Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

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Cite as follows: McLaughlin, Elizabeth (2016). Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond (New York: Crown Publishers, 2013). [Book Review]. Journal of Christian Teaching Practice   [Total Pages: 148] [a publication of the Christianity and Communication Studies Network, www.theccsn.com, copyright 2016]

By Elizabeth W. McLaughlin, Bethel College, Indiana; elizabeth.mclaughlin@bethelcollege.edu

Poverty: say the word and many stereotypic media images appear: hunger, violence, subpar schools, welfare, gangs, violence, drugs … broken families and communities. Liberal and conservative pundits alike offer political solutions to address American poverty from bigger government, job training, to personal responsibility. In Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016), Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond challenges the stock answers by poignantly describing eviction as the major cause for dehumanizing poverty among the poorest of the urban poor. Focusing on the stories of eight families living in Milwaukee, WI, Desmond puts a human face on this personal devastation through maticulous ethnographic fieldwork.

Desmond explores communication and complex relationships in a culture of extreme poverty and scarcity. He also examines the damage done to individuals and struggling families at the hand of landlords and the systems that hold power in society. For communication students and scholars, this book illustrates that ethnographic research can make a difference in people’s lives, and it chronicles how poverty impacts interpersonal, familial, and community relationships. Furthermore, the book encourages empathy and a calling for Christians to respond with compassion and wisdom to the complex issues of the poor.

The book is divided into three parts, entitled: “Rent,” “Out,” and “After,” featuring eight chapters for each part. Chapters profile the stories and relationships of the real people caught in the spiral of poverty. The first section, “Rent,” profiles landlords who seek to maximize their rent profits, while their tenants spend 70 to 80% of their incomes to keep a roof over their heads. Owners work the larger system of courts, social service agencies, and governmental departments to maintain the money flow. If a tenant dares to report a problem to the housing commission that requires an inspection, landlords regularly evict tenants, who are usually behind on their rent.

Also in “Rent,” we meet landlords like Sherrena and Quentin, and Tobin Charney (pseudonyms), who profit from several of the profiled families. Entrepreneurs Sherrena and Quentin own and manage 36 units that they acquired over several years. All these units in a primarily African American neighborhood. As married partners, she handles the relationships with the tenants and the city while he takes care of the “messes.” Tobin owns 131 units in a rundown trailer park. While he does not live there, Tobin visits most every day.  Each landlord’s tenants, chronically behind in rent, live in the shadowed threat of eviction. The rising rents mean that residents spend the majority of their meager income for housing, while the remaining ten to twenty percent pays for food, clothing, utilities and life’s emergencies.

Interpersonal relationships between the landlords and renters are complicated. On the surface, these relationships can be friendly; however, the ultimate currency is rent money. While the owners may empathize with the circumstances of their poorer renters, they continually work a precarious balance between mercy and justice. Sherrena, for example, likes her tenant Lamar, a disabled man with no legs who cares for the neighborhood boys. Nevertheless, she evicts Lamar. “I love Lamar. But love don’t pay the bills,” she laments.  Tobin, in turn, employs “Office Susie,” who knows when each tenant receives a check in the mail so she could keep them honest about paying the rent.  While Tobin tries to understand his late paying renters, he often has to evict them. He “starts a conversation” by rapping on their doors until he receives some payment.

One example highlights the co-dependency and manipulation present in these interpersonal relationships. Arleen, a single mother, moves into Sherrena’s dilapidated duplex with her sons, Jori (14) and Jafaris (kindergarten), after a referral from a local social service agency that paid the security deposit and the first month’s rent. As this family settles in, they try to make the apartment home. Arleen’s history includes failed relationships with the men who fathered her children, as well as a bad choice to give up a subsidized apartment.

After fixing up the apartment and missing a couple of rent checks, Arleen makes a verbal agreement with Sherrena to pay $650 to make up for a family member’s funeral expenses and back rent. When this does not happen, Sherrena starts eviction proceedings against Arleen near Christmas. The complexity of this relationship is evident in the courtroom. While the vast majority of renters do not show up for court, Arleen and Sherrena sit together. They each speak to the judge. Sherrena keeps adding charges and late penalties to the bill and is in a bad mood after a long day in court with other evictions. When Arleen admits that she was late on her rent, the judge gives her until January 1 to vacate. After that, the sheriff and moving men will remove the family and their belonging. If the sheriff becomes involved, Arleen will have to choose to have her family’s belongings stored in a warehouse for $50 per month, or else have it all dumped into the street. After the eviction proceedings, Sherrena offers Arleen a ride home from court. Arleen accepts. Throughout the book, Desmond highlights such strange, interpersonal dynamics formed in the face of poverty.

While the book contains personal narratives of courage and suffering, Desmond also explores the larger issues impacting his subjects. The perfect storm of societal, economic and public policy trends feed upon and hinder the poor. Understaffed police departments, Child Protective Services (CPS), the courts, welfare reform, low pay jobs, unemployment, addiction, incarceration, mountains of paperwork, and survival mentality—all work against individuals, families and community. For every eviction, there is also correlating job loss, health issues, school interruption, depression, hunger, and credit rating penalty. These layers of loss discourage and inhibit Desmond’s subjects at nearly every turn.

For Christian communication scholars and students, Evicted offers a case history of compelling ethnographic research: both for the quality and complexity of the work and the potential to bring reform, not only to the system but to the researcher as well. The author offers some proposed solutions including expansion of a national housing voucher program. However, part of the daring of the book is Desmond’s “About this project” section. “Ethnography,” says, Desmond, “is what you do when you try to understand people by allowing their lives to mold your own as fully and genuinely as possible […] following them over a long stretch of time” (317-318). To this end, Desmond lived in the same housing projects as his subjects. He was able to “meet dozens of people, pick up on rumors … and observe everyday life all hours of the day” (318).

While Desmond acts as a participant-observer, he is open about his own experience and standpoint. Having his parents evicted from their home when he was in college, Desmond studied poverty during his undergraduate and graduate education, determining that he wanted to approach the study of privation from the perspective of relationships:

Poverty was a relationship, I thought, involving poor and rich people alike. To understand poverty, I needed to understand that relationship. This sent me searching for a process that bound poor and rich people together in mutual dependence and struggle.  (317)

In Tobin’s trailer park, Desmond became part of the community. People were eager to share their lives and stories. When he moved into one of Sherrena’s rooming houses, he found her to be an eager informant about her life as a landlord. His fellow residents took care of him making sure that he was not being ripped off. In contrast, Arleen was slower to open up as she suspected that Desmond might be a spy from CPS. In a similar act of suspicion, his trailer park friends expressed concern for his safety moving into the predominantly African-American north side. He also noted his white privilege in interactions with police officers, landlords who discriminated against those seeking an apartment, and other officials. His whiteness remained an issue until he went from “novelty to perpetual foreigner” (323).

Christians paying attention to Evicted and its call for change must heed Desmond’s closing words: “I have been blessed by countless acts of generosity from the people I met in Milwaukee. Each one reminds me how gracefully they refuse to be reduced to their hardships. Poverty has not prevailed against their deep humanity” (336).  Their deep humanity is the image of God in us all.

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