Could public housing reform be the key to reducing poverty, crime, and other social issues in the United States?
In Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Harvard professor of social science Matthew Desmond makes a fascinating, heartbreaking, and compelling case, combining on-the-ground reporting with big data to examine the issues that low-income renters face, the practices of landlords who exploit tenants, and the judicial processes that allow such exploitation to continue.
Evicted succeeds thanks to Desmond’s devotion to his subject, as well as the complexity and balance of his arguments.
To conduct his research, Desmond lived in low-income communities in Milwaukee, first in a predominantly white trailer park and later in a predominantly African American rooming house in the inner city. After spending time with both landlords and tenants, Desmond needed more background information and statistics, so he organized a massive data-gathering effort, surveying thousands of renters and hundreds of landlords, as well as analyzing hundreds of thousands of documents, including eviction filings, police call logs, and public property records.
The extent of Desmond’s research is truly astonishing. More astonishing still is the fact that he’s able to condense all of his observations and data into a single nonfiction volume that is both unsettling and nearly impossible to put down.
Desmond’s challenge is to balance the personal stories of his subjects with statistics and context, placing individuals within a broader context of disturbing trends. He accomplishes this balance brilliantly, transitioning from novelistic depictions of tenants to brief overviews of history and stats statistics. He deftly connects the narratives of his subjects to the large-scale institutions and traditions which shape the lives of the impoverished in America.
In the chapter “Christmas in Room 400,” where landlord Sherrena and tenant Arleen go to housing court, Desmond begins with a specific situation, then provides a more general overview of how housing court works before circling back to Sherrena and Arlene. Alternating between statistics and narrative, Desmond reveals the systems that perpetuate poverty while conveying the human tragedies so often lost in other books that address economic concerns.
The system Desmond depicts pushes the impoverished (especially single mothers) into dangerous areas and inadequate housing. As Desmond explains, frequent forced moves create instability in the home and in the community, contributing to crime rates, poverty, and poor performance of children in school.
By improving access to safe, affordable housing, Desmond argues, the United States could address the many other social ills compounded by frequent evictions.
Desmond offers several viable options for correcting his concerns. Extending the right to counsel to housing court, for instance, or eliminating waste within the current housing voucher system and expanding that system to create a universal voucher system. Desmond withholds these solutions until the epilogue, keeping the main chapters of the book focused on the real-life individual experiences of his subjects and the supporting statistics.
In the “Epilogue: Home and Hope” and “About This Project” sections which conclude the book, Desmond explains his research strategies, suggests reforms, and explains his interactions with the subjects discussed in the text. In the rest of the book, Desmond is a third-person narrator, and never mentions his own role. But in these sections, he pulls back the curtain and demonstrates how personal and devastating the experience of creating this book was for him.
The final triumph of Evicted is that Desmond does not give those who might oppose him an easy way out. The stories in Evicted cannot be written off as anecdotal or incomplete. Desmond has done the leg work, the interviews, the research, and ultimately, he leaves the responsibility for action to us.
Note to our Chicago readers: Matthew Desmond will be in Chicago for readings and signings on Tuesday, March 15, including stops at Loyola (1pm) and Seminary Co-op (6pm).
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
Published March 1, 2016
Jessi Rae Morton is a writing and literature instructor in Charlotte, NC. She has written book reviews for the Chicago Review of Books and Appalachian Journal.