I just finished reading the book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Harvard sociologist, Matthew Desmond. It’s a national bestseller that takes an intimate, journalistic look at the impacts of evictions on poor families, following the lives of several evicted people in different neighborhoods of one city. I’ve heard friends across the country talking about the book, but it has particular significance for me because it takes place in my city of Milwaukee, WI.
From the outset of the book, Desmond explains that Milwaukee is an example city—the same patterns and experiences are happening in cities across the country and he offers the data to back up this claim. Yet the fact that the people featured in this book live just a mile or two from my house, and the streets and neighborhoods mentioned in the story are places I have been through many times before, was particularly impactful as a reader.
The other connection I felt as I read this book was because I used to work with homeless families and in fact, helpful many homeless Milwaukeeans move into apartments not unlike the ones mentioned in the book. I even, sadly, saw some later be evicted. I can’t claim personal familiarity with the experiences in the book, but I have witnessed them up close.
The first thing I have to say about Evicted is: Read it. Get it from your library or local bookstore and read this book. It’s quick and easy, and reads more like a memoir or fiction than a nonfiction ethnographical text. This is an important text for the twenty-first century.
The second thing I’ll say is that this story is relevant for anyone who hopes to build Strong Towns. Evicted traces the experiences of several single mothers with children living in apartments on the north side of Milwaukee (a predominantly poor, black region of the city), and several individuals and families living in a trailer park on the south side of Milwaukee (a mixed-income, white region of the city). While the tenants in these two neighborhoods experience different challenges, there are many common threads for everyone effected by eviction. Here are a few that bear relevance today:
1. Our cities are designed at every turn for a certain type of person: a well-off person.
In the final chapter of the book, Matthew Desmond explains his research methods in detail. One thing he mentions is his authorial decision not to write in first person, instead focusing the story on the lives of the people he lived and spent time with while he wrote this book. The book is not about him, so he didn’t include himself in it, he says. But he does acknowledge that he was not a completely detached bystander: he intervened in some instances in the lives of these people. And one of the big ways he intervened was driving his research subjects to apartment showings:
It is important to recognize that none of the tenants in this book had a car. I did, and I sometimes drove people around when they were looking for housing. When I didn’t, people relied on Milwaukee’s irregular bus system or set off on foot. It would have taken families much longer to find subsequent housing if they hadn’t had access to my car.
While this is all the mention he really makes of transportation issues (that’s not the focus of the book), we, at Strong Towns, know that they create yet another barrier for people trying to find and hold down housing or work. If you don’t make it to your court appearance to negotiate or contest your eviction because the bus was late or it was too far to walk, you’re out of luck. If you’re looking for a job that will help you pay the rent but a fragmented public transit system requires you to spend 70 minutes on the bus both ways for an interview, how are you supposed to make it back in time to meet the kids after school or put food on the table for dinner?
Then there’s the simple fact that housing in most Milwaukee neighborhoods is not really affordable for the poor, and Milwaukee is a fairly affordable city compared to the rest of the country, so that says something. A single, low-income person living off of disability income in Milwaukee (a situation several of the book's characters were in) could barely pay for a studio apartment, and those are few and far between in the city anyway. A family of four or more is probably going to try to cram into a one-bedroom, even though that is pushing the limits of most unit occupancy requirements, as well as, again, barely affordable for a low-income, single-parent household.
As this City Lab article and accompanying maps from earlier this year showed, in order to afford a two-bedroom apartment in the typical American city (see the above map), spending 30% of total income on rent, a person would need to make at least $20 an hour, far more than many Americans and certainly much more than any of the people profiled in Evicted. Even Wisconsin, which is more affordable than other states, requires a person to make at least $15.52 an hour in order to afford a two-bedroom. That’s more than twice the federal minimum wage.
Looking for a slightly more attainable metric, City Lab calculates how many hours a week someone would need to work at the federal minimum wage in order to be able to afford a one bedroom unit. In Wisconsin, that’s 69 hours per work. And even if someone was capable and desiring to work 69 hours a week, finding that much work in low-wage fields is challenging. Most minimum wage jobs are part-time. You’d have to piece together 3 different 20+ hour a week positions and make all the schedules work, and figure out how to travel from each job to the other, probably without a car. Nearly impossible.
In short, housing is not feasibly accessible for many poor people in America. They must work extended hours, live in cramped and deteriorating homes, or scrape together some other way to get by—all while maneuvering through an auto-oriented transportation system without a car. Otherwise, they risk becoming evicted and homeless. The modern American city is not designed for people of all incomes—it’s designed for the wealthy.
2. We have chosen to subsidize home ownership for the middle and upper classes over housing for the poor.
In the conclusion of Evicted, Matthew Desmond offers some ideas for how to improve the situation he has illustrated in his book. One significant thing he points out is the federal subsidies that are going to home ownership for the middle and upper classes instead of to people who are truly poor and for whom stable housing is out of reach:
We have the money. We’ve just made choices about how to spend it. Over the years, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have restricted housing aid to the poor but expanded it to the affluent in the form of tax benefits for homeowners. Today, housing-related tax expenditures far outpace those for housing assistance. In 2008 […] federal expenditures for direct housing assistance totaled less than $40.2 billion, but homeowner tax benefits exceeded $171 billion. […] Most federal housing subsidies benefit families with six-figure incomes.
Whatever your thoughts about housing subsidies, we must acknowledge the gross disconnect here: If you don’t believe in housing subsidies for anyone, you should not be okay with billions in tax breaks going to housing for the wealthy. And if you do believe in housing subsidies but think that we should be strategic with our limited amounts of federal money, don’t you think that that money is better served helping the poor than the rich?
We have subsidized the suburban development pattern of single-family home ownership and auto-oriented landscapes, and it has bankrupted communities across America. Meanwhile, the cost of renting an apartment or duplex in a city has skyrocketed, edging out poor and even middle income Americans. Something in that inverted picture needs to shift.
3. We need more affordable housing.
Throughout my time working in housing and homelessness agencies, I concluded that there are three specific changes which would significantly decrease homelessness in America:
- A rise in the minimum wage.
- An increase in sex education and affordability of birth control.
- More affordable housing.
When I look at the reasons people I was working with were homeless, it came down mainly to those three: 1) Even if they worked hard and often, at a minimum wage job (which is about what many of the people I encountered would qualify for) they would never get ahead in life or be able to afford the housing they needed. Their wages would never be high enough. 2) More unplanned pregnancies further set young women (and men, to an extent) behind in life and put them and their children in situations of intense poverty out of which they would probably never climb. 3) Even setting both of those factors aside, rent was still unaffordable for many people and that’s why they became homeless. 20% of renters in America spend more than half of their income on housing. That’s absurd.
I believe that those three changes—minimum wage, contraception, and affordable housing increases— taken together, would drastically reduce the amount of homelessness and precarious housing situations. Let’s not delve into the first since it’s a different sort of discussion, and the second is fairly self-explanatory. But the third is worth considering today.
The people profiled in Evicted faced sincere obstacles in affording their housing and, once they fell behind on rent, everything in their lives—from jobs to school to family relationships to health—was impacted by it. Once they were actually evicted, they had a stamp on their record that would automatically set them behind in all future attempts to get housing. Not being able to afford housing had a cascading effect on a family’s poverty.
We need more affordable housing in our cities and towns.
One way we get that is by encouraging small-scale developers to build it. So many of the houses that residents found themselves living in in this book were in terrible condition with drains frequently clogging, broken windows, peeling paint and major structural issues. They could barely afford even these deteriorating homes, and these negligent landlords were the only ones who would rent to them.
Poor families deserve safe and decent housing just as much as wealthy families, especially when you factor in the health hazards present for residents, particularly children in these homes (lead paint poisoning, falling out of broken windows, allergies to mold and pests, etc.). Evicted documents multiple instances where a tenant called building inspectors to complain about the poor conditions inside their homes, only to have their landlords respond by evicting them.
We need compassionate and devoted developers who will renovate or build safe, healthy homes and charge an affordable price for them. That is achievable. Then we need landlords who are invested in their communities, not buying and renting cheap, foreclosed-upon homes in the inner city while living in suburban McMansions, and disregarding the basic needs of their tenants.
Evicted is a powerful book with important lessons for those who design, govern and live in American cities and towns. It's well worth a read.
(Top photo by Elvert Barnes)