Seeking distraction one winter afternoon, a Milwaukee boy takes to some old-fashioned mischief and hurls snowballs at passing cars. A driver gives chase and kicks in the door of the house where the boy lives with his mother and younger brother. The landlord puts the family out. Thus begins an odyssey that in Matthew Desmond’s gripping and important book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, exposes the harrowing world of the ten million or so low-income households that pay half or more of their income for rent and utilities, a long-overlooked population whose numbers have recently soared.
The mother, Arleen, finds a house she likes, and it consumes only 84 percent of her cash income. But the city condemns it. So she moves the teen, Jori, and his brother, Jafiris, to a place she calls “Crack Head City” and then to a duplex where the rent, $550 a month, requires 88 percent of her income. She falls behind and gets evicted two days before Christmas, but the new tenant lets her stay until she finds a place. Living with a stranger causes friction, and Arleen calls ninety landlords before finding a place, from which she is again evicted. The situation worsens. She and the boys double up with a neighbor who is turning tricks. They rent a place where they are robbed at gunpoint. When Arleen’s next apartment takes 96 percent of her welfare check, she can’t keep the lights on. Her worst fear comes to pass: child welfare takes the kids.
Evicted tells this and other disturbing stories in spellbinding detail in service of two main points. One is that growing numbers of low-income households pay crushing shares of their incomes for shelter—50 percent, 60 percent, 70 percent, and more—leaving inadequate sums for items as basic as medicine and food. Their numbers were rising for decades but soared to record levels during the Great Recession. The book’s second point is that the evictions aren’t just a consequence of poverty but also a cause. Evictions make kids change schools and cost adults their jobs. They undermine neighborhoods, force desperate families into worse housing, and leave lasting emotional scars. Yet they have been an afterthought, if that, in discussions of poverty.
Desmond, a Harvard sociologist, cites plenty of statistics but it’s his ethnographic gift that lends the work such force. He’s one of a rare academic breed: a poverty expert who engages with the poor. His portraits are vivid and unsettling. Crystal, who takes in Arleen, had parents on crack and got passed around to two dozen foster homes. She ends up homeless and prostituting herself, but never misses church. Pam has “a midwestern twang and a face cut from a high school yearbook photo.” But she is so desperate for housing that she tolerates a racist boyfriend who makes her biracial daughters chant “White power!” It’s not easy to show desperate people using drugs or selling sex and still convey their courage and dignity. Evicted pulls it off.
It is odd that the shortage of low-income housing gets little attention, even among experts on the left. Decent affordable shelter is a primal human need, and its disappearance is one of the most troubling results of growing inequality. Housing patterns shape more visible issues like schools, jobs, and crime. What’s more, the affordability crisis, though worst at the bottom, is creeping well into the lower middle class. Perhaps the democratizing of shelter poverty will broaden public concern.
A major point to keep in mind is that the US spends huge sums to subsidize housing for people who are well-off (through the mortgage interest deduction and other tax breaks) while most poor renters get nothing: only one of four low-income households that qualify for assistance gets it. Desmond’s solution—give all eligible households a voucher, creating a right to housing—has little active support, even from liberals. But a major study released last summer showed that vouchers, under the right circumstances, can dramatically improve children’s prospects of breaking out of poverty. Evicted doesn’t cinch the case for a universal voucher; it does capture the perversity of the status quo and invite alternate proposals.
Desmond launched his research in 2008, as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, when he moved into a trailer park on Milwaukee’s south side, looking for people with eviction notices. The park was in the news because an alderman, incensed at crime and code violations, was threatening to have it closed. Raw sewage bubbled up beneath some of the trailers, and Desmond rarely had hot water despite identifying himself as a writer studying the park’s condition. The landlord, Tobin Charney, “a hard man with squinting eyes,” won a reprieve in part by having sympathetic tenants tell TV crews that closing the park would leave them homeless. Then he evicted some of them.
Desmond, who is white, moved across the residentially segregated city to the black ghetto on the near north side. His landlord, Sherrena Tarver (all the names are pseudonyms), was a hard-charging woman who once taught fourth grade. She was eager to show him “what landlords had to go through” and complained about “these low-quality people.” Desmond tracked eight families from both sides of town, and conducted two surveys, of 1,100 Milwaukee tenants and 250 people summoned to housing court. With visits to landlord meetings and rides with eviction crews, the book captures what could be called the Eviction Industrial Complex.
Part of the message is that evictions are much more common than previously thought. Desmond’s survey found that more than one in eight Milwaukee renters faced a forced move in the course of three years. That includes all involuntary moves, such as those resulting from building condemnations, and is roughly three times the comparable estimate found in census data. Desmond says that the official data undercount the large volume of informal evictions that occur outside of court.
The numbers sound extraordinary but not in light of the shelter burdens that low-income households carry. The government says that rent and utilities are affordable if they consume no more than 30 percent of a household’s income. Analyzing census data, Desmond finds that the majority of poor households pay over 50 percent of their income for shelter and more than a quarter pay over 70 percent. Among the tenants in housing court, a third spend at least 80 percent. Evicted’s families double up with strangers, sell food stamps, and pirate electricity but inevitably fall behind.
Evictions are brutal. Desmond watches as an armed deputy knocks and a mother pleads vainly for time. The mover says she can pay to store her possessions or have them left on the street. She can’t afford storage. “Curbside service, baby!” the mover tells the crew. Three children watch their mother pace. “Her face had that look,” Desmond writes. “The movers and the deputies knew it well. It was the look of someone realizing that her family would be homeless in a matter of hours.” One woman from the trailer park spent $1,000 on the storage bills but fell behind and lost her belongings anyway. About 70 percent of evicted tenants who opt for storage do. A week earlier, a man asked the deputy for a private moment, then shot himself in the head.
Evictions destabilize neighborhoods. The more people come and go, the less chance there is for cohesion. A case in point is the Hinkston family—Doreen, four kids, and three grandkids—who were neighborhood fixtures on a block where they lived for seven years. Doreen was a porch sitter who knew everyone and kept her eyes on the street. When an eviction notice forced them to move in a hurry, they quickly settled for a run-down house on a block where they knew no one and kept inside. “With Doreen’s eviction, Thirty-Second Street lost a steadying presence,” Desmond writes, “but Wright Street didn’t gain one.” Evictions often generate two moves—a rush that often ends in a hellhole and an effort to climb out of it.
Worse, evictions destabilize people. Jori, the snowball thrower, went to five different schools in seventh and eighth grades, “when he went at all.” He once missed seventeen consecutive days. The disruptions cause workers to get fired. Letters sent to wrong addresses cause people to miss appointments and lose public aid. Evictions mar the tenants’ records, making it harder to get housing assistance or rent private apartments. The effects are enduring, as measured by incidents like hunger or lost utilities. “The year after eviction, families experience 20 percent higher levels of material hardships than similar families who were not evicted,” Desmond writes. He continues:
Then there is the toll eviction takes on a person’s spirit…. One in two recently evicted mothers reports multiple symptoms of clinical depression, double the rates of similar mothers who were not forced from their homes. Even after years pass, evicted mothers are less happy, energetic, and optimistic than their peers.
Eviction isn’t just another hardship, Desmond argues, but a detour onto a much harder path—“a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.”
The landlords in Evicted hold all the cards. Technically, they can’t retaliate against tenants who complain of stopped-up toilets or broken windows. But they can evict anyone who fails to pay the rent, regardless of the housing conditions. The result is a kind of devil’s pact. “Tenants who fell behind either had to accept unpleasant, degrading, and sometimes dangerous housing conditions or be evicted,” Desmond writes. When cases go to court, tenants rarely win. About 70 percent of them don’t even appear. They can’t miss work or find child care or stomach the humiliation. The sound of eviction court is the call of a name, “a pause, and three loud thumps of the stamp.”
When one of Sherrena Tarver’s houses catches fire, a baby dies. There were supposed to be smoke detectors in the bedroom, but the firemen didn’t hear them. Sherrena fears she’s at risk. “I thought we had put some smoke detectors up there,” she says. “I can’t remember right now.” The baby’s mother, Kamala, is one of her former students. When the fire inspector calls the next day and tells Sherrena she’s off the hook, she has one question: Does she have to return Kamala’s rent?
The answer is no. And she doesn’t.
The struggle to pay the rent may sound like a problem the poor have always faced. It’s not. Into the 1970s, low-income housing, though often squalid, generally didn’t squeeze budgets. The wind whipped through the tar-paper shacks, but the shacks were abundant and cheap. Demolition and gentrification claimed the cheap units, and sputtering incomes swelled the number of needy renters. In 1970, the US had nearly a million more affordable units than poor households, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Two decades later, the situation had reversed: there were five million more poor households than affordable units. Housing was better but cost a lot more.
The severe recession that began in December 2007 delivered a double whammy. Foreclosures turned millions of homeowners into renters, which kept rents rising even as incomes fell. Between 2001 and 2014, real rents rose 7 percent, according to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, while renters’ incomes fell 9 percent. As a result, the number of households paying more than 30 percent of their income for shelter rose to a record 21.3 million—about one in six nationwide. And the number paying more than half their income rose even faster, to 11.4 million, from 7.5 million. Among them, 30 percent had a full-time worker.
For the poorest families, the chances of finding affordable shelter are virtually nil. But the squeeze is on higher up. Even among households earning between $30,000 and $45,000 a year—clerks, cooks, or low-level medical technicians, for example—nearly half pay more than the 30 percent the government says they can afford. Of them, 10 percent devote at least half their income to shelter. This may seem like a problem mostly confined to big cities. But places with cheaper housing generally pay lower wages, which offsets the benefits. High-cost New York City and low-cost McAllen, Texas, are two places the Harvard center identifies as especially hard to afford. To pay for what the federal government says a modest two-bedroom apartment should cost in a mid-priced state like Florida, a full-time worker has to earn $19.47 an hour. As the National Low Income Housing Coalition notes, that’s more than twice the minimum wage.
Belts can tighten only so far. A household with an income of $15,000 that pays 70 percent for shelter has about $12.50 a day left over for everything else—food, health care, clothing, furniture, transportation, and the like. Even if you assume that poor people underreport their income, as they generally do, something’s got to give. Often it’s food, since unlike rent, meals can be skipped without the sheriff being summoned. The Harvard center found that low-income households with severe rent burdens spent 38 percent less on food than similar households with affordable shelter, 55 percent less on health care, and 60 percent less on transportation.
Why are rents so high? Desmond points to exploitative landlords and their ability to “charge as much as they want.” But owners don’t charge what they want. They charge what the market will bear. The big problem is that it costs more to build even modest housing than millions of households can pay, whether the builder is greedy or not. That’s partly because restrictive zoning and overzealous building codes drive up the price. But it’s mostly because of the inherent cost of the basics: land, interest, materials, utilities. As a rule of thumb nationwide, even an efficient nonprofit developer can’t build an apartment affordable to a household making less than about $32,000 a year. That leaves out nearly a third of American households.
Housing aid helps fill the gap. If tenants are lucky enough to receive it, they pay 30 percent of their income for shelter, and the government pays the rest up to a modest local cap. But only a quarter of the households that are poor enough to qualify get it. The rest face long waits and many never get help. Desmond would expand the program so that everyone who qualifies gets it—making housing aid an entitlement instead of a lottery.
Leave aside the question of what this would cost. A more interesting question is how much would the needy benefit and in what way: would affordable housing simply make life more humane or would it lead to more upward mobility? Desmond argues the latter. “A universal voucher program would change the face of poverty in this country,” he writes.
Evictions would plummet and become rare occurrences. Homelessness would almost disappear. Families would immediately feel the income gains and be able to buy enough food, invest in themselves and their children through schooling or job training, and start modest savings.
Unfortunately, there’s room for doubt about this mobility thesis, even in the stories Desmond tells. Rent burdens compound his characters’ problems, but the issues run much deeper. A number are addicted to drugs. Others are mentally or physically impaired. Many failed to finish high school. One got pregnant at fourteen. It’s reasonable to hope that helping adults get a place to stay will at least help their children advance, but the evidence is thin.
A study last year by Brian A. Jacob of the University of Michigan, Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago, and Max Kapustin examined precisely that question. In 1997, the Chicago Housing Authority held a lottery; 18,000 households got vouchers and tens of thousands of virtually identical households did not. The study found that vouchers “had little if any impact on the education, crime, or health outcomes” of children. (Vouchers also reduced the amount their parents worked.) That still leaves a case for vouchers, but it’s a simpler case than promoting upward mobility: poor adults and their children should suffer less. There’s a floor beneath which no one should fall. A safety net that lets three quarters of the needy slip through simply isn’t a safety net.
At the same time, we may not yet know how much vouchers can achieve. Evicted seems to have been completed before a major study last August bolstered the case for improved mobility. It involved Moving to Opportunity, a famous housing experiment from the 1990s, which gave vouchers to several thousand families on the condition that they use them to move from high-poverty neighborhoods to areas less poor, presumably with more jobs and better schools. Hopes ran high, but for years the results were disappointing. The adults’ mental health and safety improved, but their earnings and employment didn’t, and their children fared no better in school. The teenage boys who moved had more delinquency problems than those who stayed behind.
The new study (by Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, and Lawrence F. Katz, all of Harvard) examined the long-term outcomes for younger kids, who had more time to benefit from the new neighborhood.1 On average, they were eight when they moved. By their twenties, they earned about a third more than those who stayed behind, and they were a third more likely to attend college. Over their lifetime, they stood to earn an additional $300,000. The girls’ chances of becoming single mothers fell by 26 percent.
These are huge gains by the standards of experimental programs—the social policy equivalent of a moonshot. The researchers don’t know why, especially since in the medium term the kids did no better in school. One theory for the gains generally is that better neighborhoods offer more second chances. But the crucial change was getting away from very poor neighborhoods.
If the results can be replicated, the issue becomes scale. It’s not clear how many poor people are willing to move to an unfamiliar place—about half of those offered the vouchers didn’t go—or how the new areas would react. In Baltimore, one of the five Moving to Opportunity sites, even a small-scale effort ignited a huge backlash. The potential for demagoguery is great, especially in a demagogic age. Then again, suburbs are more diverse now. Katz argues that the requisite amount of income-mixing would take America back to the patterns of the 1970s, a significant change but not wild-eyed social engineering. Even getting halfway there might dramatically improve millions of lives.
Poor people can be remarkably generous. The evicted in Evicted turn to half-strangers, and the strangers take them in. A neighbor houses Pam in the trailer park; Crystal shelters Arleen in the ghetto. When Crystal and a friend spy a boy eating table scraps at McDonald’s they pool coins to buy him a meal, even though they are homeless themselves.
In the 1970s, the anthropologist Carol Stack famously described the inner city as a giant favor bank. Poor women formed networks of real and fictive kin and dispensed aid—cigarettes, babysitting, a spare room—knowing they could later claim help in return. They formed their own safety net. Desmond argues that deepening destitution has made those networks harder to sustain. With family less willing or able to help, the destitute turn to strangers and a succession of “disposable ties.” They turn to each other and on each other.
When Arleen gets evicted before Christmas, she doesn’t even ask her siblings for help. They are too poor. An aunt could step in, but Arleen is saving that call for a worse emergency. So when the new tenant offers to let Arleen stay, Arleen hugs her and accepts before learning her name. Crystal has motives for keeping Arleen around. She needs furniture, and having just aged out of foster care she wants a mother figure.
Instant intimacy yields to screaming matches. During their first fight—after Arleen’s son Jori calls Crystal a “bitch”—Crystal, who speaks in tongues, says that the Holy Ghost has told her to relent and not put the family out. During the second fight Arleen comes unglued and resists Crystal’s efforts to calm her.
“You don’t know what it’s like to have your father molest you and your mother not care about it!” Arleen screams.
“Yes I do!” Crystal says. “I know exactly what that’s like ’cause my stepfather molested me when I was just a little girl, and that’s why they sent me to the foster care…. You’ve been molested? I’ve been molested too.”
The exchange ends with another hug, which becomes a prelude to another fight. When Arleen finally leaves, she tells Jori to grab the cheap adapter she bought for the gas line. This would disable the stove. Crystal becomes furious, and they go from confidantes to combatants with startling ferocity. “Stankin’ ass bitch!” Arleen screams. Crystal throws their stuff all over the yard, Jori smashes Crystal’s TV, and his little brother hits her with a shower rod. Crystal takes up with other strangers and the pattern repeats: “Make a friend, use a friend, lose a friend,” often violently.
Evicted doesn’t dwell on it, but the talk of molestation is revealing. No fewer than four characters disclose that they were victims of childhood sexual abuse. The issue doesn’t get much attention in discussions of chronic poverty. But in my own interviews with women on welfare, I’ve found that they mention it with dismaying frequency.2 Women who were raped or molested as children are more likely to suffer from depression, drug addiction, or domestic violence—all of which interfere with education and employment and drive up poverty rates. It is to Desmond’s credit that he highlights the trauma; it also shows that the problems he’s conveying go well beyond housing costs.
The children in Evicted have hellish lives. “Tell us about the time that Dad hit you with a bottle and blood was coming out of your head,” a six-year-old girl asks her mother. Even at four, one of the chronically homeless boys seems “finished with childhood.” He refuses to hold his mother’s hand or sing in preschool. When she faces possible jail time for committing armed robbery, she brings him to court with orders to be stoic “if they give Momma the punishment.” The mother cries over her fifteen-month sentence, but the boy “stared back stone-faced, strong, just like his momma had taught him.”
Desmond notes only in passing that Milwaukee, the city he concentrates on, has been widely celebrated for “ending welfare”—slashing the rolls with time limits and work requirements—a strategy that some officials would apply to the rest of the safety net. That he finds so much misery suggests the verdict of success needs revisiting.
One especially haunting moment involves Jori, Arleen’s fourteen-year-old, who is less a child than his mother’s would-be protector. “If Arleen needed to smile, Jori would steal for her,” Desmond writes. “If she was disrespected, he would fight for her.” But he can’t protect her, and she can’t protect him, which leaves them bottled up with anger. The one source of innocence in Jori’s life is a kitten, named Little, who pounces on shoelaces and slurps ramen noodles and makes him laugh. When Jori is evicted, he entrusts the kitten to a neighbor and returns to find him crushed by a car. There happens to be a mannequin lying around, and Jori kneels over it. “He hit the face with a closed fist. He kept hitting it. Soon he was grunting, and his punches flew faster and harder and louder.” Arlene, shaken, screams at him to stop.
In an afterword, Desmond explains that his own family lost his childhood home to foreclosure about the time he left for college. He says that researching the book “left me depressed for years.” But Evicted isn’t a depressing book. It is also a stirring reminder that the US accepts as ordinary a depth of poverty that is extraordinary and cruel. At its heart is a simple message: “No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching, can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become.”
March 10, 2016
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See “The Effects of Exposure to Better Neighborhoods on Children: New Evidence from the Moving to Opportunity Experiment,” available at scholar.harvard.edu. ↩
See Jason DeParle, “Early Sex Abuse Hinders Many Women on Welfare,” The New York Times, November 28, 1999. ↩