I was a renter in the City of Milwaukee for five years before moving to the suburbs. During that time I spent a few months living in a not-so-nice neighborhood on the north side to save money. I ended up breaking my lease early, moving and losing my security deposit after my landlord refused to make necessary repairs. Fortunately, I had options, the money to pay another security deposit and a new landlord that didn’t bother to call my previous landlord for a reference. When I heard Matthew Desmond had written a book about Milwaukee’s rent scene I had to read it.
What is Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American Cityabout?
Wanting to understand the role housing played in poverty Matthew Desmond, a sociologist, moved to Milwaukee. He lived in a trailer park on the south side and in a rooming house located in the black north side. Both allowed him to befriend two landlords and interview numerous renters. His book is an investigative account of the lives of these landlords and eight renters who he followed for over a year.
What I learned:
The details of this book are heartbreaking and hard to read. It took me two months to get through the entire book. I had no idea how Milwaukee (and cities like Milwaukee) are set up to fail our poor residents and families. The renters are far from perfect, but once their lives take a turn for the worst it is easy to fall into a cycle of poverty that is difficult to escape.
For the most part poor renters are trapped:
Financial guides recommend spending no more than 30 percent of your income on housing while many of the renters Desmond met spent up to 80 percent of their income on rent in substandard housing often with plumbing problems, no refrigerator or stove, and broken windows. (Apparently it is okay to rent out a unit in need of repairs as long as you disclose the defects up front). High rents don’t leave much to pay utilities, child expenses or to be able to purchase a reliable automobile to drive to work. Once tenants fall behind in their rent it is only a matter of time until they face eviction.
Most landlords won’t rent to those who have incarcerations or evictions on their record, so the system is designed to keep them out of good neighborhoods, good schools and decent housing.
Desecration of neighborhoods:
When a long-term resident of a neighborhood is evicted the block they lived on suffers.
The key link in a perpetual slum is that too many people move out of it too fast – and in the meantime dream of getting out. With Doreen’s eviction, 32nd Street lost a steadying presence – someone who loved and invested in the neighborhood, who contributed to making the block safer, but Wright Street didn’t gain one. (Pg. 70)Shocking accounts:
When a landlord learns she isn’t liable for a house fire in which a tenant’s baby died (she did not have enough operating smoke detectors) she asks if she is obligated to return their rent money. The fire occurred just after the 1st of the month. She was not.
The nuisance property ordinance:
This ordinance allows police departments to penalize landlords for the behavior of their tenants. Most properties were designated “nuisances” because an excessive number of 911 calls were made within a certain timeframe. In Milwaukee the threshold was three or more calls within a thirty-day period. (Pg. 190)
Each time this happens the landlord receives a nuisance citation. In almost all cases, the only course of action accepted by the Milwaukee PD is eviction.
Why is this a problem?
A battered woman either has to keep quiet and face abuse or call the police and face eviction. This ordinance also prevents neighbors who should call 911 when they hear sounds of abuse to stay quiet and mind their own business.
How much money these landlord’s make?
Granted most people are not up to the task of renting to those living in the inner city, but those who do are making money. This is achieved despite tenants not always making rent payments on time or not full. Landlords make money by not making necessary repairs, purchasing cheap properties and charging high rents.
Matthew Desmond only included the stories in Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City he was able to verify as accurate and backed up all of his findings with extensive research. I enjoyed that despite having been present for many of the events included in the book Desmond kept himself out of the story until the final chapter. Evicted is written in a conversational tone and would be a great choice for a social justice book club. I guarantee you will have a lot to talk about.
I highly recommend this book.
To learn more about Matthew Desmond and his project go to this website.
"I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review."
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