A 13-year-old boy in north Milwaukee throws a snowball at a passing car, and his family lands in a homeless shelter. So begins Evicted, sociologist Matthew Desmond’s wrenching and revelatory investigation of urban poverty in the United States. At first, the incident appears to be some cruel and random injustice: The infuriated driver storms from his car and kicks in the front door of the boy’s house. As a result, the kid’s mom receives an eviction notice from the landlord, giving the woman and her two sons (the boy has a 5-year-old brother) just days to leave the apartment where they’d lived for eight months.
This careening course of events turns out to be anything but anomalous. In Desmond’s meticulous, compassionate rendering of the 15 months he spent living among Milwaukee’s poor and transient as a graduate student, such appalling circumstances are the norm rather than the exception. The boy’s mother (whom Desmond calls Arleen) finds a new place to rent three months later, only to lose that home within weeks when city inspectors deem the dwelling “unfit for human habitation.” Among other breaches, the $525-a-month house often had no running water. But where else were Arleen and her two sons to live?
Soon enough, the reader loses count of the number of Arleen’s forced displacements. Throughout her odyssey—one of eight chronicled in Evicted—home is always just out of reach, even when Arleen temporarily secures housing; the upheaval of displacement is more consistent than any one dwelling. Housing inspectors, child-protection investigators, police, welfare-case managers, bosses, judges—they all wield the power to sabotage a poor family’s tenuous stability.
Keep in mind that in the depths of poverty, “family” itself is a fluid form: Whether in Milwaukee’s poor black neighborhoods or in a white trailer park on the city’s southern fringe (each the subject of Desmond’s keen focus), households cohere and divide as readily as puddles of mercury. Members are added or subtracted as circumstances demand—sometimes relatives, sometimes people in cohabitations of convenience. In one startling instance, Desmond describes two total strangers pairing up on the spot (the clincher: a microwave oven).
The force behind the authorities’ power is inexorable: Landlords want their rent money and have an incentive to push out anyone who jeopardizes it. If the police show up in response to a 911 domestic-violence call, or a kid stops up the toilet with toys—well, such unwelcome incidents carry the risk of fines to the landlord for nuisance citations or housing-code violations. Tenants who fall short in terms of conduct or funds must go, and so they do, as easily as calling the exterminator (assuming the landlord ever calls an exterminator). Landlords must profit, and they profit most readily from those with no bargaining power and no other options: This is the hard economic reality on which Evicted turns.
Both a rigorous scholar and a gifted narrator, Desmond frames his study from the start as an examination of fraught economic relationships: between landlord and tenant, between small entrepreneurs (often on a precarious footing themselves) and the poor renters who are their captive market. The deal is sweetened by government subsidies to the poor, from Supplemental Security Income to Section 8. Probing these strangely intimate relationships in dazzling detail, Desmond unearths resounding revelations about how the US housing economy so profoundly fails the poor—devouring the great majority of their wages while supplying only fleeting stability, and subjecting tenants of limited means to a swarm of avoidable hazards. There has to be a better way.