In Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond does a marvelous job exposing the heartbreaking stories of people who find themselves in bad situations, shining a light on how eviction sets people up to fail. Desmond, co-director of Harvard University's Justice and Poverty Project and a 2015 MacArthur Fellow, recently spoke to us about his harrowing chronicle of how the system fails poor people.
REBECCA VNUK: How did you become interested in researching evictions, and what led you specifically to Milwaukee?
MATTHEW DESMOND: America is really weird, right? Kind of stands alone among all wealthy democracies with the depth and expanse of its poverty. That's always troubled me a lot, and I know it's troubled a lot of people. I wanted to understand the role that housing played in that story. I thought eviction was a good way of trying to write about poverty that wasn't just about the poor, but was about all the different factors that contribute to inequality.
Milwaukee is a city that I love. I love the Rust Belt, and I love being in cities like Milwaukee and Buffalo and Detroit. . . The story of our cities tends to be written in the margins. We have a lot of books about New York or San Francisco, and we have a lot of books about cities like Detroit or Camden. You write a book about Milwaukee, you have a shot at representing what families below the poverty line are facing in Cleveland and Indianapolis and Cincinnati, and places all around the country.
In the larger picture of poverty in America, eviction is a hidden epidemic. It's there, it's in all kinds of places and happens to all kinds of people, but it's not normally reported on. Why do you think that is?
The housing crisis today has reached this incredible, acute point where the majority of poor, renting families are spending half of their income on housing, and one in four of those families are spending at least 70% of their income just on rent and utilities. It wasn't like that 15 years ago, 20 years ago. We move from a point where evictions used to be rare in America and used to draw crowds, to a point that they've been commonplace; they're completely destabilizing families and schools and entire communities. I think that's one of the reasons that we hadn't heard about it before: Housing has long been a problem in America for families of modest means, but we're at a different point todaywe're at a fever pitch. The lack of affordable housing in our cities adds to the frequency and the commonality of eviction.
One of the things that struck me as I read the book was the powerful stories of these people that you spent those years living alongside. Are you still in touch with any of them, or do you have any plans for a follow-up to the book?
I was just talking to Arlene yesterday, in fact, on our little walk, catching up about Christmas plans, and checking in on the boys. I'm in touch with a lot of folks from the book. One thing that my wife and I have done with the proceeds from the book is [start] two nonprofits. One is called Evicted Book Foundation, and the other is Just Shelter Foundation. Just Shelter is a clearinghouse of information that amplifies the work of community organizations preventing eviction, fighting homelessness, and preserving affordable housing. It also allows people to share their own eviction stories. The Evicted Book Foundation is targeted to the families in the book. It uses proceeds from the book to come alongside those families and support them.
To directly reference the book's subtitle, eviction is about poverty and profit. You not only got to know the people who were affected by evictions, you got to know the people who do the evictions. The landlords. In my Booklist review, I noted that, it's hard to paint a slumlord as an even remotely sympathetic character, and yet you managed successfully to do this. The landlords, Sherena and Tobin, definitely take advantage of people, but they also have a tendency to rent to those in need and to look the other way when rent is late. Can you tell me how you felt writing about both sides of the story?
I didn't have a whole lot of preconceptions about the landlords; I had a lot of questions. I wanted to know, like, Why you would buy these kinds of properties? How much money have you made? What's your life like?
I had a bunch of questions about their work, and I thought my job was to try to paint the picture of this problem with as much complexity as I was able. With conversations about poverty, a lot of times, there are a lot of really easy answers that we've become very comfortable with. Some of us might just say, "Oh these tenants, they're just lazy," or, "Oh these landlords, they're just greedy." When you look at the problem from a sidewalk level, you realize pretty quickly that it's a lot more complicated than that.
I thought my job was to try to capture that complexity and really work it out. I think that when I've gone around the country talking about this book and these stories and these people, a lot of the readers seem conflicted about the landlords. They don't know how to feel about them. I feel good about that.
The Andrew Carnegie Medals for excellence in fiction and nonfiction represent Andrew Carnegie's deep belief in the power of books and learning to change the world. How do you see your book helping to change the world? What do you hope readers come away with after reading your book?
I want them to come away with an imprint of the families that I wrote about. I want them to carry their stories and recognize that, somewhere in their city, a family's just been evicted and their things have been piled on the sidewalk. I think that I'd like the book to contribute to us hating poverty a little more and being stirred to action. I think that the book has helped energize a national conversation about housing, and the role that housing is playing in deepening poverty in America.
It's also moved the policy dial. This spring, I met with some senators who had read the book. One thing that we talked about was the chapter on domestic violence and nuisance ordinances, and how [the latter] were leading to domestic violence victims getting evicted. From that meeting, a group of senators mobilized and wrote a letter to their permit of Housing Urban Development, asking HUD for broad guidance on nuisance ordinances. Secretary Castro, secretary of HUD, issued that guidance shortly thereafter. That's just one tangible example of how doing work like this can really lead to [solving] problems that a lot of folks just didn't know existed.
Interview by Rebecca Vnuk, first published December 21, 2016, Booklist.