Sherrena and Quentin, husband-and-wife owners-managers of rental property on the near north side of Milwaukee, built their business with the faith that they could make it on their own. Still, Sherrena feels for those she rents to — and usually regrets it. Nobody feels her pain, so why feel for others? “So, Arleen,” says Sherrena to a mother of two whose eviction she’s just pursued in court, and who’s catching a ride home with her afterwards, “if you ever thinking about becoming a landlord, don’t. It’s a bad deal. Get the short end of the stick every time.”
Months later, Arleen’s son Jori is in eighth grade but not really — he’d missed too much school while living in the shelter with his mother and younger brother. They have an apartment again, but it’s frustrating to be so far behind. Then one of his relatives kills another, and his father might have been involved. Stressed, frustrated Jori kicks a teacher in the shin, the teacher calls the police, police follow him home; they’re evicted again.
Tobin Charney owns a trailer park on the heavily White, far south side of the city, and he’s known for being flexible but no pushover. His average tenant is $341 behind in rent each month; when this happens, Tobin usually makes an arrangement — one that puts a technical stay on eviction while the tenant sticks to a payment schedule. Scott used to be a registered nurse, and he made good money. Then he slipped a disk and his long slide to black-tar heroin began with the painkillers. He moved into one of Tobin’s trailers with Teddy, who was partially paralyzed from a fall; Scott cooked and cleaned and helped Teddy get out of bed and into the shower. Then the bill for one of Teddy’s X-rays caused the two friends to fall behind in rent, and here comes Tobin with an eviction notice.
Advocates for the basic needs of deeply poor, disproportionately Black and brown Americans talk about the tragedy of lost human potential but, too often, fail to note the service that poor people provide so well: They contribute to the well-being of the rich and, in particular, the well-being of residential landlords. It’s a fault that Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted” corrects terrifically well. The cycle of poverty spins under the force of profit; and mass eviction turns being poor into a fevered, serial nightmare.
Desmond’s is also a beautifully written book. “On Burleigh Street, the wind-pushed rain fell sideways in sheets. In the yellow beam of the streetlight, it looked like an unending school of silvery fish darting through the light before disappearing into the surrounding pool of darkness. Crystal considered her phone. It was almost eleven o’clock at night. She dialed a number. Her cousin who owed her didn’t pick up. She dialed a number. Her foster-care mother said her house was full. She dialed a number. She dialed and dialed and dialed and dialed.”
Nowhere in America is homelessness a crisis; if it were, we would have deployed fuller, right-scaled responses by now: responses that go beyond making false equivalences between shelter beds and sheltered humans. Desmond’s final chapter turns from the people he followed so closely for years to the remedies that might allow them to escape from this distorted economic arrangement. His close observations of eviction court yield some interesting ideas: What if every tenant had a court-appointed attorney, arguing in court for them? What if we diverted one-sixth of the flow of dollars going to wealthy homeowners, in the form of the mortgage interest tax deduction, and provided housing vouchers to every rent-distressed family with children? If we did, we could substantially wipe out the childhood experience of homelessness, with its impacts on education and healthy development, at little cost to the American taxpayer. Landlords would profit without having to visit such trauma on children. Desmond argues, eloquently, that whether or not we enact such measures should characterize our country’s moral temper. “No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching,” he writes, “can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become.”
Scott builds his social capital in Narcotics Anonymous, suffers more setbacks, begins to save money to regain his nursing license.
Arleen, Jori and his brother stay at a relative’s house for a while, then the one-bedroom hosts eight; then eviction comes.
They get robbed at gunpoint; forced by a caseworker to move back to the shelter; the younger boy is placed with Child Protective Services; finds a home that takes $600 of her $628 monthly check, borrows money, finds a cheaper apartment with no stove or fridge. Desmond’s rich, close study affords a full and detailed ledger of these misfortunes.
Arleen, like anyone else, knows that on the other side of tragedy lies cleansing laughter. She thinks about getting to that side, somehow. “I wish that when I be an old lady, I can sit back and look at my kids. And they be grown,” she tells him. “And we’ll all be together, and we’ll be laughing. We be remembering stuff like this and be laughing at it.”
With work, America can get to that point: together, laughing at our past misfortunes. Will we?