millions of people across the world already endure a life in dystopia of one kind or another; they do so under the noses of fellow citizens quick to judge but far removed from the grim realities they endure.

Desmond offers a case in point, with his exploration of the way the private rented housing market perpetuates poverty and social exclusion in the United States. It's easy to blame the hapless tenants for their poor lifestyle 'choices'; Evicted doesn't shy away from such individual failings but makes it clear that ultimately it's the system – the market – that is at fault.

The book deals with the real-life experiences of poor families in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as they struggle to find and keep a home at the bottom end of the city's private rented housing market. It's a grim litany of slum properties, often unfit for human habitation, but which cost the tenants dear – and not just in terms of the size of their rent cheque. Poverty is no easy ride.

The book is 'set' in 2008 and is based on Desmond's immersion in the world of some of America's poorest families. He lived in the city as one of them for two years while he researched the book, recording the stories of those struggling to survive, but also something of their hopes and dreams. The results are all too human.

Written with all the colour and character of a novel, Evicted ensures its subjects – both tenants and landlords – are fleshed-out human beings, rather than cold case studies. The narrative also serves to draw the reader in, immersing us in their lives, and putting us in their shoes as surely as any work of fiction would for its make-believe characters; it makes the chilling realities of their circumstances hit home all the harder.

Desmond presents us with a condition that would crush the spirit of the best of us, yet it's the daily reality for millions of poor Americans, who somehow endure against all the odds. Even so, Evicted reveals they exist at the mercy of a lettings business that is all-too-often an evictions industry, propelling poor families inexorably towards homelessness.

We might call their day-to-day reality a 'misery-go-round' of slum housing followed by eviction, then on to another slum property, followed by eviction, in a cycle that is hard to escape. It wasn't always so, the author points out, and this is why focusing on the supposed character failings of individuals rather misses the point – conveniently so for those profiting out of this state of affairs.

As Desmond informs us in the prologue, evictions were once a rarity. They were curiosities neighbourhoods would turn out to watch; sometimes, though, they would gather in an effort to resist their neighbour being turfed out of their home. As for the Marshals, they were “ambivalent” about carrying out evictions. “It wasn't why they carried a badge and a gun.” The world has turned since, such that evictions are more likely to be met with a shrug of indifference, rather than neighbourly solidarity.

Those were the Depression-era days, when perhaps communities hadn't been so hollowed-out and cowed by the routine of everyday evictions. Nowadays, as the book adequately demonstrates, an entire economic sub-system has built up around repossessing properties in this way. It's a chilling thought: that the livelihoods of an army of American families have come to depend on the endless displacement of their poorer counterparts from one slum property to the next.

“These days, there are sheriff squads whose full-time job is to carry out eviction and foreclosure orders,” Desmond writes. “There are moving companies specialising 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 with old desks and broken file (sic) cabinets – and most tenants don't even show up. Low income families have grown used to the rumble of moving trucks, the early morning knocks at the door, the belongings lining the curb.”

The dystopia of it all doesn't end here. As Desmond goes on to explain, eviction's “fallout is severe”. It damages families, blights the life chances of children, and it harms communities too, weakening their social and economic resilience. In times past, there might have been poverty, but there was also community. In modern times, going by Desmond's book, eviction nurtures the first but weakens the last.

As Desmond goes on to say: “Losing a home sends families to shelters, abandoned houses, and the street. It invites depression and illness, compels families to move into degrading housing in dangerous neighbourhoods, uproots communities, and harms children. Eviction reveals people's vulnerabilities and desperation, as well as their ingenuity and guts. Fewer and fewer families can afford a roof over their head … We have failed to fully appreciate how deeply housing is implicated in the creation of poverty.”

If eviction has become commonplace among poor communities in the United States, Desmond makes it clear that it is an experience exacerbated by race and gender. The soul-crushing cycle of bad housing and eviction claims every ethnicity, dispossesses man and woman alike, but some bear its burden more than others. As the author put it: “Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”

At the root of it all are the tenants; no, not in the sense of the blame game. In fact, their 'failings' turn out – according to Desmond – to be an essential element that makes the business a profitable one for landlords. It's a bizarre scenario, seemingly counter-intuitive, yet it makes a certain kind of twisted sense – having a tenant behind on their rent can be advantageous to a landlord's business.

“Tenants able to pay their rent in full each month could take advantage of legal protections designed to keep housing safe and decent. Not only could they summon a building inspector without fear of eviction, but they also had the right to withhold rent until certain repairs were made. But when tenants fell behind, those protections dissolved,” Desmond explains.

“Tenants in arrears were barred from withholding or escrowing rent; and they tempted eviction if they filed a report with a building inspector. It was not that low income renters didn't know their rights. They just knew those rights would cost them... Tenants who fell behind either had to accept unpleasant, degrading, and sometimes dangerous housing conditions or be evicted. But from a business point of view, this arrangement could be lucrative.”

Make no mistake; Evicted can be a difficult read – not in the sense of the writing, which is quality, but in the sense of the subject matter. It's a grim journey into some of the harshest conditions any of us will encounter in a supposedly civilised society. It's hard to envision how people can possibly live like this, and yet they do – numbering in their millions; victims of a system indifferent to their hardships, but with a quick eye for an opportunity, whether to make some cash out of them, or to make a moral judgement.

But if reading this book was sometimes draining for this reviewer, imagine what it must be like for those who live the life Desmond recounts: day after day, month in month out, year on year and one generation to the next: trapped in this grinding misery-go-round of bad housing and poverty, fickle eviction, and the crushing loss of security, identity and community that goes with it. It's a miracle any one can live like this at all.

Grim though it is, Evicted is well worth the read. If it doesn't make you angry, then maybe it will at least make you think. And we need more of that if ever as a society we are to begin to change things for the better – for everyone.

Evicted is an American tale, rooted in that nation's social, economic and cultural context, but it has a global resonance. After all, the United States is not the only land where poor families endure the dystopia of bad housing and poverty. We're all haunted by that dreadful spectre...

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

By Matthew Desmond

Penguin Books

March 2017

Paperback (420 pages)

ISBN: 978-0-141-98331-8




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