Food, clothing and shelter occupy the bottom floor of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Housing is basic to our being—a human right. Yet among low-income families, eviction has become a way of life. A lack of livable wage, addictions, financial mismanagement, personal crises, profiteering landlords, rising housing costs are among some of the causes for evictions. And this all compounds bad circumstances making it difficult for people to find other adequate—livable AND affordable housing.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond follows the experiences of eight families who are evicted from their homes. Desmond is the John Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University and the co-director of the Justice and Poverty Project. For this project, Desmond conducted Ethnographic research by living as a tenant in College Mobile Home Park, a trailer park on the south-side of Milwaukee before relocating to an apartment building in the north-side’s inner city. In both cases, he shadowed landlords and property managers as they maintained property and handed out evictions. He befriended the people whose stories he shares.
This is an important book, but it isn’t an easy one to read. It is heartbreaking. Desmond tells the story of people at their most vulnerable, and things often go from bad to worse. Mounting bills and an eviction notice have a way of making it difficult for people to pull themselves back up.
Desmond highlights the difficulties faced by low-income families, though he sees this project as contributing to “a robust sociology of housing”:
We need a robust sociology of housing that reaches beyond a narrow focus on policy and public housing. We need a new sociology of displacement that documents the prevalence, causes and consequences of eviction. And perhaps most important we need a committed sociology of inequality that includes a serious study of exploitation and extractive markets. (335).
Desmond doesn’t make the evicted out to be saints nor demonize their landlords. Sometimes the evictee’s own behavior (i.e. failure to pay, addictive behavior, etc.) led to their eviction. Sometimes their landlords tried to work with tenants and gave them plenty of chances. What Desmond does call attention to here, is to a system that values profit over people and the effect this has on the most vulnerable. People who get evicted have no network of people who are willing and able to help. Not family, not the government, not church.
Most of this book is descriptive, not prescriptive, though Desmond does suggest federal aid for low-income housing via a voucher system in his epilogue. Whether you find this solution compelling, this book is a good window into what challenges poor people face in this country. I give it four stars.
Note: I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.