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  • Writer's pictureJudith D Collins


Poverty and Profit in the American City

ISBN: 9780553447439

Publisher: Crown Publishing

Publication Date: 3/1/2016

Format: Hardcover

My Rating: 5 Stars + Top Books of 2016 From Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond, a landmark work of scholarship and reportage that will forever change the way we look at poverty in America

A groundbreaking work on the central role of housing in the lives of the poor. In this brilliant, heartbreaking book, Matthew Desmond takes us into the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee to tell the story of eight families on the edge. Arleen is a single mother trying to raise her two sons on the $20 a month she has left after paying for their rundown apartment. Scott is a gentle nurse consumed by a heroin addiction. Lamar, a man with no legs and a neighborhood full of boys to look after, tries to work his way out of debt. Vanetta participates in a botched stick up after her hours are cut. All are spending almost everything they have on rent, and all have fallen behind. The fate of these families is in the hands of two landlords: Sherrena Tarver, a former school teacher turned inner-city entrepreneur, and Tobin Charney, who runs the worst trailer park in the fourth poorest city in the country. They loathe some of their tenants and are fond of others, but as Sherrena puts it, “Love don't pay the bills.” She moves to evict Arleen and her boys a few days before Christmas. Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare. But today, most poor renting families are spending over half of their income on housing, and eviction has become ordinary, especially for single mothers. In vivid, intimate prose, Desmond provides a ground-level view of one of the most urgent issues facing America today. As we see families forced into shelters, squalid apartments, or more dangerous neighborhoods, we bear witness to the human cost of America's vast inequality—and to people's determination and intelligence in the face of hardship. Based on years of embedded fieldwork and painstakingly gathered data, this masterful book transforms our understanding of extreme poverty and economic exploitation, while providing fresh ideas for solving a devastating, uniquely American problem. Its unforgettable scenes of hope and loss remind us of the centrality of home, without which nothing else is possible.

Evicted tells the story of eight families swept up in the nation’s eviction epidemic and lays out fresh ideas for solving this devastating problem.


“A groundbreaking work … Desmond delivers a gripping, novelistic narrative… This stunning, remarkable book – a scholar’s 21st-century How the Other Half Lives – demands a wide audience.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“This is an extraordinary and crucial piece of work. Read it. Please, read it.” —Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, author of Random Family

“Gripping storytelling and meticulous research … Desmond identifies affordable housing as a leading social justice issue of our time and offers concrete solutions to the crisis.” —Publishers Weekly (starred)

“This story is about one of the most basic human needs—a roof overhead—and yet Matthew Desmond has told it in sweeping, immersive, heartbreaking fashion.” —Jeff Hobbs, author of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace

“Evicted is that rare book that both enlightens and serves as an urgent call for action.” —William Julius Wilson, Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor, Harvard University, and author of When Work Disappears

My Review

A special thank you to Crown Publishing and NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review. Matthew Desmond, an urban driven ethnographer explores poverty in American through keen insights and new eyes in his latest EVICTED: Poverty and Profit in the American City—a gripping story of eight families on the brink of being homeless, the landlords, our housing crisis, and the fallout. Justice for the poor. A "Must Read" for every American (young or old). The trauma of EVICTION. One of the most urgent and pressing issues facing America today. How do we look at poverty? Every year in this country, families are being evicted by the millions. Unless you have suffered or lived through these tough times, you may not be aware of the severe consequences. It may be one of the least studied processes affecting the lives of the poor families. It is now commonplace. Poor families move because they are forced to. Through his field study and research, Desmond saw firsthand, many landlords found it cheaper to contend with evictions than to keep up their properties. He began piecing together the workings of this market, he needed answers to fundamental questions. How common was eviction? Whom did it affect? The long-term consequences? He was perplexed to find no readily available data. So he began to gather it himself. Between 2009 and 2011, he found, more than one in eight Milwaukee renters endured a forced move. Eviction was a blemish that led many landlords to refuse to rent to families. It excluded them from certain housing aid. It drove them into dangerous homes. It compromised their job performance, and affected their mental health. Families lose not only their home, school, and neighborhood, they lose their clothes, possessions, furniture, government aid, and loss of jobs. Plus, time to rebuild, and save to establish a new residence. They also lose the benefit of public housing, due to unpaid debt and previous evictions. From the toll it takes, both mentally and physically--the trauma evictions and foreclosure can bring. “Eviction is a cause, not just a condition of poverty." Desmond’s book is set in Milwaukee, following eight families; black and white, with and without children. From trailer parks and the ghettos. Eviction’s fallout is severe. Losing a home sends families to shelters, abandoned houses, and the street. In addition, the psychological repercussions: depression, illness, forcing families to move into degrading housing in dangerous neighborhoods, uprooting communities and harming children. Eviction reveals people’s vulnerability and desperation, as well as their ingenuity and guts. Broken down into Three Parts: Part One: Rent, Part Two: Out, Part Three: After. Each chapter is broken out in the prologue with detailed notes and reference for further reading and research. The combined data sources provided a new portrait of the powerful ways the private housing sector could be shaping the lives of poor American families and their communities. All of this suffering is shameful and unnecessary. Desmond believes in building rapport with the people you want to get to know better and follow them over a period of time observing and experiencing what they do, alongside them and recording their actions and interactions as you move with them.

Evicted by Matt Desmond

Understanding people, and allowing their lives to mold your own as fully and genuinely as possibly. How they think and feel. By renting a trailer allowed him to meet the people, hear what they had to say, and experience tenant’s concerns as well as landlords—perspectives. People on the verge of homelessness. From eviction court, shelters, abandoned homes, counseling sessions, and listening to their fears and desperation. Firsthand observation. Their journey. As they say, you cannot really know someone's hardships until you walk in their shoes. Most low income families are living in apartments they cannot afford; those being the bottom of the market. “Our cities have become unaffordable to our poorest families, and this problem is leaving a deep and jagged scar on the next generation.” Eviction affects the old and the young, sick and able-bodied. If these people are spending this much on housing, what are they going without? From healthcare, utilities, food, clothes, and transportation. Our society has looked at the economics of jobs, public assistance, parenting, and mass incarceration.However, we have failed to appreciate how deeply housing is implicated in the creation of poverty. Desmond demonstrates in his insightful book not everyone living in a distressed neighborhood is associated with gang members, parole officers, employers, social workers, or pastors. But nearly all of them have a landlord. In 2008, as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Desmond moved into a Milwaukee trailer park. He wanted to be in the trenches in order to immerse himself in the midst of landlords and tenants. From struggles, lack of housing, to the high percentage of total income in order to locate affordable housing. Heartbreaking stories. Matthew Desmond, an associate professor of sociology and social science at Harvard and co-director of the Justice and Poverty Project addresses these questions, by raising awareness—we have a housing problem. What is the solution? What it really means to be evicted. Housing. Poverty. The urban poor. A rising problem in America. For every eviction executed through the judicial system, there are two others executed beyond the purview of the court, beyond any form of due process. Informal evictions. His data showed the median age of a tenant in the Milwaukee’s eviction court was thirty-three. Youngest nineteen; oldest sixty-nine. The median monthly household income of tenants in eviction court was $935 and back rent owed equaled this amount. With children, this could be equivalent to four months of back rent. To Desmond, poverty was a relationship, one that brought together the rich and the poor. The way to understand it was to find some process that exposed those ties. Fewer and fewer families can afford a roof over their head. How do the poor survive? Food, clothing, and stable housing. Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, eviction used to be rare. These days there are sheriff squads whose full-time job is to carry out eviction and foreclosure orders. From moving companies, data mining companies, housing courts; low-income families have grown accustomed to their belongings lining the curbs. Millions of Americans are evicted every year because they can’t make the rent. Unfortunately, the majority of poor renting families in America spend over half of their income on housing, and at least one in four dedicates over 70 percent to paying the rent and keeping the lights on. There is hope. There are solutions. Federally Funded Housing Choice Voucher Program helps secure decent housing. (we need more of them). They reduce homelessness and allow families to devote more resources to heath care, transportation, and food. However, there are waiting lists. Some are so long, they are now closed, with no availability in sight. This means the people are not moving until they die. They have secured their slot. As Desmond reiterates, a problem as big as the affordable housing crisis calls for a big solution. It should be the top of American’s domestic policy agenda because it is driving poor families to financial ruin and even starting to engulf families with moderate incomes. Today over 1 in 5 of all renting families in the country spends half of its income on housing. Balancing of two freedoms: by significantly expanding our housing voucher program so that all low-income families could benefit from it. A universal housing voucher program would carve a middle path between the landlord’s desire to make a living and the tenant’s desire, simply to live. The idea is simple. Every family below a certain income level would be eligible for a housing voucher. They could use that voucher to live anywhere they wanted, just as families can use food stamps to buy groceries, as long as their housing was neither too expensive, or too shabby and run down. Decent, modest, and fairly priced. 30 percent of the income to housing costs, with the voucher paying the rest. A universal voucher program would change the face of poverty in this country. Eviction would plummet and become rare occurrences. Homelessness would almost disappear. Families would immediately feel the income gains and be able to buy enough food, invest in themselves and their children through schooling or job training and start modest savings. They would find stability and have a sense of ownership over their home and community. The poor are not invisible. The rich can become poor and both can be evicted.

What separates EVICTED from many other books, is Desmond’s personal experience. In addition to being well-researched with facts, statistics (which I love), readers want to learn what goes on behind closed doors. How these families arrived at this point? Their choices? We have to understand in order to make corrections. Addressing the problems. Seeking solutions. Desmond connects with these families, their hardships, their struggles—human dynamics, tragedy, and the those with little choices. When their entire paycheck goes to keeping a roof over their head. They will always fall behind. We also hear from the tenants and landlords—the good, bad, and the ugly. The devastation. Baby Boomers, and middle working America will be lumped in with the low-income poverty level as they begin drawing social security. As more baby-boomers are taking early retirement, this group will further compound, the low-income housing crisis. Highly Recommend! I would urge you to read the author’s background, his journey, and the inspiration behind the project. Poverty, he felt, was unnecessary and morally outrageous. I am in total agreement. Inspiring! Well written and informative. We need more people, with the drive and tenacity to take a stand, be an advocate, as we join together in the fight for better low-income housing which will only strengthen us as a community, a country, and build a better tomorrow for our next generation. Powerful. Thought-provoking. Well-done. Top Non-Fiction Books of 2016. "Reform!"

Review Links:

Matthew Desmond

About the Author

Matthew Desmond is the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences. After receiving his Ph.D. in 2010 from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he joined the Harvard Society of Fellows as a Junior Fellow. His primary teaching and research interests include urban sociology, poverty, race and ethnicity, organizations and work, social theory, and ethnography.

Desmond is the author of three books: On the Fireline: Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters (2007), Racial Domination, Racial Progress: The Sociology of Race in America (with Mustafa Emirbayer, 2009), and The Racial Order (with Mustafa Emirbayer, forthcoming). He has written essays on educational inequality, dangerous work, political ideology, race and social theory, and the inner-city housing market. Most recently, he has published on eviction and the low-income rental market, network-based survival strategies among the urban poor, and the consequences of new crime control policies on inner-city women in the American Journal of Sociology and American Sociological Review.

He is the principal investigator of the Milwaukee Area Renters Study, an original survey of tenants in Milwaukee’s low-income private housing sector. He is currently writing a book on the causes, dynamics, and consequences of eviction. Read More

Media and Interviews

Photo credit: Scott Brauer for The Chronicle

The Great Expectations of Matthew Desmond By Marc Parry

FEBRUARY 24, 2016

Matthew Desmond hopes to bring a fresh approach to the study of poverty by focusing on the trauma of eviction. "Before this work I didn’t know how bad it was," he says. "I don’t think a lot of us know the state of poverty today." Read More about Matt and his project.

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Another subject relating to the housing crisis below-- would love Desmond to explore: "Low-income senior housing." Now being lumped into the group above.

On a personal note, having been involved in assisting many seniors with the research of urban housing options in Florida--Those living on social security, desperately seeking affordable housing. The waiting list for some subsidized and non-subsidized; five-ten years. I have found these seniors moved to these locations at age 62 and now at 70-80+, they have not moved (unless they are forced to an assisted living or a nursing home). Therefore, NO availability. The elders want to be in a warmer climate and tend to look at Florida and the urban downtown areas. Sounds great; however, when you hit social security, you are now part of low income poverty and the housing crisis. Some waiting lists are so long, they close their list, and no longer allowing tenants to apply. No more housing vouchers. You cannot even apply. They are closed. When the average social security check in 2015, was $1,336 at age 70, and substantially less if you draw earlier at age 62, (occurring often, due to the job market); your rent cannot be over $668 a month including utilities at 70. (HUD) non-subsidized. Some draw much less than this amount, bringing the qualifying rent down in the $500’s or less, as you can see fromt he chart below. Virtually impossible, unless there is a subsidized program.

Chart from SSA: In regards to independent living seniors, it is best to seek urban apartments with utilities included. Walking communities. Often in old buildings, poorly insulated, the utilities would be high.

Those in this low income bracket with a set budget cannot afford. By having the utilities included in the rent, it helps the tenant to stay on budget with no unexpected expenses. Some urban housing offer grocery, pharmacy, beauty shops, and other facilities nearby, free trolleys, so no need for a car, maintenance, or insurance cost. These locations are where we need MORE housing. Some even offer basic internet, and food programs. It takes time to plan and research. In downtown West Palm Beach, for example we only have two subsidized apartments (no longer taking applications-closed, as the list was over 5 yrs long), and one HUD non-subsidized (all the others are full). If you are 62 or older, independent, and can afford $625 month for a 425 sq ft. studio (you have to pay to park 5 blocks away). The one bedroom over a $1,000 + month, depending on your floor and location. Most people on social security alone, cannot qualify, unless married with joint checks. If you are divorced, unmarried, with no other income besides social security, your budget will be tight. Factor in food, healthcare, internet, medical, and transportation. These people do not qualify for food stamps nor free health insurance. They are barely over the line. This group will be hit the hardest. In Palm Beach County, an individual cannot exceed $981 a month income, or they lose the free health insurance (Health Care District). Many seniors are coming from New York and other states where they qualify for food stamps, based on social security. Different states have different rules.

When coming to Florida, they soon learn, no more food stamps. Most do not file taxes due to social security, so no tax credits. If your utilities are included in your rent, at this rate, you do not receive food stamps. A catch 22. The government will not allow your rent to be more than 50% of your income. Then to further give you a kick, they decline you food stamps, because your rent is not higher. This makes no sense. There is definitely a huge housing crisis in America today for the low income—from young to old. The boomers will be struggling and future generations, if this is not addressed now, in combination to the others addressed in the book.

Having been in the real estate industry (commercial and residential), throughout my career, have seen a first-hand look. From a tenant and landlord perspective. It is sad. Instead of building the multi-million dollar high rise condos on every corner, for the rich, there is little focus on the low- income housing.






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