“Evicted” chronicles eight families in Milwaukee, of different sizes and backgrounds, with a shared circumstance—eviction. Desmond tells complex stories that explore poverty not as a structural or cultural force, but as an interaction between rich and poor.
Arlene is a single mother struggling to pay rent in the city’s notorious North Side. Her short-term roommate, Crystal, is a teenager raised in the foster system, born prematurely after her mother’s brutal stabbing. Their neighbor, Lamar, is a war veteran, recovering addict, double leg amputee and resident father-figure to the boys of the neighborhood. Three generations of Hinkstons crowd into a two bedroom apartment on the same lot as Lamar. Doreen, the matriarch, has four children ages 13 to 24, and three grandchildren by her eldest daughter, Patrice.
Their landlord is Sherrena, a former fourth-grade teacher turned “inner-city entrepreneur.” Sherrena’s husband, Quentin, acts as her property manager and business partner. They manage over 36 units, all in the inner-city.
Across town in a trailer park, Mrs. Mytes, 71, collects cans every day to buy treats for her adult, mentally-challenged daughter, and pays bills with her SSI check. Scott is a nurse whose back injury led to an opiate addiction and subsequent slide into poverty. Pam is 30 years old and seven months pregnant, with three daughters and a boyfriend named Ned. Both adults struggle to stay sober and pay their rent. Larraine, middle-aged with two adult daughters, clings to her past as an exotic dancer and loves jewelry. Tobin, the park’s owner, faces losing his license and livelihood (and forcing his tenants onto the street), in part due to the raw sewage from a recently broken pipe leaking under several trailers.
Desmond draws readers into trailers and apartments that are frequently without heat or working plumbing. The windows are broken, mold climbs the walls, appliances are broken or malfunctioning. Despite the conditions, the majority of each families’ income goes to rent. (One in five of all renting families pay half their income toward rent.) These are homes where survival comes first, school is a luxury and hardness is love; but, there is love, and small acts of kindness when exhaustion and hunger are temporarily sated long enough for the fight-or-flight response to abate. The Hinkstons celebrate birthdays with cake and a prank. Lamar hosts card games, spades, in his kitchen. Larraine willingly scrimps for the rest of the month so she can eat lobster for dinner the day she receives her benefits.
This is a dizzying, dark world that is easy to fall into, but becomes exponentially more difficult to escape. A world of “so many compounded limitations that it was difficult to imagine the amount of good behavior or self control that would allow them to lift themselves out of poverty.” Three in four families who qualify for housing assistance receive no help. Once evicted, families are “25 percent more likely to experience long-term housing problems than other low-income renters.”
The right to safe and affordable housing is fundamental, and supported by our Constitution; Desmond argues that the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness all require, and therefor imply the right to, a stable home.
Eviction is a business, from landlords, to eviction courts, to the moving crew and the storage facilities. Martin Luther King once said, “every condition exists simply because someone profits by its existence.” We must acknowledge the ways that the business of of eviction creates and maintains poverty.
Two fundamental human rights are at odds: the right to profit from rents, and the right to a safe and affordable home. The very idea of being an American—the West, the frontier, gold, oil, land, the luck of the draw—speaks to a right to make a profit. Despite this concept, child labor laws, minimum wage, and workplace safety regulations are all examples of Americans putting the needs of humans before the importance of profit. Ultimately, housing cannot be just a business—the need is too fundamental.
Desmond suggests significantly expanding our housing voucher program to begin balancing the rights of profit and home. In a well-designed voucher program, qualifying families only pay 30 percent of their income towards housing that is reasonably priced and to code. Landlords have incentive to hold their buildings to stricter codes, and to rent to voucher holders because a program ensures “a reasonable rent that rose at the rate of inflation and included flexible provisions the ensure landlords make a modest profit while providing them with steadier income and less turnover.”
Desmond argues that expanding the current housing voucher program is possible without additional spending if the government stabilizes rents and streamlines the program. (Additionally, only stabilized rent can ensure taxpayers won’t pay for landlord’s profits.) The money is there, Desmond argues, we only need to decide where to funnel the funds. (In 2008 federal expenditures for direct housing assistance totaled less than $40.2 billion while homeowner tax benefits exceeded $171 billion. Most federal housing subsidies benefit families with six-figure incomes.)
Legal aid to the poor, diminished since Reagan years and decimated during the Great Recession, works against the poor. In the housing courts 90 percent of landlords are represented by attorneys while 90 percent of tenants are not. Additionally, housing courts are inundated with cases every day to the point that the system is a factory of eviction.
According to Desmond, establishing publicly funded legal services for low income families in housing court would prevent homelessness, decrease evictions, and give low-income tenants a fair chance. (Currently defendant’s only have the right to counsel when their physical liberty is at stake, Gideon v. Wainwright.) Desmond acknowledges that this would cost money—not only to create a fund for legal aid, but by hiring more commissioners, judges, and clerks—but will ensure the housing court functions like a court and not “an eviction assembly line.”
We need to invest in ourselves. “Affordable housing is a human-capital investment, just like job programs or education, one that would strengthen and steady the American workforce.” Our solutions, need to be as diverse as we are. “If our cities and towns are rich in diversity—with unique textures and styles, gifts and problems—so too must be our solutions.”
Desmond delivers a rich study of poverty in America, casting renters and landlords alike as flawed human beings participating in a flawed system. He draws on history and his own experiences, both studying poverty as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, and as tenant for both Sherrena and Tobin. Desmond’s words fill a hole in the discussion about poverty in our nation by acknowledging the breadth and depth of the impact housing has in the creation of poverty.