58 pages 1 hour read

Matthew Desmond

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2016

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Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City was published in 2016 and won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. It was written by Matthew Desmond, a tenured sociology professor at Princeton University. After the prologue “Cold City,” the book has three sections with eight chapters each: “Rent,” “Out,” and “After.” These are followed by the Epilogue, “Home and Hope,” and the final section, “About This Project.”

As an undergraduate at Arizona State University, Desmond became interested in the subject of eviction and discovered there were almost no wide-ranging studies or statistical data available. Subsequently, as a graduate sociology student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he decided to conduct his own ethnographic study. Throughout much of 2008 and 2009, he lived among poverty-stricken renters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, first on the predominately white South Side and then the black North Side. Desmond was interested, however, in more than just writing about poor people and the places they lived. He saw eviction being a product of the relationship between the rich and poor, and he decided to focus on both groups to discover how the eviction process played out in practice. 

To this end, Desmond spends a significant amount of time detailing two landlords: Sherrena Tarver and Tobin Charney, both of whom own rental property worth millions of dollars. Tarver, a younger black woman and former elementary school teacher who builds her own real estate empire from nothing, is the focus of much of the book. At first, she seems like an exemplar of the American Dream, someone who has pulled herself up by her own bootstraps. As the narrative progresses, however, readers discover she has forgone any semblance of morality or compassion as she extracts as much money as possible from both her tenants and her employees. At the same time, she has a pathological blindness to this and perpetually sees herself as a victim of malign forces surrounding her: tenants, building inspectors, employees, and the legal system. Charney—old, white, and taciturn—is less of a figure in the book. He is also driven by self-interest and a lack of empathy for his tenants. Ultimately, though, he comes across as being more honorable than Tarver, if only because he doesn’t pretend his tenants are anything more than a means to an end: money.  

Desmond follows a wide variety of poor renters to demonstrate the effects of poverty and eviction. Tarver’s North Side black tenants include Arleen Belle, a single mother perpetually undone by bad luck, and Crystal Mayberry, a volatile young woman with an IQ of 70. Other tenants of Tarver’s are Lamar Richards, a double amputee who’s always doing work for Tarver to catch up on his rent, but to no avail, and the Hinkston family, eight people crammed into a sad duplex they’ve christened “The Rathole” and which becomes more unlivable as the book progresses.

At Charney’s South Side and predominately-white trailer park, College Mobile Home Park, Pam Reinke and Ned Kroll and their four daughters are evicted early in the book. The same is true for Lorraine Warren, a fading beauty in her fifties who begs and cajoles for one place after another to live. Scott Bunker, a former nurse and drug addict in his late thirties, is the one person who, by the end of the book, seems to have escaped crushing poverty and the desperation it breeds.

There are many forces working against the tenants in the book. First and foremost are the landlords. Beyond that, though, assistance programs, the legal system, the eviction process, and the police all fail the poor. The toll is tremendous. It’s not just the big picture issues of crime and poverty, it’s also the individual prices these people and especially their children pay: the mother who tells her son their life is punishment for not having a home, the little boy who stoically observes his mother be sentenced to prison, and the woman who watches her drunken, racist boyfriend make her half-black daughters march around while chanting “White power!”

Most of the book is deliberately dispassionate, letting people’s stories, statistical data, and historical facts carry the weight of this examination of eviction. Aside for Bunker (and perhaps the Hinkstons), there are no happy endings, or even any real hope these people’s lives have changed for the better. In the Epilogue, however, Desmond finally tells readers what he thinks should be done about eviction and the effects it produces. First, safe and stable housing should be a right, not a privilege. Second, more pro bono legal resources should be made available to renters during eviction hearings. Third, the federally-funded housing voucher program must be expanded to all poor people. Fourth, rent and rent increases must be price-controlled.

Desmond recognizes there are two competing forces in the book: accumulation of wealth versus the right to a safe and stable home. For him, though, dealing with the economic and psychological suffering inflicted on the poor far outweighs the need to make money. Instead, he says what these people endure is not just wrong, it violates the values we collectively hold as Americans. 

Finally, in the last section, Desmond explains the impetus for the book: when he was an undergraduate, his parents’ house was repossessed. He decided to investigate poverty and eviction, especially as there were no comprehensive studies available. He made a conscious choice not to put himself in the book to allow the focus to be on the people in it. Desmond makes it clear, however, that the disheartening events he witnessed affected him at a deep level. At the same time, though, it was the small acts of human kindness and charity from the people he was studying that renewed his faith in the human spirit. 

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