Book Review: Evicted

The underlying truth I took away from Evicted is that once someone is in poverty, it is nearly impossible to get out. There is friction everywhere along the exit path of poverty and evictions are potentially the most disruptive part of the story (Desmond, the author, would also argue that they are the most untold and underestimated part of the story.) The effects of an eviction are felt in many different ways: the evictee must physically find a new place to live; the evictee must deal with the psychological effects of being forced to move out of their home; the neighborhood incurs churn, eroding the social bonds that are the fabric of any thriving street; search for housing leads to instability, which may cause work or school to be missed. Evictions often lead to worse performance at work, and often cause depression in the evictee long after they have found a new place to live.

During an eviction, a person’s belongs are placed on the curb or moved directly to storage; before a home for the person can be found, they must find a home for their belongings, which of course costs money. Commutes may drastically change, causing work to be missed and increasing the chance for a loss of income. Dangerous neighborhoods are moved into hastily because any housing offers a reprieve from a shared shelter or even homelessness. Other responsibilities are demoted in favor of finding a home, often causing important meetings, family obligations, or work to be missed. Without a stable home, there is no foundation for a person to grow and improve their station. For the people monitored in Evicted, most of the active day-to-day struggle can be traced back to an eviction.

One eviction can severely hamper a person’s ability to obtain housing in the future. Eviction notices, at least in Milwaukee, are public record and are often part of a routine check done by a landlord prior to allowing a tenant to rent a unit. Because evictions can be such an issue for a tenant, tenants will often agree to more unfavorable terms from a landlord in order to have an “off the books” eviction rather than an official eviction on the record. When this happens, tenants lose all leverage in the situation and aren’t able to fight back through the legal system to slow or stop an eviction.

One note I found distressing was that many of those facing eviction had family members capable of helping, monetarily or otherwise, but didn’t for one reason or another. Some were struggling themselves, in a slightly better situation but unwilling to provide support to a sibling, parent, niece or nephew. Others were fully capable of helping their family member, but had felt that they had provided aid too often. Either as tough love or out of impatience at the unchanging situation, support was sometimes withheld when needed the most. For whatever reason, is was frustrating as an observer to think that the slight assistance of a family member could drastically change the outcome of a situation. However, even with the support of a family member, it seems that those evicted ended up right back in the same situation.

Speaking of family, those in poverty with children have an even harder time. As Desmond points out, “children didn’t shield families from eviction; they exposed them to it.” Many landlords won’t allow renters to have children in their units for a variety of reasons. Children are seen as loud nuisances that may cause physical problems to a property like accidentally breaking windows or putting holes in walls. They can run up the water bill or test positive for lead. The presence of children may result in an inspection from CPS or another government organization, which then may result in fines for the landlord if the unit is not up to code. Families are harder for landlords to evict than a single tenant or adult couple.

The obstacles littering the path out of poverty seem insurmountable. With rents taking such a high percentage of welfare checks or income, envisioning a future out of poverty is an exercise in hopelessness. This causes a shift in how those in poverty deal with the little money that they have. When it would take many months to save for just the security deposit of a better apartment, saving is disincentivized. When there are asset limits in place in order to receive welfare benefits, saving is disincentivized. When the sacrifices required to save marginally more are the only sources of entertainment or sanity, such as cable or hot water, saving is disincentivized. As Desmond notes, those in poverty are not poor because they spend, but rather they spend because they are poor. There are so many compounded limitations that escaping poverty seems all but impossible; why sacrifice and struggle in vain, when spending a bit more on cable or an occasional “nice meal” will have no perceived negative effect?

I can partially understand the perspective of Sherrena Tarver, the landlord of many tenants followed in Evicted. She’s in the business to make a profit, and every late rent check, broken appliance and clogged sink comes directly out of her pocket. Without her calloused nature, Sherrena wouldn’t be able to survive in this business. From Sherrena’s point of view, every tenant that’s late on rent has his or her own sob story. The reason is always some sudden misfortune or event out of their control. Out of necessity, Sherrena can’t be lenient with every tenant - otherwise, she would be insolvent. We do see the soft side of Sherrena emerge at times; she initially buys groceries for Arleen and her children when they first move in, and she allows Patrice to move in with her mother, Doreen, after Patrice is evicted from her own place. However, these acts of kindness didn’t do much for Sherrena - Arleen was unable to make payments after her welfare check was reduced because she missed an appointment with her caseworker, and Doreen began to withhold rent while looking for another place. I felt for Arleen and Doreen, and understood the frustration they felt with their landlord and why they made the decisions they made, but on paper those tenants were costly for Sherrena.

While Sherrena repeatedly reminds the reader about the difficulty of being a landlord, a sharp contrast is drawn between herself and her tenants. She drives a nice Camaro and takes annual trips to Jamaica. She lives in a nice house in a nice neighborhood and eats takeout for almost every meal. Her tenants are struggling to eat and pay rent, often going hungry for an entire day or turning tricks to get by, living in squalor and an endless cycle of poverty. Sherrena has all of the power in the landlord-tenant relationship, and understands that her tenants are mostly desperate and don’t have any leverage in the situation. Sherrena is able to get away with providing substandard housing, reducing her overhead; she doesn’t need to fix broken sinks or appliances with any sense of urgency, doesn’t need to compete with other landlords on the state of her units, or have any incentive to keep the state of her units above the bare minimum required for being inhabitable. She wields eviction notices in a carefree manner, not afraid to evict tenants when she feels that they have become too much of a nuisance. Sherrena knows that there will always be another desperate potential tenant looking for a place to stay, no matter the condition.

Even though as a reader I was immersed in the one-room apartments that fit an entire family, the streets lined with dilapidated houses papered with eviction notices, and the neighborhood streets lined with curbs pilled high with the belongings of those just evicted, I was still just a reader a safe distance away from the poverty and the conditions Desmond describes. I recoiled in disgust at some of the described apartment conditions. They sometimes had clogged sinks and toilets with standing water, and roaches or other bugs were as unsurprising in an apartment as was a broken stove or other appliance. I stressed over the elongated process that is an evictee trying to find a place to live. For a person with an eviction on his or her record, finding an apartment can require calling dozens and dozens of landlords until finally someone desperate enough says yes. This often means that the rented unit is in disrepair, in a dangerous neighborhood, or can’t be rented easily for some other reason. I anguished over the instability and the never-ending daily challenges that happen living in poverty. In the cycle of poverty, trivial occurrences can erupt into full-blown crises. As a reader, it’s jarring to come to grips that these are real problems being faced by real people.

How can we fix this? As well as Desmond transcribed the problems faced today by those grinding in poverty, he also provided his thoughts on potential solutions to the problems. Not every city is the same, and each city may have to face the unique portions of its poverty situation with a tailored solution. However, what’s happening in one city is not entirely different than what’s happening in another. While Evicted was specifically about Milwaukee, it was really about every city in America, especially those in the middle-tier of cities such as Kansas City, Raleigh, and Cleveland that may not receive as much attention as top-tier cities such as New York, San Fransisco, and Washington.

Desmond offers up a few practical ways to approach the problem of evictions. The two that resonated were:

  1. Equip evictees with legal aid by providing free legal assistance for civil cases, much like we do for criminal cases
  2. Those most affected by evictions are those with the least ability to navigate the complicated legal system around them. By providing a lawyer, those facing eviction would be given a fair shake. Currently, tenants don’t have a right to an advocate for them in eviction court.
  3. In Desmond’s words, “directing aid upstream in the form of a few hours of legal services could lower costs downstream…the consequences of eviction are many - and so are its burdens on the public purse”
  4. Expand the voucher program for houses to all those below a certain income level.
  5. The voucher program has worked well, but its use is limited. By fixing the percentage of income a tenant must pay for rent to 30 percent, they can spend on things that are often not prioritized when rent is 70 to 80 percent of income. This means buying clothes and books for children, shopping for healthier food, and investing in themselves. This can mean having a stable home, building neighborly ties and being part of a neighborhood.
  6. There is much regulation required to have a successful nationwide voucher program, but it’s certainly a possibility to provide a system beneficial both to landlords (less tenant churn, more consistent rate of return) and tenants (less housing costs, more stable housing.)

Desmond’s proposals come with the understanding that those in poverty do not want to “game the system or eke out an existence; they want to thrive and contribute: to become nurses or run their own charities. A stable home would extend to them the opportunity to realize those dreams.” It is understood that investment in providing stable housing for all citizens of the United States of America would be an investment in our own communities. When we realize that housing is a human right our country has the capability to provide, we can begin to walk a path toward eradicating homelessness and providing stability to all.

Desmond’s powerful storytelling in Evicted illuminates the tragedy that is the cycle of poverty and eviction. The lasting effects of eviction are not to be understated. “Losing your home and possessions and often your job; being stamped with an eviction record and denied government housing assistance; relocating to degrading housing in poor and dangerous neighborhoods; and suffering from increased material hardship, homelessness, depression, and illness - this is eviction’s fallout. Eviction does not simply drop poor families into a dark valley, a trying yet relatively brief detour in life’s journey. It fundamentally redirects their way, casting them onto a different, and much more difficult, path. Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.”

My notes while reading this book:

  • high demand for cheap housing incentivizes landlords to evict tenants that are unruly or “disruptive” (i.e. calling the Housing Authority) quickly, and disincentives improvements to housing by the landlord
  • Lists for public housing in many cities have waitlists for years if not decades
  • Missing an appointment with your welfare case worker might result in a sanction, aka a reduction in benefit
  • There’s a moratorium on removing heat during the winter, and to be eligible for the moratorium you have to be current on your payments. So there’s a cycle where the gas company will get stiffed during the winter months to catch up with the landlord, and then the landlord will get stuffed during the summer so the gas company can be caught up with. On the April day when the moratorium is lifted, the gas companies sweep the area and disconnect thousands of lines
  • “Eviction had a way of causing not one move but two: a forced move into degrading and sometimes dangerous housing and an intentional move out of it”
  • Neighborhood peace and public peace is held together by the intricate network of neighbors - those with higher levels of “collective efficacy” have lower crime rates. A single eviction could destabilize multiple city blocks
  • “Because rent can take almost an entire paycheck, families sometimes had to initiate a necessary eviction that allowed them to save enough money to move to another place”
  • Tenants able to pay their rent in full each month could take advantage of legal protections designed to keep their housing safe and decent…when tenants fell behind, these protections dissolved
  • Because landlords are the ones who screen and approve employees, and own many properties in the same area, they’re often the ones responsible for the fabric of a certain block or neighborhood
  • 70% of tenants don’t come to eviction court, which means it automatically proceed”if incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”
  • “Docketing a judgement” meant putting owed money after an eviction on a tenant’s credit report. This accrued interest at 12%. This could be crippling when a tenant tried to get a student loan or owned a house later in life.
    • Some landlord collection agencies would report delinquent tenants to the nationwide credit agencies and be able to track them financially without their knowledge, being notified when tenants applied for a job, opened a bank account, or tried to get credit.
  • Evictions cost landlords around $600, due to hiring a moving company, a sheriffs fee, and court filing / processing fees
  • Landlords have at their disposal an army of unemployed men, a majority alcoholics or addicts, who they can use for cheap labor to fix up properties
  • Housing vouchers allows landlords in distressed areas to charge more rent, as the taxpayer will cover the bill and the maximum rent is determined by the entire city, I.e. nicer neighborhoods and suburbs
  • In the last decades of the twentieth century, the justice system began to put more responsibility to citizens to prevent and abate crime and illicit activity. This resulted in landlords bearing responsibility via fines or jail time for “nuisance properties”, a designation that was given due to a certain number of 911 calls over a time period. So, calls to 911 often meant evictions for tenants, especially for domestic violence calls. This disincentives tenants to ever call the police, as they had to choose between being evicted and dealing with the matter themselves. Domestic violence, fights, etc. all became issues in the city over time, and police wondered why no one was calling them to deal with it…
  • SSI has a “resource limit”, a maximum which can be in the bank. If it’s exceeded, they can reduce your benefit. The limit is $2k
  • Those is poverty spend because they are poor - savings come with a high sacrifice. There are so many compounded limitations that the difference between grinding poverty and stable poverty seemed insurmountable.
  • Children are a burden for those looking for housing. Landlords consider children an extra risk when renting - they can cause damage, run up the water bill, can test positively for lead which can be a price endeavor to fix for landlords. They’re loud, teenagers cause trouble, and CPS could inspect family apartments and find code violations.
    • Further, child’s play can sometimes lead to neighbor complaints, police being called, or noisiness “Residential stability begets a kind of psychological stability, which allows people to invest in their home and social relationships. It begets school stability, which increases the chances that children will excel and graduate. And it begets community stability, which encourages neighbors to form strong bonds and take care of their block.” “Losing your home and possessions and often your job; being stamped with an eviction record and denied government housing assistance; relocating to degrading housing in poor and dangerous neighborhoods; and suffering from increased material hardship, homelessness, depression, and illness-this is evictions fallout. Eviction does not simply drop poor families into a dark valley, a trying yet relatively brief detour on life’s journey. It fundamentally redirects their way, casting them on into a different, and much more difficult, path. Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.”

There are a few ways this can be fought

  • providing public lawyers in civil cases, so that evictees would have legal help to argue their cases and keep landlords in check. Tenants don’t often know their rights, or are intimidated by court proceedings. Many can’t be present at hearings as they can’t miss work.
  • Often, tenants fear having public records that show their evictions. So they often prefer to be evicted “off the record” by landlords. This stifles any chance for tenants to have a fair shake at protecting themselves from evictions
  • The private housing market is an engine of income extraction from poor communities, legitimized by government policies such as law enforcement evictions and eviction record publications. The incentives of landlords and tenants are opposed.
    • A housing voucher program would be the most cost-efficient way to deal with the eviction crisis. Below a certain income level, all families would receive a voucher that would cover 70% of their housing costs. This allows families to stabilize, invest more time and money into their children and selves. This would be an investment in America’s workforce, while also providing landlords with income and stability.
    • Would this be a disincentive to work? It could, and some studies have shown a modest reduction in work hours and earnings. But, the status who is much more of a threat to self-sufficiency than any housing program could be.
    • Landlords often don’t like vouchers because they enforce a stricter housing code. A nationwide program might relax some of the strictness, but still ensure that houses are safe and at least modest.
    • Rent stabilization would need to happen, or else taxpayers would be subsidizing landlord profits. Today, landlords can overcharge voucher holders