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Powerful true account of life in the inner city

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City - Matthew Desmond

Evicted, Matthew Desmond, author; Scott Aiello, narrator

Evicted is the story of the downtrodden. The book is set in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the inner city, but it could be “anyplace”, USA where poverty lives. The author is a sociologist who conceived of the idea to investigate the cause of the perpetual state of poverty, deprivation and instability in the lower economic classes of society, those defeated souls who never seem to get out from under their troubles. He wanted to find out the reason nothing ever improves. He used what he calls the participant/observer method. This narrator did a fine job, at times seeming more sincere and at others a bit mocking, depending on what was being described.

Desmond actually went into the inner city and into areas that the homeless and poor gravitated to in order to experience their way of life as an eyewitness. The people he encountered were from diverse backgrounds. He followed them around, living in their neighborhoods with them as he witnessed their lifestyles, their shame, joy, and humiliation, the upheavals they dealt with on an almost daily basis, and experienced with them, the court appearances and evictions that resulted in constant moves that disrupted not only their lives, but the lives of their children as schools, belongings and friendships were left behind. Because most of the evictees were single moms, with extended families and many children from different fathers, their suffering and the effects on their children were far greater than the effects on the men who often simply moved on alone, abandoning them. Desmond carefully considered the reasons for their poverty and the ways he believed could possibly solve the problems they faced.

Desmond actually lived in the trailer park he featured in the book and also roomed in a rooming house with the security officer from that trailer park that was owned by another of the “slum” lords (my term, not his), that he follows. One entrepreneur was Sherrena Tarver who works with her husband Quentin. Sherrena was a former teacher who decided there was more money to be made in renting apartments to the poor. She figured out how to game the system to buy properties cheaply and sell them for a profit as she charged high rents that allowed her to recoup her investments quickly, affording her a nice lifestyle while she often destroyed the lifestyles of others. It required taking advantage of the poor, but it didn’t seem to faze her or her husband in the least. The other landlord was Tobin Charney who owned more than 100 trailers in a run-down and poorly maintained trailer park. He was, at times, fairer to his tenants, but when someone reported him for an infraction, he turned against them all, hired a management company and stepped back. The management company was far colder in its handling of tenant needs and not as lenient when it came to forgiving tenant debts. Although the tenants were often mistreated, they often resented and mistreated the landlords, as well.

Most apartments and trailers were in a dilapidated condition which the landlord did not have to address, according to the law. They simply had to advise the tenant of the issues they would face in the rental unit. Then the tenant became responsible for doing the repairs and keeping up the place. They were also held to strict standards of behavior regarding calls to the police, fire departments and ambulance services. For some reason, those calls accrued costs to the landlords and were grounds for eviction under nuisance laws, even if the call was for a child suffering from an asthma attack.

Both Sherrena and Tobin took full advantage of every loophole forcing those least able to afford it, to suffer. Eventually, not only the landlords, but also the tenants learned how to game the system in order to survive another day. They lied, cheated and destroyed the properties since there was no way some of them could repair or maintain it. Sherrena seemed to blame the tenants for her own lack of maintenance and she got away with it. Tobin got away with selling the trailer and then renting the land for the same fee that most paid to rent the trailer. Then when he evicted the owner from the land, he got to keep the trailer and the money that was paid for the trailer. These owners could not afford to move the trailers, nor would their shabby condition have survived a move, anyway. There were so many unfair government regulations, but on the other side of the coin there were tenants who brought in undesirables who violated the rules, willfully or innocently, as they disturbed other renters or damaged the property. Friends and family often did drugs, had violent histories or were ex-convicts. They disturbed their neighbors, resulting in complaints and evictions. With an eviction or conviction on a renter’s record, finding another suitable place was almost impossible. They lost money and had little left for security on a new place. The landlord often kept their money for assorted reasons even after they threw out the tenant, even though they understood the hardship the tenant would now face. They felt betrayed by the tenant. In some cases it was legitimate and in some cases it was downright greedy and selfish on the part of the landlord, thus I used the term “slum lord”. Storage charges were exorbitant and if the tenant couldn’t afford the rent, it was highly unlikely that they would be able to afford storage fees. They often received short or no advance notice of an eviction or ignored the notices so that they had no arrangements to move out. Other times, they hoped for a miracle and made no arrangements. Then they lost everything, and ultimately they lost hope, as well. Desmond discovered that the rate of evictions among the poor and people of color was far greater than in areas populated by Caucasians. As a white man, he found that he was treated differently by the authorities, although, in some cases, the residents in the inner city seemed threatening to him, Still, there were no untoward issues in the end.

Desmond describes the voucher system which seemed to favor the landlord even as it helped the tenant. The landlord could charge higher rents because the rent fee was based on an average of rents for housing units in all areas, even higher income areas. Therefore they often gouged the tenants, charging higher than customary rents because the tenants did not have to pay more than 30% of their income. The rest was guaranteed by the government. This was a sweet deal for the landlord. They had a pretty guaranteed income. Eventually, though, both tenants and landlords abused that system as well. Desmond speaks of a voucher system that should be mandatory, one that he believed would bring about a positive change for those caught in the downward economic spiral. He believed if the rent charged was within the guidelines and the tenant could afford the required portion, then the landlord should have to rent the place to the tenant even if he preferred not to do so because of the ramifications that could arise from such a rental. He believed it would stop the discrimination against certain types of tenants. However, he fails to fully consider, I believe, that since the tenant lives in a economic bubble that is different from the other residents in the area, that tenant could not afford to shop in the stores or dress in the same way or be fully comfortable in that area. Adjustment would be difficult for all parties involved. Possibly, it represents discrimination toward those that have earned their place in an upper income community and places them and their minor children in unnecessary and unwarranted danger.

It is obvious that reform is definitely needed, but I felt that Desmond oversimplified the problem. He downplayed the danger that some of the people would introduce into the better neighborhoods because of their associates. Poorly educated, sometimes totally illiterate, sometimes with criminal records or addictions to drugs or alcohol, they could be considered undesirable neighbors who would bring in more undesirables into their midst. Also, while there are some in the system that do fall through the cracks and are definitely at a disadvantage and are abused, there are those who have a self-inflicted poverty from which they cannot escape.There is also a need for the reform of some government regulations. There should be court appointed attorneys to represent the evicted so that they are not at a disadvantage when they face the landlord. The landowners and property owners usually have lawyers, so often they win the case, even when it seems unjust. The decision is often capricious as it depends on the personal feelings of the judge as well as the law. There is not doubt that evictions are cruel. They perpetuate a bad situation, most often making it worse, but there also is no doubt that poor people often suffer because of their own irresponsible behavior. They don’t pay attention to rules and regulations. They disregard the notices they receive.

In poorer communities, the men and women seem to have children indiscriminately, before they can support them or care for them properly. Sometimes it is simply because they want a child t o love, other times it is because of sexual assault or abuse. Many men are guilty of impregnating several women and then failing to provide for those children and mothers that they create. Society needs to find a way to prevent so many young children from becoming mothers before they are mature enough to be mothers. Adults and children need to be better educated regarding the need for more responsible behavior. They need to understand that it is important to be able to take care of themselves without depending on public assistance. It may be politically incorrect to say that, but it is a fact that society cannot handle all of the poor that are poor because or their own behavior. Conditions, as they stand will perpetuate the poverty and hold the poor in position, regardless of race or religion or education. The poverty and hopelessness seems simply inevitable if the situation remains status quo.

Because there were so many characters involved with the families featured and the details about each came and went periodically, it was often very hard to identify and put that character into the right time and place as the author introduced or reintroduced them. The narrator did a fine job, but the task was daunting because of the number and diversity of characters and places.