By: Jean Kayitsinga

Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City focuses on the housing eviction of eight families in Milwaukee. Being evicted is not only an indication of poverty, but it also exacerbates poverty. Desmond shows that “losing a home sends families to shelters, abandoned houses, and the street. It invites depression and illness, compels families to move into degrading housing in dangerous neighborhoods, uproots communities, and harms children” (p. 5).
Conceptually, what distinguishes Evicted to previous seminal books on poverty is that it uses a relational perspective on inequality that links two agents in different hierarchical social spaces, in this case landlords and tenants. Desmond argues that “poverty is a relationship that involves poor people and rich people alike,” and eviction is “a process that binds poor and rich people together in mutual dependence and struggle” (p. 317).
Evicted draws on ethnographic fieldwork, digitally recorded conversations, observations, notes, and photographs, followed by interviews of renters and defendants in eviction courts, along with analysis of secondary sources such as news reports, medical and eviction court records, and mortgage files. Evicted also relies on third parties that corroborate information collected including the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families and Milwaukee Public Schools and interviews of landlords, court officers, social workers, building inspectors, property managers, and other people throughout the city.
The narratives of tenants such as Arleen Belle and Vanetta Evans reflect everyday stories of many low-income families in the U.S. who live paycheck to paycheck while struggling to make ends meet, and do not have a stable home. In January 2008, Arleen was evicted from her apartment after a stranger damaged her door. She moved with her sons to a homeless shelter, then to a house with no water and “unfit for human habitation” (p. 2). She then moved to an apartment complex in the inner city, which was a “haven for drug dealers” (p.3). She was on welfare, receiving an annual income of $7,536 and had no housing assistance. She was penalized by her social worker for missing an appointment and her benefits were reduced.
Soon after, she fell behind on her rent and was evicted again. The reason for her second eviction was not due to her wrong doing, but instead because the police were called for domestic violence to her apartment complex and the landlord was going to lose her apartments for nuisance reasons. After three weeks, she was again evicted because the police came to her place looking for her son who kicked a teacher at school and ran home. She went on and stayed with her friend who was later evicted, and then she moved to live with her sister. Making the situation worse, Arleen’s welfare case was closed after she missed three appointments.
Apparently, appointment letters were being sent to an old address from which she was previously evicted. She then moved to another apartment where she was robbed at gunpoint and her caseworker decided the place was no longer safe, and she found herself with her two boys once again in a shelter. Within a year, Arleen and her sons had moved multiple times, mostly for low-income reasons and lack of housing assistance, but at other times, for unfortunate and involuntary reasons.
Vanetta Evans received a monthly check of $673 from welfare and $380 in food stamps. Her troubles began when her hours of work were reduced from five days a week to one day a week. She could not pay her electricity bill. “We Energies threatened disconnection unless she pays $705. There was no way she could pay that amount and the rent. But she worried that Child Protective Services would take her kids away if her lights and gas were shut off” (p. 244). As expected, she fell behind in rent and later received an eviction notice. The worse part was when Vanetta, her friend, and boyfriend robbed using a gun two women at a Blockbuster Video and were arrested. After her hearing, Vanetta was fired and then evicted, and then took her kids to the shelter. At the shelter, she met Crystal and they agreed to look for an apartment exclusively on the Hispanic South Side of the city and even considered the white neighborhoods. They refused to consider the North Side which was predominantly black. They wanted to leave the ghetto, but landlords turned them away. Their rental application was rejected because of their arrest and eviction history.
In summary, Evicted describes in detail the social life of families in poverty and highlights the eviction process. According to Desmond, “Losing a 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” (p. 298), and this a story of many low-income American families. Poverty is caused by multifaceted forces and requires multifaceted solutions. Poverty can be eliminated if the right policies and programs are enacted. Housing should be considered a basic need for everyone and a human right. Poverty and the eviction processes will likely persist if there are no mechanisms or policies for people to increase their earned incomes and if there is no supplemental government assistance, including housing assistance, to deal with rising housing and other household expenses. Policies that propose to increase the minimum wage and public benefit are crucial and necessary.  However, such policies are not sufficient, especially if housing costs also rise along with them.  A supplemental housing assistance program, such as giving housing vouchers is needed. Finally, landlords exploit and get rich off the poor.  This is a must-read book on poverty, rental housing, and eviction, especially for students in sociology, social work, and other social sciences courses that focus on social stratification and inequality.