Sometimes, particularly if you want to effect positive change, you just have to step outside your comfort zone—work or play, conversation or listening, reading or writing. Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Evicted” is definitely outside my comfort zone. For one thing, it’s nonfiction and I do not read a lot of nonfiction. But more importantly it is about the reality of difficult lives in a world we generally either do not or choose not to see.
In Evicted, Desmond explains the expanding societal consequences of housing insecurity. He teaches without preaching by describing the lives of various individuals and their families and the difficulties they encounter in paying for and maintaining housing.
Desmond tells the story of the evicted and their landlords. He focuses on a number of individuals experiencing housing insecurity, as well as a trailer park owned by Tobin Charney and on various units of substandard housing owned by Shereena Tarver. While telling the stories of the tenants and the landlords, Desmond also provides some statistical information. For instance, “Today the majority of poor renting families in America spend over half of their income on housing, and at least one in four dedicates over 70 percent to paying the rent and keeping the lights on.”
Tobin’s trailer park was extremely poorly maintained and as a result, in May of 2008, all five members of Milwaukee’s Licenses Committee had refused to renew Tobin’s license to operate the trailer park. For instance, one of the alderman “pointed to the 70 code violations that Neighborhood Services had documented in the past two years. He brought up the 260 police calls made from the trailer park in the past year alone. He said the park was a haven for drugs, prostitution and violence. He observed that an unconnected plumbing system had recently caused raw sewage to bubble up and spread under ten mobile homes. The License Committee now considered the trailer park an ‘environmental hazard’”
Those of us who live in secure and pleasant environments might think that having government focus on the blight of the trailer park would be a relief to the residents, but in fact, the reaction Desmond describes is just the opposite. Instead, they feared being evicted and being forced into homelessness or to move into areas they considered even less desirable. And the landlord? Well, he took the governmental inspection as an opportunity to evict “troublemakers”. “When city or state officials pressured landlords…landlords often passed the pressure on to their tenants. There was also the matter of reestablishing control. The most effective way to assert, or reassert, ownership of land was to force people from it.”
Shereena, the other landlord in the book, owned numerous substandard housing units. Desmond focuses on a few of the tenants who lived in Shereena’s properties. Arleen, a single mother who was living on $7,536 a year, ran into trouble paying her rent when she helped pay for the funeral of a close friend. In addition, the government reduced her monthly welfare payments because she missed an appointment with her welfare caseworker. Shereena ends up evicting her and her two sons when she is unable to come up with $650 in back rent. The book follows Arleen and her housing challenges, pointing out the very real consequences of housing instability in Arleen’s story. Arleen’s sons had to continuously change schools, the neighborhoods she moved in and out of became less stable and more transitional, and any effort Arleen could have put into looking for work or improving her health was used up finding and maintaining housing.
One of the truly horrifying experiences in the book involves a tenant by the name of Lamar. Lamar had two sons living with him and his apartment was where the neighborhood kids gathered after school. Lamar had no legs. Lamar fell behind in his rent and his experience with Shareena showed her initial empathy and ultimate antipathy toward her tenants. “When Lamar first fell behind, Shereena didn’t reach automatically for the eviction notice… She hemmed and hawed. ‘I’m gonna have a hard time doing this.’” Lamar tried to work off the debt he owed by painting one of Shereena’s units. “Lamar scooted along the floor, lifted his brush. As the morning wore on, he began sweating and breathing heavily. He grunted and prayed for strength.” Shereena evicted him.
When one of Shereena’s units burned down and a baby died, what was Shereena’s reaction? “‘The only positive thing I can say is happening out of all of this is that I may get a huge chunk of money.” Shereena did get a “chunk of money” from the insurance proceeds, which she used to buy more units. In the end, for the landlords, it is always and only about the money.
Throughout the book we learn that tenants get evicted for complaining about conditions, for calling the police for help, and for having children. Once a tenant is evicted it gets even harder to find housing. Most renters are unable to obtain government housing or assistance as those programs are very limited. They find shelter in substandard housing, without appliances and often without adequate plumbing or heat.
Matthew Desmond came to Cleveland as part of One Community Reads. All residents of Cuyahoga County were invited to read the book, participate in a variety of book discussions and listen to Mr. Desmond at the State Theater. Desmond presented potential solutions, but of course those solutions require some sacrifice, causing those of us who are fortunate enough to live in comfortable circumstances to wonder how far we might be willing to go to help. It was altogether a moving and inspirational experience.
If you are up to the challenge of reading this book you can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.