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EVICTED by Matthew Desmond
I was drawn to Evicted by my own circumstances. I had made friends with a poor family living about an hour away. We hosted their daughter’s 18th birthday party and invited her to live with us while she attended school. When they were losing their home through financial ignorance (they thought they could pay ahead and then stop paying for a while), I offered to sell them a property which I was preparing to rent—to sell it to them on land contract because they had bad credit: no bank accounts, no credit cards. In the back of my mind I carried the idea that everyone should be given the opportunity to own their own home. After all, isn’t that the American dream? What this family lacked in financial stability, they had in friendship. There was nothing they would not do to help me, going out of the way to find a part for one of my appliances, offering to mow my lawn, not asking for anything at all in return. I believed that I could give them the means to improve their lives financially, to learn how to make regular payments, to gain an asset, and ultimately to qualify for a bank loan.
My assumptions were that someone acquiring ownership in a home would improve the home. I also assumed that a friend would make regular monthly payments and would follow through on everything they promised to do. Both of these assumptions proved false. After about 5 months, the payments stopped. I gave them more time—a few months and then confronted them. They told me about a work injury and hung their heads in shame. I gave them even more time and told them that I would not throw them out because of an unforeseen injury. Now, 20 missed payments later and a trashed house, I must do something, but how can I throw out a mother and three minor children? Even though I no longer trust the mother (who is now divorcing the father), what about the children who have not only lost the stability of a two-parent household but now might lose their friends, their teachers, their coaches, and their school? What might an eviction cost them? It sickened me to think of evicting these children whose birthdays I had celebrated, baseball performances I had cheered, and who had cut and colored my hair. Their mother cleaned my vacation rental in the area and their father performed carpentry and other work for me. I had an entanglement that is far more complex than the ordinary landlord/tenant relationship.
The stress of my decision convinced me to read and review the book Evicted. Maybe it would give me a different perspective. Maybe it would help me understand people who seem so irresponsible and uncaring. Maybe it would help me find other options.
The book was not as I expected from a major publisher. Cheap paper and large print do not create a pleasant reading experience. I only hope that the copy I have is not the final version. However as bad as the paper felt, I quickly forgot it when I encountered the real people within the book, landlords trying to make a living and provide for Milwaukee’s poor and tenants who take measures that seem reasonable only to themselves. This is an ethnography, a book relating a culture through the eyes of the people within it.
EVICTED follows the stores of 2 landlords and several tenants in a poor section of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. One landlord, a former elementary school teacher buys distressed properties and with her husband fixes them well enough to rent to the poorest of the poor. She and her husband work full time on their properties and bring in about $10,000/month. When a tenant fell behind, she said, “I guess I got to stop feeling sorry for these people because nobody is feeling sorry for me. Last time I checked, the [county treasurer, loan officer, electric company] still wanted their money.” My feelings exactly. Doesn’t my tenant realize that I have bills to pay? The other landlord profiled in EVICTED owned a trailer park and had hired a manager and office helper to rent the trailers, handle repairs, and collect rents. This is not part of my experience and as I read about the drug dealers renting in the trailer park, it was as though I was peering into an alternate reality. I simply could not relate to someone whose only interest was achieving the highest return on his property with no concern for the quality of his tenants or his properties, or what extreme measures were taken to collect rent. Still, it was an education to see the lengths to which he went to get cash in hand from a defaulting tenant. The author rented from him and could not even get this landlord to supply him with hot water. That’s my definition of a slumlord.
All of the tenants were low income, but shared little else in common. Most of them were desperate to provide for their children. Some of the tenants were on drugs; others would not touch drugs, and still others were recreational marijuana users. These were people who could not plan for the future, who simply spent each day trying to survive. Those who made paying rent a priority often had little left to live on, and found themselves scrimping on food, medications, and clothing.
And the landlords? One had the time (and money) for week-long island vacations, but found herself scrimping the last week of the month—a week before the rents would roll in. Some landlords would not rent to people of color, people with children, or people who had even a single eviction on their record. Evicted shows us the landlord using self-help means to collect rent: knocking on doors the day welfare checks arrive, showing up at odd hours with hands out, asking for money, going to court and working out a settlement . . . or not, and then the sheriff and moving company walk in, empty the house of all items down to the ice cube trays, leaving a pile at the curb, or in storage where the tenants’ treasured belongings remain in rented storage space until redeemed, or more likely, until rent goes unpaid and the things are sold or discarded.
Landlords get tired—tired of handling evictions, tired of fixing broken plumbing and appliances. Tired of physically knocking on doors to collect rent. Tired of tenants who make empty promises to pay in full when their income tax refund comes in, or from money borrowed from a tapped out relative, or when they receive their welfare check. These promises are recycled in various forms at various times by various tenants trying to stay in their homes. Landlords hear them at the eviction hearing where the tenants try one last time to convince the landlords to give them more time.
The tenants are tired, too, and overwhelmed. Instead of fixing a constantly clogged kitchen sink, they just ignore it, throwing old clothes on the floor to soak up the overflow. They close the kitchen door and do dishes in the bathroom, until that sink clogs. The heat fails and they turn on stove burners. The toilet fails and they go in a bucket and empty it into the trash. The refrigerator fails and they live on McDonalds. When children’s services comes calling, they purchase cheap half-working appliances just to keep their children. Why do they do this? To avoid any contact with the landlord to whom they owe money. And no, this is not the heart of Appalachia, this is Milwaukee, Wisconsin a major metropolitan area.
In Milwaukee, as in every American city, we see families forced to endure sub-standard housing, living in shelters, searching for the elusive “home.” This book isn’t even about home ownership, but about the ability to have a safe and stable housing situation. Ownership is too far away from many people to be even a glimmer in their minds, but a safe and stable living situation is their desired goal. They scramble to find rent by begging, borrowing, and stealing, selling drugs, and even their own bodies. The author allows us to peer into their world and see “solutions” that are not working and the desperate search for housing.
I had never considered the author’s idea, statistically supported, that neighborhoods have a life of their own which can be fragile. We in the “burbs” enfold ourselves in subdivisions where houses and yards look similar and we have our “standards.” But inner city neighborhoods are formed from people who have a common interest. When people remain in a neighborhood and get to know their neighbors, they can band together for the safety of their homes and children. One man in the book was struggling to raise his two teenage sons in a stable environment. He was a double amputee but was unable to obtain Social Security disability payments. He survived on welfare payments, with next to nothing left over after his rent payment. Despite his circumstances, his place was where the neighborhood teenagers would come to hang out in safety, play cards, and talk about growing up. He was a stabilizing influence on his block. When people are shunted in and out of a neighborhood through eviction (or foreclosure) the neighborhoods become unstable and unsafe. Drug users and sellers move in, gangs are formed, and crimes increase. Stable neighborhoods, where people can move in and out freely and are not evicted or otherwise forced out of their homes, are safer and make the entire community safer. The author believes that decent housing should be a basic right afforded to all people for the common good.
The current system is broken. That’s clear. No one can survive in northern winters and no one should have to survive without a safe place to lay their heads. Landlords cannot give away rental property. They should and must make money from their investments. And tenants are not all the same. Some will treat property well and even improve its value. Others will allow their children to run wild, tattooing hardwood doors and trim with ball point pens, tearing doors from their hinges, smashing holes in the drywall. Discouraged tenants live in squalor and disgruntled landlords give up performing more than make-do repairs and just go after the money.
The solution offered by the author, vouchers or rent subsidies, does not currently work because landlords can and do raise the rent above what is customary in the locale simply because the voucher authority sets high rent caps. In many cases, access to vouchers are limited—many poor cannot get them and the program sets standards for the housing which might exceed a landlord’s improvement budget, especially in older homes. The author’s solution would require universal vouchers for every family below a certain income level, less onerous requirements for landlords to accept the vouchers, and a demand that all landlords accept vouchers. But who will fund this? It’s been successful in England and the Netherlands, but those are small countries. Is some legislator in the United States willing to try? Or could there be a better solution?
Something must be done. I’m almost persuaded to leave the rental market due to the stress of broken relationships and a trashed property that I put so much time, energy, and money into making beautiful and up to code. On the other hand, my erstwhile friend and her three children need a safe place to stay. Maybe the electric companies have the right solution. The poor can pay drastically lower utility bills through a program that gives them an incentive to make regular on-time payments. For each payment (at about 10% of income), the remainder of what they would owe each month is forgiven and they have a percentage of their payment applied to past debt. But how many of the poor keep up the utility payments? The utility company has an out. They can turn off their service. Landlords’ only recourse is to convince a defaulting tenant to move or to evict them. And there is no evidence that the utilities have success with their program. If someone will not pay rent for more than a few months, perhaps they will also stop paying for their utilities. Maybe we landlords can come up with something better for tenants who fall behind. I don’t know what that may be, but private solutions are often better than ones provided by the state. Just look at public housing.
This book was provided to me free for an unbiased review. I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.
Want to read more? For current information on the US rental market: http://www.jchs.harvard.edu/americas-rental-housing