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A New York Times Bestseller Winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction Winner of the Pen/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction Winner of The Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize Winner of the 2017 Hillman Prize for Book Journalism Winner of the Chicago Tribute Heartland Prize Named One of the Best Book of the Year by The New York Times Book Review * The Boston Globe * The Washington Post * NPR * Entertainment Weekly * The New Yorker * Bloomberg * Esquire * Buzzfeed * Fortune * San Francisco Chronicle * Milwaukee Journal Sentinel * St. Louis Post-Dispatch * Politico * The Week * Bookpage * Kirkus Reviews * Amazon * Barnes and Noble Review * Apple * Library Journal * Publishers Weekly * Booklist * Shelf AwarenessHarvard sociologist and MacArthur "Genius" Matthew Desmond follows eight families in Milwaukee as they struggle to keep a roof over their heads. Evicted transforms our understanding of poverty and economic exploitation while providing fresh ideas for solving one of 21st-century America's most devastating problems.
The following Questions are part of a Teacher's Guide written for Penguin Random House by Rachael Hudak. A short bio on Rachel can be found below:
1. Why was Arleen evicted from her apartment on Milwaukee’s near South Side? Were you surprised that her landlord made the decision to evict the family after the apartment door was damaged? Arleen later found an apartment where the rent, not including utilities, was 88% of her welfare check. How might a family like Arleen’s manage to cover rent, utilities, and all other expenses on such a small income? What kind of sacrifices do you think families in this situation must make in order to make ends meet?
2. Tenants are often given two options while being evicted from their residence—their possessions can be loaded into a truck and checked into bonded storage or movers can pile their belongings onto the sidewalk. What challenges and consequences may a tenant or family face when experiencing one of these two scenarios? If you were suddenly faced with the decision to move or store your possessions, which option would you choose?
3. Sherrena Tarver claimed to have found her calling as an inner-city entrepreneur, stating “The ’hood is good. There’s a lot of money there” (page 152). How did Sherrena profit from being a landlord in poor communities? Do you think her profits were justified? What responsibilities do landlords have when renting out their property? What risks do they take? Do you sympathize with Sherrena? Why or why not?
4. In Milwaukee, evictions spike in the summer and early fall and dip in November when the moratorium on winter utility disconnections begins. When tenants are unable to pay both the rent and the utilities, how might they make a decision about which expense to pay first? If you were forced to choose between paying rent or heat, which would you choose?
5. In an average month at the College Mobile Home Park, nearly 1/3 of tenants were behind on their rent. Why did park landlord Tobin Charney select a handful of tenants to evict each month? How did some tenants escape eviction? Tobin lived 70 miles away from the trailer park he owned. How might this kind of distance benefit a landlord? What problems might it create?
6. How did Tobin benefit from offering his tenants the “Handyman Special” (page 46)—giving families their trailers for free but charging them for lot rent? Why might tenants see this as a better deal than paying the equivalent in rent? How did the high demand for low-cost housing impact Tobin’s decisions about whether or not to repair property or forgive late payments? What incentives could be put in place to motivate landlords to maintain their properties? What risks do tenants take when filing a report with a building inspector?
7. Many Americans still believe that the typical low-income family lives in public housing. But only one in four families who qualify for housing assistance receive it. What challenges did Arleen face when trying to get approved for subsidized housing? Assistance programs in Milwaukee either require that tenants have dependent children or have experienced a sudden loss of income. How do these services assist people experiencing short-term crises but not those facing more serious long-term poverty? Are there other forms of housing assistance available to low-income individuals and families?
8. How does the process of screening tenants lead to a “geography of advantage and disadvantage” (page 89)? How can landlord decisions impact neighborhood characteristics like schools, crime rates, and levels of civic engagement? How can a criminal background or history of past evictions impact a person’s ability to rent property? Do you think a tenant should have to disclose this information? Why or why not?
9. Why do you think landlords like Sherrena rely so heavily on hiring tenants and jobless men to maintain their property? Do you think this affects the employment prospects for people in the neighborhood?
10. What benefits do landlords like Sherrena receive when they rent to tenants who have housing vouchers? Why do some tenants who spend more than 30% of their income on housing receive assistance while others do not? How do landlords like Sherrena and Tobin benefit financially from the Fair Market Rent set by the Department of Housing and Urban Development? How does this program bring large gains to landlords? How does it prevent gains in racial and economic integration?
11. Why do you think Crystal made the decision to let Arleen and her sons stay until they found another residence? How do tenants like Crystal and Arleen rely on friends and extended kin networks to get by? Does this do anything to lift them out of poverty or distress?
12. Desmond writes, “No one thought the poor more undeserving than the poor themselves” (page 180). How do you see this attitude reflected in residents of the trailer park? Do you see it reflected in Arleen’s actions?
13. What motivated Crystal to call 911 after hearing a domestic disturbance upstairs? How did this strain her relationship with her landlord, Sherrena? What risks do landlords incur once their property becomes a designated nuisance? Should landlords be penalized for their tenants’ behavior? Why or why not?
14. Crystal was diagnosed with a wide range of mental illnesses. What struggles did Crystal face throughout her search for stable housing? How might mental illness present additional challenges to a person already living in poverty? How might mental illness contribute to a person’s history of eviction? What protections do people with mental illnesses have?
15. Why do you think Larraine chose to spend all of her food stamps on expensive food like lobster and king crab? What personal reaction did you have to her decision? Do you agree with Pastor Daryl that Larraine is careless with her money because she is operating under a “poverty mentality”? Why might it be difficult for Larraine to lift herself out of poverty by practicing good behavior or self-control? What options do you believe Larraine has?
16. Landlords repeatedly turned down Pam and Ned’s rental applications because they have children. Why? Do you think families with children should receive any protection when seeking housing? Why do you think families with children were not considered a protected class when Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968? Do you think it is fair for landlords to charge tenants with children monthly surcharges and children-damage deposits? Why or why not?
17. Why did Doreen choose not to call Sherrena when the house was in desperate need of repair? Do you agree that “The house failed the tenants, and the tenants failed the house” (page 256)? What effects does living in a home that is not decent or functional have on a person’s psychological and emotional health?
18. Why did Vanetta participate in an armed robbery? Do you think the 81-month sentence Vanetta received was too harsh? Why or why not? What challenges do you think Vanetta will face while serving a 15-month prison sentence? What challenges will she face while serving 66 months on parole? Why do you think Vanetta’s public defender failed to mention that she was attending GED classes, providing childcare, and looking for housing every morning? How might that information have impacted her sentencing?
19. What challenges did Scott face while maintaining his sobriety? Do you think the process for Scott to get his nursing license back was reasonable? Why or why not? What relief did Scott receive after receiving subsidized housing and county-subsidized methadone treatment?
20. Arleen received 89 negative responses and one positive from prospective landlords. What impact did this have on her children, Jori and Jafaris? How do children expose families to eviction rather than shield them from it? What happened to Arleen when she was evicted from her apartment? After losing her possessions in storage and having her welfare case closed, what options did Arleen have?
21. If you were unexpectedly evicted from your home, what would the fallout be? How would this impact your education, employment, and relationships? How might a sudden change like eviction affect your physical and mental well-being?
22. Why do you think 90% of landlords are represented by attorneys in housing courts while 90% of tenants are not? What would you do if you were facing eviction and in need of legal assistance? Do you think attorneys should be provided to low-income tenants at no cost?
23. Why did Desmond believe it was important to live in the Milwaukee communities most affected by eviction? How did his presence impact the lives of his neighbors? How was his personal experience different from the experiences of the people he interviewed?
24. Why do you think there is so much research on public housing and other housing policies but very little research on the private rental market? What solutions to the lack of affordable housing does Desmond propose? Do you have other ideas for how this issue could be addressed in your community?(Questions issued by the publisher.)
Rachael Hudak is the author of several discussion guides, including Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. She currently serves as the Director of the Prison Education Program at New York University. She has led creative arts and meditation workshops in prisons and jails in Michigan, Illinois, and New York, and has worked on anti-violence initiatives throughout the United States. Rachael holds a BA in English Language and Literature from the University of Michigan.
March 02, 2016
In his newly released book Evicted, sociologist and 2016 MacArthur Fellow Matthew Desmond explores life for low-income renters and their landlords in two high-poverty Milwaukee communities. The book weaves together extensive data collection and fieldwork to add clarity about extreme housing instability, its causes and consequences, and the surprisingly interconnected relationships between America’s poor and their landlords.
We spoke with Desmond about his research and its implications for housing policy. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How Housing Matters: Do you have a sense from your work of how prevalent eviction is in the United States? Are there any national data sources for that?
Matthew Desmond: We need a lot more data on this. Right now, I’m working with a wonderful team here at Harvard to get that. And we’re trying to collect eviction records from every county in the United States, so we can really lock down the prevalence and location of eviction and start digging deeper into this problem on a national level. But we do have some data from, say, the American Housing Survey and other national surveys that include items about eviction. In 2013, renters in over 2.8 million households in the United States reported that it was likely that they would be evicted within the next couple of months. That’s not a perfect measure by any means, but I think it sends a very concerning signal about how widespread housing insecurity is among renters in the United States.
HHM: Housing costs are typically considered unaffordable if they exceed 30 percent of income, and severely unaffordable if they exceed 50 percent of income. Yet almost everybody in your book is at least at 70 percent or 80 percent of income going toward rent. You’ve got one case where there’s $28 left after paying the rent.
Do you think that the affordable housing community—advocates for affordable housing or antipoverty efforts—doesn’t grasp the severity of the issue despite working on it?
Desmond: I think that there is a reluctance to confront the severity of the problem because it’s hard to believe. The first time I crunched the eviction numbers for Milwaukee just using court records, I thought they were wrong, and I made the team do everything over again just to make sure we didn’t make a mistake.
It’s troubling when you’re looking at data, and the data are telling you one out of 14 renter-occupied households in inner-city, African American neighborhoods in the city of Milwaukee are evicted every year. It’s really hard to get your head around. Or when you crunch the data from the American Housing Survey, and you realize that 50 percent of poor renting families are paying at least 50 percent of their income on rent. It’s something that is hard to swallow. But when you start talking to families and interviewing people in eviction court and trying to get a sense of what’s going on for poor families in these communities, it’s a lived experience, it validates what we’re seeing in the national data.
HHM: What do you hope readers will do with this knowledge?
Desmond: I want people to remember people like Arleen, who is forced to choose between feeding her kids all that they need and paying rent. I want them to remember someone like Vanetta, who was put in this terrible situation—this desperate situation—where she committed an armed robbery, the first arrest and crime of her life, to avoid eviction and keep the lights on, keep her kids off the street. And I want them to meet and remember people like the Hinkstons, who are able to hold onto their housing, but because they’re in such a financially precarious situation, their children have to live with broken windows and stopped plumbing and these kinds of housing problems.
For me, this is a call to action. This is something that encourages us to recognize that we can’t fix poverty without fixing housing; that eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty; and that there are things that we can do within our collective reach to change it. These problems haven’t been with us forever, and they’re not necessary.
HHM: Can you say more about how eviction is a cause of poverty?
Desmond: When we started this project, I thought eviction was the consequence of other things, like losing your job or separating from your boyfriend or a divorce, a big medical expense. But what I quickly learned in the field was that if people are paying so much of their income for rent, it doesn’t take much to invite an eviction. It can be very little things that don’t have to do with rent, like having kids. Under those conditions, eviction is almost an inevitability—not the result of irresponsibility—for a lot of families.
Then I started following families that were evicted and seeing that eviction causes loss—not just a loss of their home, but you often lose your possessions because they’re taken to storage and you miss payments, or they’re put on the streets. The biggest eviction moving company in the city of Milwaukee told me that, for 70 percent of their eviction and foreclosure moves, the stuff just gets hauled to the dump.
People lose their communities. Kids lose their schools.
We know not only from my fieldwork but also from statistical data that evicted families move into poorer neighborhoods. They move into neighborhoods with higher crime rates. They also relocate to housing that has more housing problems. And this is because eviction comes with a record, and a lot of landlords refuse to take folks who have been evicted recently. A lot of public housing authorities also count the eviction record as a blemish against extending aid. So we’re in a situation where arguably, the families most in need of housing assistance—the evicted—are systematically denied it.
There are other consequences eviction has on people. We have really good data that shows that workers who are evicted are much more likely to lose their job the following year. The reason is because eviction is such a consuming, stressful, overwhelming experience, it can cause you to miss work, make mistakes on the job, and when you do relocate somewhere else, relocate further away from your work.
And there are consequences on your health, especially your mental health. For example, evicted mothers express higher rates of depressive symptoms two years after the event.
So you add all that up and look at the effect that eviction is having on people’s mental health or neighborhood quality or their housing quality or their access to housing assistance, their job security—it becomes very clear to me that eviction is causing poverty. It’s driving people deeper into poverty. It’s not just a result or a condition of poverty.
HHM: How connected are poverty, eviction, and prior adverse experiences?
Desmond: Poverty is rarely just poverty. It is compounded adversity. A lot of folks we meet in Evicted faced setbacks from early on. For Crystal, it started even before she was born. But for everyone in that book, the lack of affordable housing is central to their lives. So if you meet someone like Arleen, who is trying to raise two boys but spending 88 percent of her income on rent, or meet someone like Larraine, who’s a grandmother in the trailer park who has to choose between paying the rent or paying the gas bill—it became very clear to me how central housing is to the lives of the urban poor and how the lack of affordable housing is a wellspring for all sorts of other problems they face.
If we were able to offer more affordable housing and provide people with a shot at stability and decency, that would be a very sturdy foothold on the way toward more economic security and a massive anti-poverty measure. Obviously, we need an anti-poverty platform that addresses many problems—that addresses low wages, joblessness in the inner city and housing unaffordability. But housing has to be central to this.
HHM: What do we know about the costs of eviction compared with the costs of potentially preventing it?
Desmond: The face of the eviction epidemic in the United States belongs to mothers and children. Most homes evicted in Milwaukee have children living in them. The average age of the evicted child in Milwaukee is seven. This robs children of the security of a home, the ability to invest in their neighborhoods, to stay in school. And we pay for that as a nation both in financial terms but also in moral terms.
If it’s the case that eviction does have these sticky consequences on people’s lives, we pay for those, too. We pay for those in public health bills. We pay for those in terms of subsidizing folks when they lose their job. We pay for it in terms of providing public defenders when people do drastic things, like Vanetta did, to help stay in their homes.
We need a lot more research on this point, but I don’t think it’s a controversial one. We do know that, when families get housing vouchers, one of the first things they do is take their freed-up income to the grocery store and they buy more food. Their children become less anemic and stronger. But Arlene’s kids, Vanetta’s kids, they don’t get enough food because the rent eats first. And I think we pay for that too.
HHM: Some of the things that happened to the households that you followed are fair housing violations and code violations. But somehow just being illegal isn’t enough to protect these families. What do you think would be enough?
Desmond: One of the big realizations I had was that if you’re not able to pay your rent confidently in full every month, your legal protections go away. If you and I read the books, the laws of Milwaukee, we probably would say these are fair and reasonable. But if you’re someone like Arleen, who is paying 88 percent of your income to rent, there’s going to be a time that you need to ask for some compassion from your landlord and some help. And if you activate your rights and enter into more of an adversarial relationship with your landlord, it gets really risky for you.
A lot of tenants start out behind because they can’t pay the first month’s rent, last month’s rent, and security deposit when they move in. They start out owing a landlord. And this allows a landlord to get a little bit more flexibility on housing problems. There’s a scene in the book where a tenant whose landlord, Sherrena, was being flexible about past-due rent calls the city building inspector. Sherrena evicts her that evening. It was a retaliatory eviction, but on paper it’s for nonpayment of rent. Without addressing the underlying problem—the fact that so many people are giving so much of what they have for rent—legal protections aren’t going to be as effective, if they are effective at all.
HHM: In sharing the landlord stories in the book, you noted that rookie landlords hardened or quit. But there were also examples of landlords being quite sympathetic. A collaborative and compassionate relationship existed on one hand, while there was also a very natural business relationship that existed on the other. Were you more surprised by how hardened landlords could be or how sympathetic they were?
Desmond: What most surprised me about the landlords I spent time with was how much they knew about their tenants, how involved they were in their tenants’ lives, and how much control they had over those lives in a way. Sherrena was just so much more than a landlord to her tenants. She sometimes was a counselor. She sometimes was a police officer. She sometimes kept the boyfriend and girlfriend together or split them apart. She was a lot of things to her tenants. And so I think that’s the part that really surprised me.
We have a tendency to write about the poor as if they lived in isolation, as if they weren’t connected to the rest of the city. The inequality debate that we are having as a nation right now focuses a lot on the rich and the middle class, and much less on the poor. Focusing on tenants and landlords expands our vision and makes us come to realize that poverty is a relationship.
HHM: What changes do you believe the nation’s housing programs need to actually improve life for low-income Americans?
Desmond: Ultimately, the question of how to address this enormous problem comes down to a question about rights. Do we, as a nation, believe that access to stable, decent, affordable housing is a right? Is it part of what it means to be an American? If our answer is yes, then our response has to be something big enough to match the problem.
This rich nation can deliver on that right if we chose to. This is why I advocate at the end of the book for a universal voucher program. This is a vehicle other countries have used to institutionalize universal affordable housing. Study after study has shown that you can offer housing of equal quality for a lower price with vouchers than with public housing. Ultimately, addressing the scope of this problem is going to start not only with a debate about efficiency and policy design, but also a debate about what we as a country will tolerate and the level of poverty and suffering we will admit within our borders.
And then, cities are different, so what works for New York might not work in Houston. And the universal voucher program is one of many solutions that I think should be on the table. But when we are thinking about this and talking about this, scope and scale are central. We need a housing program for the unlucky majority.