In Evicted, Matthew Desmond takes a look at the Affordable Housing Crisis using Milwaukee, Wisconsin during 2008-2009 as a social laboratory to help describe the American experience of poverty during the Great Recession. Through the eyes of eight families in crisis, and the two landlords who rent to them, Desmond unfolds a piece of Americana that many would rather ignore. In the Prologue, Desmond describes this experience succinctly when he says:
“Low-income families have grown used to the rumble of moving trucks, the early morning knocks at the door, the belongings line the curb” (4).
Later, Desmond rightly identifies this as a justice issue when he notes:
“All this suffering is shameful and unnecessary. Because it is unnecessary, there is hope. These problems are neither intractable nor eternal” (299).
He challenges the status quo, and our decades long view that poverty is self-inflicted, by confronting directly our exploitation of the poor:
“If the poor pay more for their housing, food, durable goods, and credit, and if they get smaller returns on their educations and mortgages (if they get returns at all), then their incomes are even smaller than they appear. This is fundamentally unfair” (306).
Yet, though Desmond challenges our assumptions, he doesn’t put all the blame for this exploitation at the feet of the landlords. This is a systemic issue that must be corrected, allowing opportunity for the poor to live without systemic exploitation, while also allowing the landlords the opportunity to rightly pursue profit. Both have the inalienable rights of “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” but Desmond rightly recognizes that these rights require “a stable home” (300).
And Desmond offers one solution that he thinks will satisfy the needs of both landlords and tenants. Expand our current Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) programs into a Universal Housing Choice Voucher program.
Although he recognizes the possibility of other solutions, and has a healthy respect for the complexities of poverty and housing issues, Desmond’s housing-focused solution appears to me to be a bit naive. As someone who has worked for years with both the homeless and those at risk of homelessness, I know that a house, with the goal of ensuring it costs no more than 30% of an individual’s income, will not reduce the issues associated with poverty. There are multiple systemic and personal issues that are the cause.
However, a housing-first, asset-based solution, focused on expansive supportive services, almost always works. It provides housing stability, enables individuals to get the level of support they need to address the other issues that are contributing factors, while empowering them to overcome these challenges using their own skills and resources.
These challenges are also much more complex than the stereotypical families in crisis that Desmond portrays. There is often an assumption in America that the poor get what they deserve, because of the poor choices they have made. While Desmond vocally expresses disdain for this view, the families he chose to present us with almost reinforce this assumption.
I wish Mr. Desmond would have taken the time to find an individual or family who didn’t fit the stereotype, and tell their story as well. Some of the people I find on the street are experiencing severe homelessness for the first time in their lives. They are the aged, the sick, the handicapped, who have no remaining family and no support system to help them. Individuals who have suddenly found themselves on the streets due to circumstances beyond their control, who have fallen through the cracks, because there are no systemic supports in place to assist them.
They are being evicted at an alarming rate, because they have spent most of their lives on the edge of poverty, and as housing costs have continued to increase, their financial resources haven’t. The sad thing about reading this book, as one who works in the field, is recognizing that the Housing Crisis has only grown worse since Desmond did his research. His book is timely and relevant, and his considerations must be taken seriously. Otherwise, we will have failed as a nation if we refuse to address this issue. Ultimately, our great experiment in Democracy will have failed as well. Desmond rightly notes:
“Working on behalf of the common good is the engine of democracy, vital to our communities, cities, states–and, ultimately, the nation” (294).
This is a book that every thoughtful American should read (including many of our current political candidates). Desmond is to be commended for undertaking this work, and offering a solution to address these issues.