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Compassion and Naïveté

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Compassion and Naïveté

Brilliantly rendered, Matthew Desmond’s Evicted offers wrongheaded solutions. May 31, 2016
Economy, finance, and budgets

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond (Crown, 432 pp., $28)

Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, an ethnographic portrait of eight poor households in Milwaukee, should call readers’ attention, as the author sees it, to the fact that “millions of Americans are evicted every year because they can’t make rent” and that “fewer and fewer families can afford a roof over their head.” For Desmond, evictions are a core feature of the housing market, an event that “invites depression and illness, compels families to move into degrading housing in dangerous neighborhoods, uproots communities and harms children.” Certainly such conclusions can be drawn from Desmond’s richly drawn account, which tells the stories not only of those facing eviction in Milwaukee (where, he says, some 16,000 evictions occur annually) but also of those doing the evicting—the owners and managers of properties.

Evicted has attracted wide attention, most of it positive, and many of its admirers will endorse Desmond’s analysis and his call to make housing a “basic right,” provided by government through financial support to both tenants and owners. But the author’s unflinching, richly detailed narrative suggests other conclusions. One might note, for example, that drug use is destroying lives and neighborhoods, that marriage has disappeared from the lives of the poor, that reliance on income-support programs has made low-income households expert at obtaining benefits rather than working and saving, and that eviction is a symptom rather than the cause of such things—and, finally, that eviction may be simultaneously tragic and a last line of defense in the maintenance of a tenuous social order in low-income neighborhoods.

Evicted is an important book that provides an unvarnished account of the lives of the troubled and disorganized—some would say vulnerable—poor. It is thick with detail in the participant-observer tradition of sociology (Desmond took up residence among the families about whom he writes) and represents a new installment in a tradition dating back to Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives (1890) and continuing through Edward Banfield’s The Unheavenly City (1970) and a lesser-known but equally important book, Joseph T. Howell’s Hard Living on Clay Street (1972). One can find passages to admire on almost every page of Desmond’s book. Consider this introductory portrait of the College Mobile Home Park, a poor white trailer home compound in South Milwaukee, and its manager, “Lenny”:

Lenny knew the druggies lived mostly on the north side of the trailer park, and the people working double shifts at restaurants or nursing homes lived mostly on the south side. The metal scrappers and can collectors lived near the entrance, and the people with the best jobs—sandblasters, mechanics—congregated on the park’s snobby side, behind the office, in mobile homes with freshly swept porches and flowerpots . . . Lenny tried to house the sex offenders near the druggies, but it didn’t always work out.

The households whose stories Desmond returns to time and again, providing his narrative framework, struggle to find money to pay their rent—whether in the trailer park or in the black ghetto of North Milwaukee, the other focus of Evicted. Desmond writes of “Arleen,” raising two sons on her own: “The rent was $550 a month, utilities not included. The rent would take 88 percent of Arleen’s $628-a-month welfare check.” When the inevitable evictions do occur, the circumstances are poignant. “Larraine stood outside, silently looking on. The movers carried out her chair, her washing machine, her refrigerator, stove, dining table. . . . Her things were headed to Eagle Storage.”

But much more is involved in the ongoing crises of the families Desmond portrays than insufficient income to pay rent. The story of one trailer park resident, Scott, a former nurse who’d earned some $88,000 a year before falling into a drug habit—he began draining the opioids from the pain patches of his hospital patients—makes this clear. Eventually, Scott loses his nursing license. Desmond writes of Scott and a couple in the trailer park, who’d been evicted.

Scott had gotten high with Pam and Ned shortly before the received their eviction notice and had moved in a hurry . . . Scott figured Ned and Pam got what was coming to them. In his old life, before the fall, he might have been more sympathetic. But he had come to view sympathy as a kind of naïveté, a sentiment voiced from a certain distance by the callow middle classes. “They can be compassionate because it’s not their only option,” he said of liberals who didn’t live in trailer parks. As for Ned and Pam, Scott thought their eviction came down to their crack habit, plain and simple. Heroin Susie agreed with him. “There’s a common denominator for all evictions,” she said. “I almost got evicted once. Used the money for other things.”

That Desmond can summon a phrase as apt as “sympathy as a kind of naïveté” and not see it as self-referential is among the frustrations of this book—because drugs and a range of other bad decisions and bad behaviors number among the most common causes for the looming evictions of his characters. “Lamar,” desperately trying to pay his back rent by painting his apartment despite having two prosthetic legs, turns out to have lost his legs when he used crack in an abandoned house, and became trapped inside during a freezing Milwaukee winter. After jumping out, he woke up in the hospital to find his legs had been amputated. He relies on Supplemental Security Income checks. Doreen fears the eviction of her household, which includes three adults and five children, but she nonetheless discourages her pregnant daughter Natasha from marrying the father of her child, despite the fact that “Malik had been acting extra-dependable since learning he was going to be a dad, pulling double shifts, saving money, bringing Natasha food and looking for an apartment for the three of them.” Why? “The truth was that Doreen and Patrice [another adult daughter] didn’t expect much from Malik not because of anything he had done but because of their own experiences with men. Patrice’s and Natasha’s father’s had left Doreen; Ruby and C.J.’s daddy was in prison. . . .Said Patrice: ‘We didn’t have a daddy. My kids don’t have no daddy. And your kids don’t need no daddy.’” And if Natasha were to leave the household, safety-net benefits—such as public assistance and food stamps—would leave with her.

It may be true, as Desmond says, that “the majority of poor renting families in America spend over half of their income on housing and at least one in four dedicates 70 percent to paying the rent and keeping the lights on.” But it is also true that only 4 percent of public-housing households are comprised of two parents and children. Paths to housing affordability that don’t include subsidy checks do exist.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Desmond’s book is the appreciation he shows for his antiheroes: landlords to the poor such as Sherrena, the black, former fourth-grade teacher who, along with her husband Quentin, built a modest empire of 36 apartments on Milwaukee’s north side. “Sherrena had a lot of bills: mortgage payments, water charges, maintenance expenses, property taxes. Sometimes a major expense would come out of nowhere—a broken furnace, an unexpected bill from the city—and leave her close to broke until the first of the month. . . . There was no hedging in this business. When a tenant didn’t pay $500, her landlord lost $500. When that happened, landlords with mortgages dug into their savings or their income to make sure the bank didn’t hand them a foreclosure notice.” Collecting rent is a face-to-face matter—no easy task in poor neighborhoods. At times, Quentin must don a “hoodie” and head out to collect payment by means unspecified.

As much empathy as he demonstrates for Sherrena—who does find herself nearly broke at one point—it never quite occurs to Desmond that landlords, in addition to being clever, bottom-of-the-pyramid entrepreneurs, also serve as enforcers of a frayed social order. Among those whom this thorough, embedded sociologist never bothers to interview are the neighbors of the evicted. Who would like to live next door, say, to Lamar, who appears to spend most of his time in card games in groups smoking “blunts” (pot)? Who would like to live next door to Kamala and her boyfriend, who join the card game, leaving their children alone on an upper floor? When one child knocks over a lamp, the house burns—evicting everyone, as it were. Desmond is deaf to the fact that even the Obama-era Justice Department recognizes the social value of tenant screening. “You need to require sufficient and verifiable income,” says the coordinator of Milwaukee’s Landlord Training Program. “If they say they are self-employed, well, drug-dealers are self-employed.” Screening and evictions, denounced by Desmond, send the same constructive message, one that Bill Clinton once espoused: work hard and play by the rules. Those who struggle to do so find themselves endangered by those who don’t—especially the ones who live next door. That evictions are so widespread may say something about housing markets, as Desmond believes—but it also says something about our current social norms.

Having painted such a nuanced picture of the disorganized poor, Desmond, in his concluding chapter, moves with frustrating glibness to his solution: income-based housing vouchers. “The idea is simple,” he concludes. “Every family below a certain income level would be eligible for a housing voucher.” In effect, Desmond would make available the public-housing subsidy arrangement to all those who qualify. “The family would dedicate 30 percent of their income to housing costs, with the voucher paying the rest.” To raise the billions that such a policy would require, he suggests ending such homeowner benefits as the mortgage-interest deduction—a good idea on its own merits, since the deduction distorts housing prices. But that doesn’t mean that a vast expansion of housing vouchers would be practical or positive. It never occurs to Desmond that the current requirement that public-housing tenants pay 30 percent of their incomes in rent discourages work, since the more one earns, the more one will pay. Nor does he recognize that an income cutoff for voucher households could discourage marriage, since a couple’s combined income might disqualify them from benefits. Implicitly, he assumes that poverty is a permanent, structural feature of the economy, and that the rest of us should strive, as best we can, to make the poor comfortable. This is bleak pessimism masquerading as compassionate liberalism.

Desmond, moreover, seems credulous in assuming that his proposed remedy would work. Does he really believe that the troubled souls whom he describes so vividly would always be able to come up with the required 30 percent for rent? And can he be confident that landlords who receive a guaranteed government-rent payment each month will remain diligent about repairs? His understanding of historic housing policy is shaky. He suggests that public housing was originally intended to serve the poor, which is untrue. It got started, during the New Deal, to serve working-class tenants, who would maintain their dwellings by paying rent. If they couldn’t pay, they faced—yes, eviction.

Desmond does highlight policy problems that cry out for fixes. Tenants who make their rent payments only to find their landlords haven’t made mortgage payments—and face bank foreclosure—should not be evicted. When police come out to a home where a boyfriend is beating the mother of his children, the woman should not face eviction because the home is judged a public nuisance. It may be, too, that local housing codes—Desmond describes Milwaukee’s as overly strict—should be reviewed with an eye toward lowering housing costs without compromising safety.

Desmond’s book makes clear how a combination of forces has led to the persistence and growth of the disorganized poor—a group long recognized as distinct from those simply down on their luck. Edward Banfield wrote at length of the problems of “present-oriented” people; many of the characters in Evicted fit that description. “Larraine” spends her entire monthly food assistance allotment, for instance, on a single meal of lobster tails. In making the case that private housing markets exploit the vulnerable, Desmond cites Jacob Riis and his portraits of Lower East Side tenement conditions. He might have done better to turn to pioneer sociologist Robert Hunter, who, in his classic Poverty (1904), makes an important distinction between the poor and “paupers.” For the poor, Hunter cared deeply. “There are great districts of people who are up before dawn, who wash, dress and eat breakfast, kiss wives and children, and hurry away to work or to seek work,” Hunter wrote. “The world rests upon their shoulders; it moves by their muscle. . . . But the world is so organized that they gain enough to live upon only when they work; should they cease, they are in destitution and want.”

Others, Hunter writes, “become dependent on alms. . . .There are in all large cities in America and abroad, streets and courts and alleys where a class of people live who have lost all self-respect and ambition, who rarely, if ever, work, who are aimless and drifting, who like drink, who have no thought for their children, and who live more or less contentedly on rubbish and alms.” Hunter would have recognized such people in Desmond’s brilliant and disturbing rendering of their lives. He would not have approved of Desmond’s policy solution—and nor should we.

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

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