Read it and weep. You’ll find it hard not to. Written by a Harvard sociologist, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City has the character development and dramatic drive of a first-rate novel. The core of Desmond’s study was conducted in Milwaukee from 2008 to 2009 and focuses on the day-to-day agonies of specific people who were frequently evicted from their homes by private landlords. In most cases, rent took from 50 to 70 percent of the tenants’ monthly income, a situation that made late payment or non-payment inevitable—and always reason to evict.
What makes Matthew Desmond’s account so compelling is that he lived among the people whose travails he chronicles. Some of the victims—mostly black and often women with children—lived in the inner city; the others, overwhelmingly white, lived in a dilapidated trailer park on the edge of town. He also spent time with landlords to get their sides of the story.
Again and again we witness the tenants’ last-minute attempts to find rent money, negotiating with their landlords, sitting helplessly in court as judges rule against them, watching their possessions being tossed onto the sidewalk and explaining to their kids why they’re moving to yet another school. Desmond is clearly sympathetic, but he is no sentimentalist. He reveals all the blemishes of the dispossessed—their unwise ways with money, addiction to drugs and alcohol and casual attitudes toward birth control. Still, he knows that poverty seldom builds character.
Desmond argues that government-subsidized housing vouchers should be available to low-income families and that landlords should be required to accept them. “Decent, affordable housing should be a basic right for everybody in this country,” he concludes. “The reason is simple: without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.”