Evicted | Matthew Desmond

Summary of: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
By: Matthew Desmond


In the eye-opening book ‘Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City’ by Matthew Desmond, the author delves into the dark reality of evictions and their profound impact on families and communities across the United States. The summary explores the reasons behind the increasing frequency of evictions, from rising rent costs and diminishing incomes to the scarcity of public housing assistance. It also highlights the racial divide in the housing market, specifically focusing on the disproportionate impact on African-American communities, particularly women. As we navigate through the lives of those affected, we come to understand the long-lasting mental and emotional toll evictions can have on individuals.

Evictions: America’s Unseen Crisis

Imagine walking by a house, only to witness a family’s possessions scattered on the front lawn, the aftermath of an eviction. Unfortunately, this sight is increasingly common in the United States, with millions potentially facing homelessness due to difficulties paying rent. Many might assume that public housing or assistance would be readily available to low-income families, but the truth is that only a quarter of eligible recipients actually receive any support.

Determining the exact number of evictions remains a challenge, as census data often overlooks a significant portion of cases that don’t make it through the official housing court system. Take Milwaukee, for example: over three years, an estimated one-eighth of the city’s tenants experienced eviction. Back in 2012, New York City saw almost 80 eviction cases daily, and that same year, one out of nine Cleveland renters and one in 14 Chicago tenants received eviction summons.

However, the current housing crisis in the United States wasn’t always this severe. While the struggle to pay rent has long been a challenge, landlords rarely resorted to evictions in the past, even during the Great Depression. In the 1930s and 40s, evictions led to widespread community resistance and public condemnation of the landlord. A notable example occurred in February 1932, when a landlord attempted to evict three Bronx families, sparking protests by over a thousand outraged citizens – with only the freezing temperatures preventing an even larger turnout.

The growing prevalence of evictions in America raises critical questions about the state of the nation’s housing crisis, income inequality, and the need to provide adequate support for vulnerable citizens. As this wave of evictions swells, communities and policymakers alike must confront these challenges head-on and find solutions to safeguard the well-being of millions.

Evictions Rise Amidst Unbalanced Income

The increasing frequency of evictions can be attributed to the widening gap between rent costs and household incomes. Studies show that between 2001 and 2014, rents rose by 7% while incomes declined by 9%. A comfortable living standard suggests spending no more than 30% of income on rent, but census data reveals that most low-income households spend over half of their income on rent, with some spending up to 70%. This leaves many struggling to afford basic necessities and resorting to selling food stamps or relying on neighbors. America’s dwindling manufacturing jobs contribute to this issue, particularly in cities like Milwaukee. The resulting high unemployment rate among African-American families and atrophy of welfare benefits make it increasingly difficult for households to maintain rent payments, increasing eviction rates. A legless veteran named Lamar serves as a case study of this issue; an unexpected welfare check forced him to repay the state, causing him to fall behind on rent and eventually face eviction.

The Eviction Economy

Living under the threat of eviction can lead to a life full of worry and hazardous living conditions. Sherrena Tarver, a profit-driven landlady, and Tobin Charney, a trailer owner in Milwaukee, exploit this vulnerability to line their pockets while their tenants struggle to make ends meet. In this state of powerlessness, tenants are often too afraid to complain or ask for better conditions, leaving them at the mercy of their money-hungry landlords.

When you’re indebted to your landlord, mere survival becomes a challenge. This anxiety-ridden existence is often accompanied by poor living standards, as desperate tenants fear that voicing concerns may lead to eviction. These concerns are valid, as there are landlords like Sherrena Tarver who prioritize profits over the safety of their tenants.

Tarver’s rental property caught fire, tragically killing one of her tenant’s babies. Her first worry was not about the well-being of her tenant, but rather if she was financially or legally liable. Luckily for her, the fire inspector absolved Tarver of responsibility. The landlady’s next worry was whether or not she’d be required to refund that month’s rent. Again, she was relieved when she wasn’t required to pay back a single dime.

Tarver and another landlord, Tobin Charney, have mastered the art of profiting from vulnerable tenants by exploiting the threat of eviction. Charney, a property mogul in Milwaukee, earns $400,000 annually from his 131 trailer homes, some of which resemble garden sheds. In contrast, Tarver’s multiple properties enable her to enjoy vacations in Jamaica and drive a luxury SUV. Meanwhile, their tenants can hardly afford to buy food after covering rent.

Residents often go without decent living conditions as little money is spent on property maintenance and repairs. Lacking legal representation and constantly fearing eviction, tenants feel powerless to challenge unjust rent increases or push for better conditions. In this unjust cycle, landlords like Tarver and Charney continue to thrive financially, while their tenants remain trapped.

Milwaukee’s Racial Housing Divide

The racial divide in Milwaukee’s housing market is shockingly evident, with African Americans facing extreme exploitation. A disproportionate 75% of tenants summoned to housing court are black, and they often have no choice but to accept substandard housing in dangerous neighborhoods. The greatest fear for low-income white residents in trailer parks is being pushed into impoverished black communities. Black women are especially disadvantaged, with one in five facing eviction compared to one in 12 for Hispanic women and one in 15 for white women. This can largely be attributed to lower wages, single parenthood, and discriminatory practices that force single mothers to rent inadequate apartments. Despite the introduction of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, these vulnerable families still face daunting challenges in fighting housing discrimination.

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