Book Review: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Civic’s is the study of citizenry, its burdens and responsibilities as well as it’s privileges. It’s more than whether or not you happen to vote in every election cycle or accept the call for jury duty. It’s about whether or not you’d want to live in the society that you’ve helped to create; and if you were born tomorrow, into the lower classes, would you be quite so sure that America is the land of opportunity?
It takes a certain cupidity to make a living off of the poorest among us. And tenants are far too often forced to trade in their dignity, and a lot of times, even their own children’s health, just for a roof over their heads. But no one should be forced into that kind of situation and no one else should be allowed to profit from it.
But this is America. A nation where the poor are constantly exposed to evidence of their own irrelevance. And it’s a nation where we allow landlords to have far too much discretion over peoples lives. And it’s also a nation that has continually overlooked a very important fact that landlords never have: that there is a lot of money to be made off of the poor.
However, what if the dominant discourse on poverty is wrong? What if the problem isn’t that poor people have bad morals or that they’re lazy and impulsive and irresponsible and have no family values or that they lack the skills and smarts to fit in with our lustrous 21st-century economy? These are some of the questions at the heart of Evicted, which is an extraordinary ethnographic study of tenants in low-income housing in the deindustrialised middle-sized city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Sociologist, Matthew Desmond, spent around eighteen months embedded inside several poor communities, in and around Milwaukee, documenting housing insecurity firsthand and chronicling the seemingly never-ending despair that comes along with being poor in the world’s richest nation.
Of the individuals profiled some are married, some are cohabitating, some are single. Some are Black, some are White. Some are racists. Some are addicted to opioids. Some are abusive and some are abused. Some are mothers and some are fathers. Some are poor decision-makers. Some are old. Some are young. However, it’s only after you begin reading, that you soon realize that the main condition holding all of them back, is rent.
It turns out that people’s basic needs can be satisfied very cheaply when you don’t have a landlord to support and landlords have become punitively expensive to maintain. A simple story can tell us all we need to know about the gluttony of landlords. Say your landlord sees one of his other tenants waiting for UPS to deliver a computer for his daughter. The landlord chuckles to himself, “I got ’em. The rent’s going up . . . I don’t care. He can move.” Being able to raise rents simply because you think your tenant can pay more and you know they won’t just find another place without incurring additional expense, is what economists call “economic rents.” Or what regular people call “exploitation.” And landlords have always had a class interest in maintaining certain types of exploitation, encasing social inequality firmly in stone as a result. And in my not so irreverent opinion, viewed from an historical perspective, a landlord is simply a romantic who might as well be wearing a cod piece and tights. (See: We Don't Call Them Tenants For Nothing).
Parts of the book did seem to exercise an honest effort in casting landlords in a compassionate, understanding light, if only to maintain a certain level of journalistic integrity. But, if this was indeed the authors aim, it has failed to take hold of me. I am still very much a Maoist with regard to my opinion of landlords. However, I will say that it is true, that not everyone who owns an apartment building is necessarily wealthy themselves. They’re just wealthier than the people living inside them.
But, what stood out to me the most in the book, was the way in which landlords were allowed to rent units with numerous property code violations, and units that did not even meet “basic habitability requirements,” as long as they were up front about the problems. Causing a reasonable person to immediately ask, why would a landlord choose to rent a residence in such horrible disrepair? Because they can. And because poor people need to be reminded that they are poor. Making Desmond’s landlords come to seem like low-wage employers, and the case for rent control come to resemble the new case for minimum wage.
Nevertheless, for every ten people outraged by Desmond’s book, there will be at least one asshole, who sees himself as some future real estate entrepreneur, that will be offended at the suggestion that landlords shouldn’t make stacks of cash off of the poor. It’s a pretty contentious issue, even though it unquestionably shouldn’t be. Presumably because there is still such a disparity in where and how people live. Juxtaposed with a culture where homelessness is not only treated as “normal” but at the same time boasts an overwhelming contempt for anyone living in poverty.
In spite of this, I can only suggest that everyone read this book for themselves and then dole out blame as they see fit. But keep in mind, assigning blame is always going to be reactionary. The proactive takeaway, however, is this: we have a serious problem in this country with regard to inequality and housing insecurity, and it will take a revolutionary, likely socialistic approach to fix it. Because even though this book is set in Milwaukee, it tells a uniquely American story. As Desmond writes, “Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.” And if you're not angry about any of this, then you’re not paying attention. Because we, meaning all of us, have a moral obligation to help solve the problem.