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It is a common condition of being poor…you are always afraid that the good things in your life are temporary, that someone can take them away, because you have no power beyond your own brute strength to stop them.’ — Rick Bragg Evicted, by Matthew Desmond, profiles landlords and several families in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in their efforts to avoid and cope with intergenerational poverty and the vicious cycle of eviction. Desmond effectively depicts how housing is an integral part for the formation and continuation of poverty.
The tenants about whom he writes, are all living in extreme poverty and constant fear of eviction for their inability to pay the rent. While on the other hand, the landlords are collecting considerable wealth by renting often overpriced and uninhabitable residences to poverty-stricken families. Evictions are scenes of devastation.
Families are forced to leave their belongings on the side of the street, abandon their homes, all under observation from the neighborhood and gun-wielding sheriffs.
There’s a sense of surrealism at the scenes of an eviction. Families are brutally faced with the realities of their poverty and the homelessness that looms before them. The majority of the public today thinks that low-income Americans typically live in public housing or benefit from government assistance. Evicted demonstrates that quite the opposite is true, as the vast majority of the poor live unassisted in private market housing. Rather than write a data heavy, scholarly journal on the issue of eviction, Desmond moved to Milwaukee to experience how people are living on the brink of financial devastation with constant threats of eviction.
Milwaukee is a mid-size metropolitan area with typical socioeconomic stratification and housing market.
That is to say, Milwaukee is not unique. The hardships that these eight families are going through in Evicted can be found in cities across the United States. The generalizability of the stories in this book is alarming. There are plenty of profiting landlords like Shereena and Tobin, and there’s an overwhelming number of poor households like Arleen and Vanetta. One in five of all renting families in the country spend at least half of their income on housing, and one in four pays over 70% of their income in rent and utilities. These statistics show the pervasiveness of the vicious cycle of perpetual poverty. Landlords evict roughly 16,000 children and adults every year in Milwaukee, reaching about 40 people every single day. Desmond narratively shows us how poverty in the United States is a lucrative, immoral business that preys off the poor. Evicted depicts the relationship between the poor and the non-poor that is central for the creation and maintenance of inequality in our country today. Evicted expertly depicts the facade of the American Dream.
Historically, people have flocked to America as a safe haven for opportunity and freedom, yet this book demonstrates how this is unachievable for those living in poverty. Solutions depend on the question of whether we as a national people believe that the right to a decent home is part of being an American and living the American Dream. A home should be a safe place that provides the foundation for growth, happiness, and opportunity. The fact that such a large number of Americans cannot afford to own a home is disturbing. Eviction is a cause and not just a condition of poverty. Eviction leads to a loss of a home and possessions, loss of employment, and being denied future government housing assistance. The label of eviction lasts a lifetime and can haunt families as they search for future housing and assistance. This can lead to relocation in poor and dangerous neighborhoods, with increased likelihood of violence, depression, illness, and homelessness.
Without a stable home life, someone is statistically less likely to pursue higher education, maintain steady employment, devote enough time and resources to their children, and are much more likely to experience psychological disorders of depression and anxiety. Similarly, children living in unstable homes often have developmental or emotional problems, do poorly in school, and are more likely to participate in criminal activity or drug use. Eviction is statistically an urban, low income, maternal issue, with long term negative consequences for the mothers’ economic and mental well being. Home in this context isn’t just a roof over your head, but a place of shelter where one can focus on more than just basic, survival needs. Home is a sanctuary; it’s a respite from the chaos of the world, and it is the only place where one can truly feel safe. A noteworthy theme of Evicted was the burden of children. It seemed that one of the worst choices a poor person could do is to have children. Landlords discriminate against kids for being noisy, destructive, and often the reason that authorities are called to a property.
After Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968, landlords were able to actively discriminate against families with children as it did not protect them as a federally vulnerable class. Years later, laws were enacted to outlaw housing discrimination against children, but families with children were still turned away in almost seven out of ten housing applications. Children are also scarred from the process of eviction itself. They are transferred from one under-resourced school to another, lose treasured possessions and pets, live in unhealthy environments, and are often exposed to homelessness, drugs and violence. The reader has to witness Jori go from a kind, protective older brother, to an angry, hostile kid who is falling majorly behind in school and frequent to violent outbursts. The chronic stress that children living in poverty experience is associated with major, detrimental long term consequences. Large families with children are risk factors themselves for eviction, and not just because they are extra mouths to feed.
Desmond’s book clearly shows the failings of our current systems of government assistance for the poor, and the ways in which the government programs harm the citizens they intend to serve. He goes into great detail about how evictions influence many areas of an individual’s life. The available support systems in our country are not adequate to help those trapped in the system of poverty. Desmond believes that the nation has a responsibility to address this problem as the number of evictions and those living in poverty rise. A clear example of this problem is the nuisance ordinance that make landlords responsible if emergency services are repeatedly called to their property. It might initially seem beneficial in its attempts to prevent crime, decrease residential disruptions, and decrease police burdens by placing the responsibility on the landlords. Although in reality, this burden in placed on the tenants who risk eviction if they call emergency services or if their homes are declared “nuisance properties”. This decentivazation for contacting emergency services is seen in the extreme situations such as Jafaris’ asthma attacks or Trisha’s domestic abuse. Both events resulted in their eviction by the landlords.
Additionally, programs like government funded housing programs tend to exclude those who need it the most. Those with previous evictions get rejected for assistance, often resulting in homelessness or a continuation of their perpetual poverty. Disturbing enough, 67 percent or 2 out of every 3 poor renting families receive no federal assistance. There is a drastic shortcoming in government support which is an underlying reason that so many families have to spend most of their income on housing. As the affordable housing crisis grows, more and more Americans are beginning to be swallowed up by rent, driving them to the brink of financial ruin. The uniqueness of Evicted continues with its portrayal of the landlord.
I found the landlord’s perspective to be one of the most intriguing aspects of the book. Often categorizing themselves as a “special breed”, landlords argue that they are also just trying to make a living. It should be noted that average landlord makes a substantial amount of money by taking advantage of the struggling renters, sometimes nearly 55 times the annual income of their tenants receiving welfare. These are people profiting from a very vulnerable population. Many will find it hard to ever sympathize with landlords as they continuously abuse the system, overlook dangerous and substandard living spaces, use racist and sexist methods in rental opportunities, and unapologetically put families out on the street.
Although, I also argue that the blatant abuses of the poor by landlords, is a reflection of the failures of our federal government. Landlords are able to rent units that do not meet property code, which is legal in Milwaukee, as long as their desperate tenants are told in advanced. They can deny tenants basic appliances which the law also somehow permits, not just in Wisconsin but in many other states. We have two opposing forces of the American Dream: the freedom to make as much money as possible or the freedom to supply American citizens with safe and affordable housing. This is a complex issue with a common underlying theme; exploitation within the housing market relies on government support. It is necessary for us to expose the inefficiencies that emerge when policymakers try to help poor families without realizing the root causes of their poverty. We’ve made a lot of progress about the creation of housing in the past years, but now it is an issue of affordability and habitability.
Evicted can be appreciated by a wide variety of individuals. Those with stable housing, must realize the privilege and necessity of having a home. Shelter should be an unalienable right for Americans, instead it has become a privilege. On the other hand, people who are similar to the families depicted in the book, could find reassurance in a common plight. The alienation, crumbling communities, and mental despair depicted in Evicted represents the prevailing and increasingly common issue that affects millions in the United States. There is hope that through giving poverty a human face, the issues of extreme poverty and the lack of affordable housing will become a serious public concern in our country. Desmond predominantly avoids specific policy mechanism but argues for the creation of a universal housing voucher program for the families living below a certain income level.
After a point in this story, the reader begins to wonder that if the failures of our nation could ever be fixed. We read over and over about the perpetual suffering and hardships that poor people face, until a point of emotional burnout. So what’s the story about, I would be asked, and as words failed to encompass this massive realm of poverty and misfortune, I’d reply: “They’re just fucked.” As vulgarly benign as that may sound, this is over 300 pages of narrative accounts of people experiencing constant hardships, drug addiction, homelessness, the loss of children, and the inability to have a real home.
To that end, Desmond’s story should not be a discouragement but instead a wake up call for the concerning need for change in our country. As incarceration is seemingly a African American male problem, eviction is proving to be the affliction of the African American woman. If we keep denying people the right to a proper home, then we should reconsider our ideals as a country. Evicted serves as a warning to what happens when a developed society refuses to recognize the fundamental human right to shelter. It transforms our understanding of the difficulties of extreme poverty and the exploitation of our poor, while still providing possible solutions for solving this devastating and uniquely American dilemma.
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