NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE • NAMED ONE OF TIME’S TEN BEST NONFICTION BOOKS OF THE DECADE • One of the most acclaimed books of our time, this modern classic “has set a new standard for reporting on poverty” (Barbara Ehrenreich, The New York Times Book Review).
In Evicted, Princeton sociologist and MacArthur “Genius” Matthew Desmond follows eight families in Milwaukee as they each struggle to keep a roof over their heads. Hailed as “wrenching and revelatory” (The Nation), “vivid and unsettling” (New York Review of Books), Evicted transforms our understanding of poverty and economic exploitation while providing fresh ideas for solving one of twenty-first-century America’s most devastating problems. Its unforgettable scenes of hope and loss remind us of the centrality of home, without which nothing else is possible.
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY President Barack Obama • The New York Times Book Review • The Boston Globe • The Washington Post • NPR • Entertainment Weekly • The New Yorker • Bloomberg • Esquire • BuzzFeed • Fortune • San Francisco Chronicle • Milwaukee Journal Sentinel • St. Louis Post-Dispatch • Politico • The Week • Chicago Public Library • BookPage • Kirkus Reviews • Library Journal • Publishers Weekly • Booklist • Shelf Awareness
WINNER OF: The National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction • The PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction • The Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction • The Hillman Prize for Book Journalism • The PEN/New England Award • The Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize
FINALIST FOR THE LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK PRIZE AND THE KIRKUS PRIZE
“Evicted stands among the very best of the social justice books.”—Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto and Commonwealth
“Gripping and moving—tragic, too.”—Jesmyn Ward, author of Salvage the Bones
“Evicted is that rare work that has something genuinely new to say about poverty.”—San Francisco Chronicle
|Publisher:||Crown Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.50(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.60(d)|
About the Author
Matthew Desmond is a professor of sociology at Princeton University. After receiving his Ph.D. in 2010 from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he joined the Harvard Society of Fellows as a Junior Fellow. He is the author of four books, including Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, which won the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award, and Carnegie Medal, and PEN / John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction. The principal investigator of The Eviction Lab, Desmond’s research focuses on poverty in America, city life, housing insecurity, public policy, racial inequality, and ethnography. He is the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award, and the William Julius Wilson Early Career Award. A contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, Desmond was listed in 2016 among the Politico 50 as one of “fifty people across the country who are most influencing the national political debate.”
Read an Excerpt
The Business of Owning the City
Before the city yielded to winter, as cold and gray as a mechanic’s wrench, before Arleen convinced Sherrena Tarver to let her boys move into the Thirteenth Street duplex, the inner city was crackling with life. It was early September and Milwaukee was enjoying an Indian summer. Music rolled into the streets from car speakers as children played on the sidewalk or sold water bottles by the freeway entrance. Grandmothers watched from porch chairs as bare-chested black boys laughingly made their way to the basketball court.
Sherrena wound her way through the North Side, listening to R&B with her window down. Most middle-class Milwaukeeans zoomed past the inner city on the freeway. Landlords took the side streets, typically not in their Saab or Audi but in their “rent collector,” some oil-leaking, rusted-out van or truck that hauled around extension cords, ladders, maybe a loaded pistol, plumbing snakes, toolboxes, a can of Mace, nail guns, and other necessities. Sherrena usually left her lipstick-red Camaro at home and visited tenants in a beige-and-brown 1993 Chevy Suburban with 22-inch rims. The Suburban belonged to Quentin, Sherrena’s husband, business partner, and property manager. He used a screwdriver to start it.
Some white Milwaukeeans still referred to the North Side as “the core,” as they did in the 1960s, and if they ventured into it, they saw street after street of sagging duplexes, fading murals, twenty-four-hour day cares, and corner stores with wic accepted here signs. Once America’s eleventh-largest city, Milwaukee’s population had fallen below 600,000, down from over 740,000 in 1960. It showed. Abandoned properties and weedy lots where houses once stood dotted the North Side. A typical residential street had a few single-family homes owned by older folks who tended gardens and hung American flags, more duplexes or four-family apartment buildings with chipping paint and bedsheet curtains rented to struggling families, and vacant plots and empty houses with boards drilled over their doors and windows.
Sherrena saw all this, but she saw something else too. Like other seasoned landlords, she knew who owned which multifamily, which church, which bar, which street; knew its different vicissitudes of life, its shades and moods; knew which blocks were hot and drug-soaked and which were stable and quiet. She knew the ghetto’s value and how money could be made from a property that looked worthless to people who didn’t know any better.
Petite with chestnut skin, Sherrena wore a lightweight red-and-blue jacket that matched her pants, which matched her off-kilter NBA cap. She liked to laugh, a full, open-mouthed hoot, sometimes catching your shoulder as if to keep from falling. But as she turned off North Avenue on her way to pay a visit to tenants who lived near the intersection of Eighteenth and Wright Streets, she slowed down and let out a heavy sigh. Evictions were a regular part of the business, but Lamar didn’t have any legs. Sherrena was not looking forward to evicting a man without legs.
When Lamar first fell behind, Sherrena didn’t reach automatically for the eviction notice or shrug it off with a bromide about business being business. She hemmed and hawed. “I’m gonna have a hard time doing this,” she told Quentin when she could no longer ignore it. “You know that, don’t you?” Sherrena frowned.
Quentin stayed quiet and let his wife say it.
“It’s only fair,” Sherrena offered after a few silent moments of deliberation. “I feel bad for the kids. Lamar’s got them little boys in there. . . . And I love Lamar. But love don’t pay the bills.”
Sherrena had a lot of bills: mortgage payments, water charges, maintenance expenses, property taxes. Sometimes a major expense would come out of nowherea broken furnace, an unexpected bill from the cityand leave her close to broke until the first of the month.
“We don’t have the time to wait,” Quentin said. “While we waiting on his payment, the taxes are going up. The mortgage payment is going up.”
There was no hedging in this business. When a tenant didn’t pay $500, her landlord lost $500. When that happened, landlords with mortgages dug into their savings or their income to make sure the bank didn’t hand them a foreclosure notice. There were no euphemisms either: no “downsizing,” no “quarterly losses.” Landlords took the gains and losses directly; they saw the deprivation and waste up close. Old-timers liked recalling their first big loss, their initial breaking-in: the time a tenant tore down her own ceiling, took pictures, and convinced the court commissioner it was the landlord’s fault; the time an evicted couple stuffed socks down the sinks and turned the water on full-blast before moving out. Rookie landlords hardened or quit.
Sherrena nodded reassuringly and said, almost to herself, “I guess I got to stop feeling sorry for these people because nobody is feeling sorry for me. Last time I checked, the mortgage company still wanted their money.”
Sherrena and Quentin had met years ago, on Fond Du Lac Avenue. Quentin pulled up beside Sherrena at a red light. She had a gorgeous smile and her car stereo was turned up. He asked her to pull over. Sherrena remembered Quentin being in a Daytona, but he insisted it was the Regal. “I ain’t trying to pull nobody over in the Daytona,” he’d say, feigning offense. Quentin was well manicured, built but not muscular, with curly hair and lots of jewelrya thick chain, a thicker bracelet, rings. Sherrena thought he looked like a dope dealer but gave him her real number anyway. Quentin called Sherrena for three months before she agreed to let him take her out for ice cream. It took him another six years to marry her.
When Quentin pulled Sherrena over, she was a fourth-grade teacher. She talked like a teacher, calling strangers “honey” and offering motherly advice or chiding. “You know I’m fixing to fuss at you,” she would say. If she sensed your attention starting to drift, she would touch your elbow or thigh to pull you back in.
Four years after meeting Quentin, Sherrena was happy with their relationship but bored at work. After eight years in the classroom, she quit and opened a day care. But “they shut it down on a tiny technicality,” she remembered. So she went back to teaching. After her son from an earlier relationship started acting out, she began homeschooling him and tried her hand at real estate. When people asked, “Why real estate?” Sherrena would reply with some talk about “long-term residuals” or “property being the best investment out there.” But there was more to it. Sherrena shared something with other landlords: an unbending confidence that she could make it on her own without a school or a company to fall back on, without a contract or a pension or a union. She had an understanding with the universe that she could strike out into nothing and through her own gumption and intelligence come back with a good living.
Sherrena had bought a home in 1999, when prices were low. Riding the housing boom a few years later, she refinanced and pulled out $21,000 in equity. Six months later, she refinanced again, this time pulling $12,000. She used the cash to buy her first rental property: a two-unit duplex in the inner city, where housing was cheapest. Rental profits, refinancing, and private real-estate investors offering high-interest loans helped her buy more.
She learned that the rental population comprised some upper- and middle-class households who rent out of preference or circumstance, some young and transient people, and most of the city’s poor, who were excluded both from homeownership and public housing.1 Landlords operated in different neighborhoods, typically clustering their properties in a concentrated area. In the segregated city, this meant that landlords focused on housing certain kinds of people: white ones or black ones, poor families or college students.2 Sherrena decided to specialize in renting to the black poor.
Four years later, she owned thirty-six units, all in the inner city, and took to carrying a pair of cell phones with backup batteries, reading Forbes, renting office space, and accepting appointments from nine a.m. to nine p.m. Quentin quit his job and started working as Sherrena’s property manager and buying buildings of his own. Sherrena started a credit-repair business and an investment business. She purchased two fifteen-passenger vans and started Prisoner Connections LLC, which for $25 to $50 a seat transported girlfriends and mothers and children to visit their incarcerated loved ones upstate. Sherrena had found her calling: inner-city entrepreneur.
Sherrena parked in front of Lamar’s place and reached for a pair of eviction notices. The property sat just off Wright Street, with empty lots and a couple of street memorials for murder victims: teddy bears, Black & Mild cigars, and scribbled notes lashed to tree trunks. It was a four-family property consisting of two detached two-story buildings, one directly behind the other. The houses were longer than they were wide, with rough-wood balconies painted blue-gray like the trim and vinyl siding that was the brownish-white of leftover milk in a cereal bowl. The house facing the street had two doors, for the upper and lower units, and a pair of wooden steps leading to each, one old with peeling paint, the other new and unvarnished.
Lamar lived in the lower unit of the back house, which abutted the alley. When Sherrena pulled up, he was outside, being pushed in a wheelchair by Patrice, whose name was on the other eviction notice. He had snapped on his plastic prosthetic legs. An older black man, Lamar was wiry and youthful from the waist up, with skin the color of wet sand. He had a shaved head and a thin mustache, flecked with gray. He wore a yellow sports jersey with his keys around his neck.
“Oh, I got two at the same time,” Sherrena tried to say lightly. She handed Lamar and Patrice their eviction notices.
“You almost been late,” Patrice said. She wore a headwrap, pajama pants, and a white tank top that showed off her tattoo on her right arm: a cross and a ribbon with the names of her three children. At twenty-four, Patrice was half Lamar’s age, but her eyes looked older. She and her children lived in the upper unit of the front house. Her mother, Doreen Hinkston, and her three younger siblings lived below her, in the bottom-floor unit. Patrice creased her eviction notice and jammed it into a pocket.
“I’m fixin’ to go to practice,” Lamar said from his seat.
“What practice?” Sherrena asked.
“My kids’ football practice.” He looked at the paper in his hand. “You know, we fixin’ to do the basement. I’m already started.”
“He didn’t tell me about that,” Sherrena replied, “he” being Quentin. Sometimes tenants worked off the rent by doing odd jobs for landlords, like cleaning out basements. “You better call me. Don’t forget who the boss is,” Sherrena joked. Lamar smiled back at her.
As Patrice began pushing Lamar down the street, Sherrena went over a checklist in her head. There were so many things to deal withrepairs, collections, moves, advertisements, inspectors, social workers, cops. The swirl of work, a million little things regularly interrupted by some big thing, had been encroaching on her Sunday soul food dinners with her mom. Just a month earlier, someone had been shot in one of her properties. A tenant’s new boyfriend had taken three pumps to the chest, and blood had run down him like a full-on faucet. After police officers had asked their questions and balled up the yellow tape, Sherrena and Quentin were stuck with the cleanup. Quentin set on it with a couple guys, rubber gloves, and a Shop-Vac. “Here you come with a boyfriend that I don’t know anything about?” Sherrena asked the tenant. Quentin dealt with messes; Sherrena dealt with people. That was the arrangement.
Then, a few days after the shooting, another tenant phoned Sherrena to say that her house was being shut down. Sherrena didn’t believe it until she pulled up and spotted white men in hard hats screwing green boards over her windows. The tenants had been caught stealing electricity, so the We Energies men had disconnected service at the pole and placed a call to the Department of Neighborhood Services (DNS). The tenants had to be out that day.3
In Milwaukee and across the nation, most renters were responsible for keeping the lights and heat on, but that had become increasingly difficult to do. Since 2000, the cost of fuels and utilities had risen by more than 50 percent, thanks to increasing global demand and the expiration of price caps. In a typical year, almost 1 in 5 poor renting families nationwide missed payments and received a disconnection notice from their utility company.4 Families who couldn’t both make rent and keep current with the utility company sometimes paid a cousin or neighbor to reroute the meter. As much as $6 billion worth of power was pirated across America every year. Only cars and credit cards got stolen more.5 Stealing gas was much more difficult and rare. It was also unnecessary in the wintertime, when the city put a moratorium on disconnections. On that April day when the moratorium lifted, gas operators returned to poor neighborhoods with their stacks of disconnection notices and toolboxes. We Energies disconnected roughly 50,000 households each year for nonpayment. Many tenants who in the winter stayed current on their rent at the expense of their heating bill tried in the summer to climb back in the black with the utility company by shorting their landlord. Come the following winter, they had to be connected to benefit from the moratorium on disconnection. So every year in Milwaukee evictions spiked in the summer and early fall and dipped again in November, when the moratorium began.6
Sherrena watched the DNS hard hats march around her property. There were few things that frustrated landlords more than clipboard-in-hand building inspectors. When they were not shutting down a property, they were scrutinizing apartments for code violations. Upon request, DNS would send a building inspector to any property. The service was designed to protect the city’s most vulnerable renters from negligent landlords, but to Sherrena and other property owners, tenants called for small, cosmetic thingsand often because they were trying to stop an eviction or retaliate against landlords. Sherrena thought about the money she had just lost: a few thousand dollars for electrical work and unpaid rent. She remembered taking a chance on this family, feeling sorry for the mother who had told Sherrena she was trying to leave her abusive boyfriend. Sherrena had decided to rent to her and her children even though the woman had been evicted three times in the past two years. “There’s me having a heart again,” she thought.
Sherrena drove off Wright Street and headed north. Since she was in this part of town, she decided to make one more stop: her duplex on Thirteenth and Keefe. Sherrena had let a new tenant move in the previous month with a partial rent and security deposit payment.
Table of Contents
Author's Note xix
Prologue: Cold City 1
Part 1 Rent
1 The Business of Owning the City 9
2 Making Rent 20
3 Hot Water 32
4 A Beautiful Collection 44
5 Thirteenth Street 53
6 Rat Hole 64
7 The Sick 80
8 Christmas in Room 400 94
Part 2 Out
9 Order Some Carryout 111
10 Hypes for Hire 134
11 The 'Hood is Good 144
12 Disposable Ties 158
13 E-24 167
14 High Tolerance 177
15 A Nuisance 186
16 Ashes on Snow 197
Part 3 After
17 This Is America 207
18 Lobster on Food Stamps 215
19 Little 227
20 Nobody Wants the North Side 242
21 Bigheaded Boy 255
22 If They Give Momma the Punishment 259
23 The Serenity Club 270
24 Can't Win for Losing 282
Epilogue: Home and Hope 293
About This Project 315
A Reader's Guide for Evicted 419
Reading Group Guide
Book club discussion guide for New York Times bestselling book EVICTED by Matthew Desmond.
1. Have you ever been evicted or do you know anyone who has? If the answer is yes, what was your/their experience like, and how has it affected your/their life?
2. What was your experience reading Evicted? Were you surprised by what you learned? Was any particular scene or character’s story emotionally painful for you to witness?
3. Many people have very codified perceptions of “people who get evicted” and suspect that those people are largely responsible—through bad decision making—for their circumstances. Did you feel this way before reading Evicted? Why or why not? Did your opinions change after reading the book? If so, how?
4. In Evicted, author Matthew Desmond takes a narrative approach to an important topic and follows the stories of several real people. Which person’s story were you most drawn to and why?
5. Sherrena Tarver claimed to have found her calling as an inner-city entrepreneur, stating, “The ’hood is good. There’s a lot of money there” (page 152). How did Sherrena profit from being a landlord in poor communities? Do you think her profits were justified? What responsibilities do landlords have when renting their property? What risks do they take? Do you sympathize with Sherrena or not?
6. On Larraine and her late boyfriend Glen’s anniversary, she spends her monthly allocation of food stamps on “two lobster tails, shrimp, king crab legs, salad, and lemon meringue pie” (page 218). Can you relate to her decision? How might you have judged her differently without knowing the backstory that Desmond provides?
7. Because they have children, Arleen, Vanetta, and Pam and Ned frequently find themselves shut out of available housing and resort to lies in order to secure a place to live. Are these lies justified? If you have children, how far would you go to shelter your family?
8. Although eviction is the central issue in Evicted, affordable housing interacts intimately with many other social issues. For example: Do parents who have trouble finding/providing safe housing for their children deserve to have their children taken away and put in foster care? Would affordable housing make it easier for addicts and recovering addicts (such as Scott) to enroll in programs that increase chances of rehabilitation? What other major issues can you think of that eviction affects, whether in this book or in the world in general?
9. How does race factor into the types of struggles faced by the individuals profiled in Evicted? What about being a woman? Or a single parent?
10. Did reading Evicted inspire you to want to help others in positions similar to those of the people in the book? If so, how do you think you might get involved? (Hint: Visit JustShelter.org to learn more about groups and organizations in your local area who are already fighting the good fight!)
11. Why do you think Crystal made the decision to let Arleen and her sons stay until they found another residence? How did tenants such as Crystal and Arleen rely on friends and extended kin networks to get by? Did this do anything to lift them out of poverty or distress? What limitations do these short-term relationships have? Why do you think agencies such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children seek to limit kin dependence?
12. Landlords repeatedly turned down Pam and Ned’s rental applications because they have children. Why? Do you think families with children should have any protection when seeking housing? Why do you think families with children were not considered a protected class when Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968? Do you think it is fair for landlords to charge tenants with children monthly surcharges and children-damage deposits? Why or why not?
13. Why did Doreen choose not to call Sherrena when the house was in desperate need of repair? Do you agree that “The house failed the tenants, and the tenants failed the house” (page 256)? What effects does living in a home that is not decent or functional have on a person’s psychological and emotional health?
14. Do you think housing should be a right in America?
15. Many Americans still believe that the typical low-income family lives in public housing. Unfortunately, the opposite is true; only 1 in 4 families who qualify for any kind of housing assistance receive it. In Evicted, Desmond proposes a universal housing voucher program. What do you think of that idea?
16. The government spends much more money on homeowner tax benefits for affluent families than on housing assistance to poor families. Is this situation justified? How would you address this issue?
Our Eviction Epidemic: Matthew Desmond and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc in Conversation
Common Ground, by J. Anthony Lukas; There Are No Children Here, by Alex Kotlowitz; Random Family, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. Landmark works, held up as examples of the form, page-turning, prizewinning, and critically acclaimed, adopted as seminal texts in schools across the country. Landmark works but also human stories that imprinted themselves on our DNA. Stories about American society that took time to research and write yet feel immediate, urgent even, decades later. Indelible stories built from years spent with subjects, observing the same questioning, suspending judgment and personal expectations. Stories that record people and relationships that otherwise would go unnoticed outside a single community.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond, is a landmark work, an utterly compelling narrative that puts human faces on a modern American crisis. "We have failed to fully appreciate how deeply housing is implicated in the creation of poverty," he writes. "This degree of inequality, this withdrawal of opportunity, this cold denial of basic needs, this endorsement of pointless suffering by no American value is this situation justified."
The following transcript records Matthew Desmond in conversation with Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, journalist, MacArthur Fellow, and author of Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx. The result of twelve years closely following the lives of her subjects, the book chronicled the impact of poverty in one extended family. LeBlanc has been a Fellow at the Louis B. Coleman Center for Scholars at the New York Public Library and the American Academy in Berlin. She is currently completing a book about stand-up comedy for Random House. Miwa Messer, Director, Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc: I feel if I could make a requirement for citizenship I would demand that everybody read this book, like an all-country read. That's my order. Could you describe what you actually did, and then I'll get greedy with my questions.
Matthew Desmond: First, I have to get out of my system how much you've taught me over the years. I remember the exact place I was when I read Random Family. I was in Atwater, Minnesota, and I remember how you wrote about these people with such complexity and passion and empathy. That was a deep learning experience for me. I feel like you've taught me so much.
I have always been really troubled by the amount of poverty in America. Americans are matched in their rich democracy with the depth and expanse of poverty. That's really always unsettled me. So I wanted to get as close as I could and try to understand that from a ground level. I wanted to know how housing is deeply implicated in that problem, how housing is causing poverty in America today. So I started by moving into a trailer park on the south side of Milwaukee, and I lived in that trailer for about five months. Then I moved into a rooming house on the north side of Milwaukee, which is a traditional inner-city, predominantly African-American neighborhood, and I lived in that rooming house for about ten months. From those two places, I followed families that were getting evicted and the landlords doing the evicting. If you were getting evicted, I went to court with you, followed you into abandoned shelters and houses. I went to Iowa with one family, Texas with another family, and also just tried a new tradition, Adrian to deeply embed myself into their everyday lives. I went to funerals with folks. Slept at their houses. Ate meals at their table. I was there for a birth. Like I said, I wanted to get as close to the landlords doing the evicting as the families, too. So I saw landlords buy property, sell properties, pass out eviction notices, and collect rents, and tried to really plumb the complications of that relationship that defines the lives of so many families today.
ANL: I guess the one thing I would like to get off my chest, too: After I read this book and then was invited to have this conversation, I actually feel (and I mean this really sincerely I feel it's almost sacrilegious to ask you questions, in a way. I feel I've been given this incredible meal to eat, and then I'm sort of saying, "Well, what can I eat tomorrow and down the road?" There is so much in this. I do want to just acknowledge that. I choose the word sacrilegious quite intentionally: I've been reading a lot about Dorothy Day, and my work threw me into a kind of spiritual crisis of trying to coexist with the personal experience of doing the work and the public commodification of the work, and how to navigate my way as a trusty usher of that information into the world and yet stay true to myself, and I couldn't really figure it out, and I'm still in the process of doing that. The book really helped me a lot in that way. So I just want to say that I feel so grateful for your . . . Not only is there so much in the book, but you have a very rigorous methodological . . . and a note at the end, a chapter about how you actually did the work, which is essential reading for anybody.
I'm just going to read this passage, because you say it better than anyone could. This is at the end of the methodological note: "The harder feat for any field-worker is not getting in. It's leaving. And the more difficult ethical dilemma is not how to respond when asked to help, but how to respond when you are given so much. I have been blessed by countless acts of generosity from the people I met in Milwaukee. Each one reminds how gracefully they refused to be reduced to their hardships. Poverty has not prevailed against their deep humanity."
I would lead with this for you to comment. Because such a common question when you do this kind of committed research is, people ask you how you got in, how you got people to trust you. You are certainly welcome to answer those, but I wondered if you might talk a little about your process of leaving, or the transition to this moment.
MD: With every question I want to ask back: What do you think? What was your experience?
ANL: I went to stand-up comedy. That's how I ended up. I went to a bar, and I saw comedians, and I thought, I will stay here for a while.
MD: The bar was involved in my process as well. When I left Milwaukee, and I had all these stories. I felt so responsible for people. It's a heck of a thing to do, to try to write someone's story. So I decided to kind of dive down again in my own way by just not rushing to write. So I pored over my field notes like 5,000 single-spaced pages and read them over and over and over again. When I was walking to work or working out or rocking my kid to sleep, I would be listening to recordings from Milwaukee. I wanted to hear people's voices again. I wanted to be there again, in a way. I felt that I needed to do that to let these stories sink in in a deep way, so that when I wrote about people I didn't just write about them in the light or represent only the hard parts about them, because I knew that they would be disappointed in that, that they would say, "That's not me; that's not only me." So I felt that I needed to be able to write about them as full people. Which goes for the landlords, too. So to do that, I thought I needed to spend a lot of time with those words and with those actions in this kind of obsessive way. That really helped with the transition.
It was weird, though. It was weird leaving. And it was weird going to a place like Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is a rich . . .
ANL: Weird on any day, probably.
MD: Yes. It was kind of depressing. I think I wrestled with that for a while. Because the work was heartbreaking. Seeing this level of suffering had a deep impact on me. But people's generosity, too, and their humor, and their heart left a deep impact on me, too.
There's a story in the book that I like to tell about this, which is: There are these two women, Vonetta and Crystal, and they are homeless, and they were at this McDonald's, and this boy walks in, and the boy is like nine or ten. He doesn't go up to order. He goes around to the table; he's looking for scraps. These two women, who are homeless, who met at a homeless shelter, turn to one another and Crystal says, "Yo, what you got?" They pool their money, and they go to this boy and buy him lunch, and Crystal gives him a big, giant hug, and sends him on his way.
This was kind of overwhelming to me. It just shows that we are reducing people born for better things.
ANL: I remember once a young woman not in the book I wrote, but in another story I was struggling with how to write about her She was very much in my life. She said to me: "I have to live through this; the least that you can do is write about it." She said it as a real rally to help me. It was not as judgmental as it seems, but it really helped me a lot, because I thought, That's when I'm supposed to do here; there's a kind of collective rooting for you, I think, to do it.
Here's a two-part question. One, I wonder if you have any thoughts about the narrative tendency now: You wrote about this in terms of postmodernist ethnography about the first person and the use of the narrator, the "I" as a kind of way through the research of a story. Something I'm very interested in and becoming increasingly suspicious of in a lot of ways . . . but about how much of these stories of systemtic injustice, inequality, racism are told really through the power of character, actual people in nonfiction. I wonder about any thoughts you have on that.
But also, what I deeply appreciated is that you have many characters, like Sherrina, Ramona, all these people, these amazing people you won't forget, getting equal time at the same level as the system story. In journalism, I always think it's like those things when you're trying to get your kids to eat vegetables, and you wrap the broccoli in a brownie, and you've got to get the broccoli in there. I feel like as a journalist I'm always like, "I've got to get the broccoli in there, but I have to give them a brownie." That brownie is character, getting people to empathize with an actual person so I can then get the other story in there. But I feel like you really have them working together. I learned so much about the actual nature of housing policy, about rents. You kept that information very vivid. So I wonder if you could talk about the narrative. You're obviously a sociologist, so that's a special treat to get that information in a way that's readable.
It's a really high-wire act to keep readers reading who aren't specialists in that field, and then also to impart a lot of information in a way that you really remember it. It made me understand things that I'd been struggling to apprehend for decades, really, that I'd witnessed on a daily basis and I thought, Oh, that's connected to that; I see how that relates to that. For example, evictions, which I've witnessed many of; I was so struck by how non-reactive people were. I was so upset, I was so emotional, and I found them so devastating, and people were very blasé. I later came to understand that was a reaction that I thought was quite traumatized and numbed.
MD: That reaction is among one of the saddest things, I think. I remember at the end of the book there's an eviction that Arleen goes through. Arleen was a single mom that I met. She was trying to raise two boys. When I met her, she was paying 88 percent of her income to live in a very run-down two-bedroom apartment in a very poor neighborhood. We see Arleen get evicted again and again throughout the book. Under those circumstances, when you're paying so much of what little you have just on rent, just a little thing can throw you off. Her kid hits a car with a snowball, the guy jumps out, kicks in the door that leads to an eviction. Further into the book we see her evicted again, and we see Jafaris, who is her six-year-old, come home from school and come upon this scene. There's all these movers at her house, and they're tossing it out, and she's confused, she didn't know they were coming, and he walks in from school, and he just . . . He looks around. He doesn't cry. He doesn't run and get a special toy. He just turns around and walks out the door.
That should disturb us, right? Evictions used to be rare in this country. They used to draw crowds. There are scenes in literature where you can come upon an eviction like, in Invisible Man there's the famous eviction scene in Harlem, and people are gathered around, and they move the family back in. That used to happen here. But now we've grown used to it, and we have kids like Jafaris who are experiencing this dramatic, violent upheaval at home and don't react.
Writing about that, chronicling that, bearing witness to that for me is deeply connected to reform. Especially in the sociological tradition, in the housing tradition even, there are examples there. So we can go back to someone like Michael Harrington in The Other America, who wrote about poor folks, and those stories helped launch the War on Poverty. Or we can go back to someone like Jacob Riis, the muckraking journalist who was writing about tenements in this city, and just showing people the despair and the squalor, and how that led to New York taking on the slums and winning that battle.
So I feel like there's something there, and I feel like there's a deep connection with stories and with empathy, and how that moves.
There's also this other work that I did, and we've already had some luck changing the law because of this work. One of the chapters in here is about these pretty crazy laws called Nuisance Ordinances that hold landlords accountable for their tenants' behavior. They are based on excessive 911 calls. The only reason I know about these is because I went to landlords and I said, "It seems that women are getting evicted more than men; what's going on." One of the things they said is, "You've got to look into these ordinances, because a lot of these calls are being made from domestic violence victims." I said, "What do yu do when you get a nuisance letter from the city?" "We evict the tenant; that's what we do."
So I was just trying to fact-check this. So I went to the Milwaukee PD, and I said, "I need two years worth of your nuisance ordinances," and they said, "Go away." Then I said, "Here's my lawyer friend, and can we get them now, please." So they handed over to us all the data, I crunched the numbers, and we found that, yes, the third most popular nuisance in the city of Milwaukee was domestic violence. When landlords got a letter that's basically, like, "Your property is a nuisance," in over 80 percent of the cases they evicted the tenant. So we were putting these women in this devil's bargain where we're saying, "Either call 911 for his conviction, or don't pick up the phone and risk more abuse." So we took that data that was hard-won, that started from fieldwork, to the Milwaukee PD. They changed their law, so now they can't do that any more. We took it to Norristown, Pennsylvania; they changed their law. We're kind of taking that on the road. So I feel like at least there's one example of how a story can lead to a bigger effort that can lead to real reform.
ANL: Also when Arleen calls . . . one of her sons is having an asthma attack, and she calls 911, and explains while the police . . . it again threatens her tenancy.
MD: Yes, that's right. That was based on these nuisance laws. That shows how tenuous a grasp people like Arleen have on their housing. I think that maybe we went out into the streets and we asked folks on the streets, "Why do you think people get evicted?" some folks would say, "Well, it's hard out there," but some folks would say, "People make bad decisions. People are spending unwisely, they're being irresponsible." But with someone like Arleen, giving almost everything she had just on rent . . . forget, like, heat and utilities, just rent . . . It's not the result of, like, irresponsibility as much as inevitability. A very small thing, like calling for an asthma attack, can lead to getting thrown out.
ANL: You talked also about the increased risk that children pose to stable tenancy.
ANL: I wonder if you could talk about that. So much of the illusion we like to have . . . The poverty numbers, women and children, hunger . . . All these issues afflict children egregiously. But there's still I think this idea that there's some way that kids are . . . The way children operate in this I thought was very helpful in figuring out ways to frame policy arguments. That children really increase the risk of actually being evicted in the way the system works now.
MD: If any of you have gone to, like, the South Bronx Housing Court, you know what the face of the eviction epidemic looks like. It's filled with kids, just kids everywhere in the South Bronx Housing Court. They used to have a daycare in the South Bronx Housing Court because there were so many kids in it. When I started this work, I kind of thought, like, kids would shield families from eviction, that there would be some sort of extra protection that kids would receive. But the extra protection they receive in Milwaukee is, if you have a dependent child, you get two extra days, and that's it.
ANL: I know. MD: There's this scene in the book where Arleen finally finds this house, after calling and applying for ninety places. She calls and she calls and she calls, and finally two months after her eviction court hearing she settles into this house, and she moves everything in. It's, like, nice. All the cupboards have handles, and all the lights have fixtures. She calls it her "nice house." She just sits down on the floor after she moves in, and she finds this garbage bag with like towels, and just leans against that, and her fourteen-year-old, Jori, like leans against her, and Jafaris puts his little six-year-old head on her lap, and they just sit like that for a long time.
But then Jafaris gets an asthma attack, and she calls. The landlord gets on her. Then Jori acts out at school. It's hard to be fourteen. It's hard to be fourteen and experience long stretches of homelessness and bounce between all these schools. I think between seventh and eighth grade, Jori went to five different schools. One day a teacher snapped at him. He kicked her in the shin. Instead of calling the principal, the teacher calls the police. The police visit Arleen.
This is something you see on the ground level, like in that story. It's also something we see in statistics. We talked to 250 people in eviction court because we wanted to know, "Why do you get evicted but you don't?" What we found was like, you can hold costs on how much you owe your landlord, your household income, things like race and gender but what really matters is: Do you live with kids? If you live with kids, your chances of getting an eviction judgment in court triple. What you're seeing there isn't the judge or the court commissioner. You're seeing the landlord saying, "I'll work with you if you don't have kids. If you have kids, I don't think I'll work with you."
Kids are something that absolutely exposes families to more evictions. So why? Why is that? From a landlord's point of view, kids are bad for the bottom line. They can flush their toys down the toilet. They can cause a guy who's just been thwacked with a snowball to kick your door in. Young kids can test positive for lead poisoning that can be EPA-ordered. Teenagers can attract the attention of the police. In the words of one landlord I met, "Kids cause me headache." So that's what we're seeing.
ANL: Also, as people have eviction in their histories, and you describe how they're moved to more and more dangerous neighborhoods I also think that children are increasingly playing indoors, because it's less safe to be outside. There are so many things that are constantly working in a way that's destructive to any kind of basic, as you say, human right of just shelter and well- being.
MD: Yeah. When I started this work, I thought that eviction would allow me to tell a different story about poverty. But I've come to the conclusion that eviction is absolutely a cause, not just a condition of poverty. It's a wellspring for all these social problems. So eviction comes with a record. And we know that a criminal record can make you have a hard time on the labor market, can prevent you from seeking government assistance. The eviction record operates in the same way. A lot of landlords will turn you away. Public housing authorities also turn you away often if you have an eviction record. Which means we're systematically denying housing assistance to people that need it the most the evicted. That's why families move from bad neighborhoods to even worse neighborhoods; they move from crummy housing to sub- standard housing.
People often not only lose their homes but also their communities and their possessions. A lot of times their possessions are either thrown out of the home or they're taken by movers and locked in bonded storage, and you can't get them back unless you keep up the payments, and some people just can't, so they just get thrown out. The biggest moving company in Milwaukee that does evictions told me that 70 percent of their eviction or foreclosure moves just get thrown in the dump.
We have really good evidence that eviction causes job loss. If any of you in this room have been through an eviction, you know exactly why. It's this ridiculously consuming, stressful, overwhelming event that can cause you to make mistakes at work and eventually lose hold of your job.
Then there's the toll that eviction takes on your spirit. I think that goes back to what you saw in the South Bronx, what I saw in Milwaukee these non-reactions. They kind of betray a deeper emotional trauma. We have good evidence that moms, two years after they were evicted, are more depressed. We know that suicides attributed to evictions or foreclosures doubled between 2005 and 2010.
You add all that up. Take that full picture into account, and it's really hard not to conclude that eviction is not just, you know, a bad day, but it's fundamentally changing the face of poverty. It's casting people in a different and more difficult path.
ANL: You also, I feel, use this very pungent terminology to describe the dynamic of what's going on. You talk about exploitation. You show how the system actually . . . people profit very directly from these policies and these ways of managing . . . anything from the landlords managing the properties to the way housing court works. You also talk about the violence of eviction.
ANL: There's a passage where you talk about how much conversation there is about incarceration and people being on parole and probation, and various things in poor neighborhoods. But if you look at the numbers, everybody has a landlord. It's always a struggle to figure out how to sell stories and get publications to publish stories without demonizing people around poverty issues, and it's a very tricky business, and I thought housing is one way to begin to do that. You said that yourself, when you started to look at it you thought that surely there must be lots of sociology or ethnography around this, and you started to do the secondary research, and you found that there hadn't been that much outside of the work done on public housing.
MD: It was weird. Here I am, living in a trailer park, and here's the private market, and I'm meeting all these people, and they're giving 70 percent of their income to rent, 80 percent of their income to rent. So I'm just like, What do we know about this? We didn't know a whole heck of a lot. We had spent so much time focused on public housing, where the minority of low-income families are living today, that we ignore this big sector that is defining the lives of poor families in their communities. Do you think that most Americans, unless they have direct experience with these issues, still think the typical low-income family benefits in some way from public housing? I think one out of four public housing units in America are in this city. But this city is weird in that way. You guys are weird. Most cities don't have the public housing stock that you guys do. So only about one in four families that qualify for any kind of housing assistance receive it. In big cities like D.C., the waiting list for public housing is not counted in years; it's counted in decades. So a young single mom with a baby might be a grandma by the time her application comes up.
That's the situation we're in. And there are so many more questions we need to get after.
April 4, 2016