Photo: Michael Kienitz
The government has been telling people that the economy has been making a steady but slow recovery from the Great Recession nine years ago. During most months over the past few years, the unemployment rate has suggested a rosy picture of job growth. GDP has slowly improved. The housing market has heated up. The Federal Reserve shows enough cautious confidence in economic growth that it has raised interest rates once and plans to do it again soon.
But for many people, the story of an improved economy may as well be a fairy tale. According to the Pew Research Center, for the first time in more than four decades, the middle class now consists of less than 50 percent of the American population. In 2015, 20 percent of American adults are in the lowest income tier, up from 16 percent in 1971, living at or below the poverty line.
Many people who have lost their jobs and have exhausted their unemployment benefits (often referred to as the “uncounted” in the distorted unemployment statistics) are forced to settle for low paying jobs, many without benefits. Others have simply given up looking for work.
On top of all this, many people are still losing their homes. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 17.7 out of every 10,000 people were homeless in 2015. The Alliance reports that the number of households paying more than 50 percent of their income toward housing rose to 6.6 million in 2014—a 2.1 percent increase from 2013.
Harvard sociology professor Matthew Desmond has brought to light one of the most alarming and least talked about signs that many Americans are suffering economic hardship in his recently released book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.”
“Evicted” focuses on poverty and inequality in the United States through the eyes of eight low-income families and a couple of landlords in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
This is more than a thoroughly researched study of the plight of housing for the poor; it is a compelling, vivid inside look into a sad, difficult world typically shoved out of the sight and minds of most Americans.
“We in America haven’t invested in decent, affordable housing for low-income families,” said Desmond, who points out that evictions, which were once a rarity, are now “acute.”
Desmond has spent eight years looking at the many different aspects of evictions.
It’s a subject that is also personal. Money was tight in his own family growing up. His dad was a pastor and his mom worked a variety of jobs to help bring in money. It was during his college days at Arizona State University that his family in Winslow, Arizona lost their home to foreclosure.
Desmond writes of his family’s hardship, “I remember being deeply sad and embarrassed. I didn’t know how to make sense of it.”
He continues in the book about coping with his family’s eviction: “Once back on campus, I found myself spending weekends helping my girlfriend build houses with Habitat for Humanity.”
Desmond also spent time with people in the Tempe’s Mill Avenue area. There, he met homeless people from many walks of life.
It was during his graduate school days at the University of Wisconsin, Madison that Desmond’s attention turned to research to find the link between housing and poverty.
Desmond searched for studies on evictions in our society. He wanted to know the demographics of eviction, the frequency and the consequences. He was also interested in what poor people were doing without when they had to spend so much money on housing. He did not find any related studies.
As part of his dissertation fieldwork, he moved right into the heart of poverty in Milwaukee in 2008, living first in a trailer park and then later in a rooming house. He lived among those suffering economic and emotional hardship, struggling to get enough money to pay for food, clothing and a place to live.
He discovered that poverty is a relationship “involving poor and rich people alike,” he writes. “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. Eviction was such a process.”
Many people facing eviction, Desmond said, spend 70 to 80 percent of their income for “homes not fit for human habitation.”
Desmond found that the median monthly household income of tenants experiencing eviction in Milwaukee was $935. The rent money owed by those facing eviction was “about that much.”
According to Desmond, one in eight renters experience at least one forced move. In Milwaukee, 16,000 adults and children are evicted each year. He reports that 16 families are evicted through court proceedings daily.
Among the people we meet in “Evicted” are Lamar and his sons. Lamar is a double-amputee, having lost his legs to frostbite while living as a homeless crack addict. As a recovering addict, he lived in a two-bedroom apartment that had “maggots sprouting from unwashed dishes in the sink.”
Lamar’s income doing handyman jobs was $628 a month, $550 of which was needed to pay his rent. That left $2.19 a day for everything else his family needed to survive. Ultimately, like all the other tenants in this book, Lamar and his sons were evicted.
We also meet Crystal, a young, manic-depressive, evangelical Christian who turned to prostitution as a way to earn money to live.
Arlene is a mother of two children who is struggling to provide for her family on $20 a month after rent. Her two sons are among the multitude of children suffering from the devastating effects of living in substandard housing and the transient, unstable life that eviction creates.
“Eviction creates deep and jagged scars to the next generation,” said Desmond. “It affects their opportunity to create meaningful relationships with peers and teachers.”
Desmond also writes about a 54-year-old woman named Larraine. She spent a month’s worth of food stamps on a meal of lobster tails, shrimp, crab, pie and Pepsi. At first, Desmond questioned why she would do that. He reasoned, “There was no amount of skimping and squandering that is going to get herself above the poverty line.”
Desmond noted, “We don’t live on bread alone—nor should we expect poor people to do that.” Larraine was trying to treat herself as middle-class and affluent people treat themselves.
He added, “It is not spending that makes her poor. It is poverty that makes her sometimes throw money away.”
Once someone is living below the poverty line, many people feel there is very little amount of hope or help to get out, and the system typically perpetuates rather than helps solve the problem.
Desmond also spent time with Scott, who was a nurse until his opioid addiction cost him his license and eviction. Unlike the others Desmond writes about, Scott was one of the fortunate ones who put his life back together. He found sobriety and permanent housing and returned to nursing with his reinstated license.
Desmond also takes us to another side of the story—the world of the landlords.
Sherrena Tarver is a former school teacher who turned slumlord as a means to make a lot of money. At times, she shows understanding and sympathy for her struggling tenants. At other times, she is ruthless, evicting Arleen and her sons a couple of days before Christmas.
“Love doesn’t pay bills,” Tarver said.
Another landlord is Tobin Charney, owner of a rundown trailer park—one of the worst in Milwaukee. As with Sherrena, he can, at times, be sympathetic, but at other times, he can be merciless.
Desmond writes about how some landlords choose and deny tenants. For example, some landlords do not like children living in their units. Children make noise and lead to concerns about lead poisoning. Landlords don’t want to draw attention to the horrid conditions they pass off as livable.
The temptation is to cast landlords as the evil, greedy villains. Desmond said that would be a simplification, pointing out the complexities of the landlord–tenant relationship.
These families and the landlords are a microcosm of life situations played out in cities and towns around the country. Desmond writes, “This study takes place in the heart of a major American city, not in an isolated Polish village or a brambly Montana town or on the moon.”
Desmond’s work on the poverty and housing problem is not done. More eviction data is needed from across the country. We need to see “just how big a problem this is,” he said.
“The number of evictions in Milwaukee is equivalent to the number in other cities and the people summoned to housing court in Milwaukee looks a lot like those summoned in Charleston and Brooklyn.” It’s not just a growing problem in the United States; it also exists in cities such as London and Berlin.
Boston, which has the fourth highest rents in the country, is certainly not immune to evictions. According to rentjungle.com, the average rent for a one bedroom apartment in Boston is $2,287 per month. For a two-bedroom apartment, it’s $2,815 per month as of February. Cambridge’s rents average 7.49 percent higher than those in Boston.
Using the formula of a 28 percent rent-to-income ratio, a household needs an annual income of $120,900 to afford rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Boston. Almost half the residents of Boston make less than $35,000 a year.
According to Project Hope, in 2011, 5,197 cases were brought before the Boston Housing Court. Of those cases, 2,970 (57%) involved subsidized tenancies, of which 1,075 (36%) resulted in evictions.
To help understand and resolve the eviction problem, Desmond feels we need to look at what cities do right and what needs to change. This is an ongoing process.
According to Desmond in his book, “Whatever our way out of this mess, one thing is certain—this degree of inequality, this withdrawal of opportunity, this cold denial of basic need, this endorsement of pointless suffering—by no American value is this situation justified. 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.”
“We have a long ways to go,” said Desmond. “We make slow leaps to equality.”
For more information, visit justshelter.org, a website created by Matthew Desmond and Tessa Lowinske Desmond “to raise awareness of the human cost of the lack of affordable housing in America and to amplify the work of community organizations working to preserve affordable housing, prevent eviction and reduce family homelessness.”
Matthew Desmond is a John L. Loeb associate professor of social sciences and co-director of the Justice and Poverty Project.