Monday, May 2, 2016

Slumlord Millionaires

It cannot be said that Matthew Desmond's Evicted:  Poverty and Profit in the American City is an uplifting book.  Amazon has given it the dubious distinction of being "#1 Best Seller in Poverty."  The book follows eight families in some of Milwaukee's poorest neighborhoods from mid-2008 to late 2009 and shows how their struggles to pay the rent each month can create insurmountable challenges in every other aspect of their lives.  A snowball becomes an avalanche.  And then they are evicted, and it becomes even worse.

I did not realize just how often people are evicted from their homes.  I have always had a vague idea that laws favor the renter over the landlord, perhaps based on the whole "possession is 90% of the law" idea.  But I think that whole notion is predicated on the idea that both sides are equally educated and have the same access to resources.  When the two sides are not balanced, things can go south very quickly.

Desmond states that "If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women.  Poor black men were locked up.  Poor black women were locked out."  In Milwaukee, black women make up less than 10% of the population but more than 30% of the evictions.  Eviction wreaks havoc in so many ways - parents have to scramble to secure housing, they often lose their material possessions in addition to their homes, their kids are taken out of school, no one feels connected to or committed to a neighborhood, and they now have an eviction on their record, making it even harder to find another home.

It is hard to read Desmond's book without feeling a little sick or hoping that maybe he is exaggerating the situation.  Can landlords really be so cruel?  Is it true that they make the most profit off their poorest tenants?  This must be a pretty one-sided presentation of the information, right?

And maybe it is.  After all, there are eight families profiled, but only two landlords, and the two landlords are disturbingly unkind and mercurial.  Even with that caveat, though, this is a very bleak picture of America.

The tenants here have all made mistakes in their lives, some of them have made really big ones.  It is tempting to think - well, they messed up.  They deserve this.  If they just worked more/tried harder/stayed clean, then they wouldn't be in this situation.  I think we all want to think that because we need to believe that we live in a fair world, and that those of us who are being dealt a better life got that life because we work more, try harder, and are smarter.  Not just because we were lucky.  Because if any of this is based on luck, and luck can change, then any one of us could be struggling.

But even people who make mistakes have children who deserve stability.  They have families that need financial and emotional support.  They need help but are afraid to ask for it.  They don't know their rights.  They pay a very high price for their mistakes, and with the snowball effect that just one crisis can have on someone in poverty, they keep paying that price, over and over.

Desmond uses the word "exploitation" to describe the relationship between landlords and their tenants in poor neighborhoods.  I was aghast at the conditions he described.  Landlords often charge tenants very high prices (really, not that much lower than rent in much better neighborhoods) for apartments that are in really bad shape.  And, since they can threaten these tenants with eviction at almost any time, they don't feel any obligation to do maintenance work or upkeep on their units.  They nickel and dime tenants, make them do work for free, kick them out, and then begin again with someone new.

It took me a very long time to read this book, mainly because it was so sad.  It was hard to pick it up after a long day of work.  But I live in a very large and very segregated city, and I think it's important for me (and everyone else) to understand how housing policies can impact Chicago.  For that reason, I'm really glad I read this book and better understand the economics and politics at play here.  It was a tough one, but it's important.  You may not think that housing policy has any effect on you, but it does - it is your taxes, your neighborhood, your school, and your city.  So pay attention.

If you would prefer to read about Desmond's book and the issues he brings up rather than reading the full book, I highly recommend the New York Times review.


  1. The thing that gets to me when people talk about others getting what they deserved for making mistakes is that all of us have made mistakes. Maybe my mistakes didn't happen to involve taking drugs or committing a serious crime, but I've done dumb things out of laziness or exhaustion or not knowing any better. And I was lucky enough that I didn't have to deal with serious consequences. Making a mistake or even a series of mistakes shouldn't mean losing your home (or not having enough to eat, for that matter). There should be room for mistakes in life.

    1. I agree. I think a lot of that is the psychology of - when good things happen to me, it's because I deserve it. When good things happen to you, it's because you're lucky. And the converse is true of bag things. Empathy can be in short supply in those cases.

  2. I nearly picked this up at the library a few weeks ago, but couldn't quite bear to. Since I have a few family members who work for homeless shelters (and one who handles fair rent complaints), I hear a lot about this topic anecdotally. I'd like to say that nothing landlords do could surprise me, no predatory thing, but actually, I keep perpetually being shocked that people can treat other people so badly. It makes me feel really helpless. :(

    1. I know, it can be horrible! But at the same time, I think it must be very difficult to be a landlord. Especially if you are dealing with things far beyond your field of experience. I don't really want to think, "God, landlords are the worst." I think the difficulty is in the imbalance of power and information; it makes it pretty easy to take advantage of a situation and a person.

  3. Anonymous5/03/2016

    I would really like to read this although I know it will be depressing and difficult to get through. Personally I grew up with very little, and the only reason I consistently had a roof over my head is that my grandfather purchased a small condo for my family to live in, knowing full well that my parents weren't going to be able to regularly make rent if they had to rent apartments forever. I consider that a huge privilege and I'm mindful of the fact that my childhood could have been a LOT different had he not done that for my family.

    Also, not to defend landlords, because they can do awfully horrible things to people, especially people who have very little in terms of resources, but working in banking for so many years has exposed me to both sides of this thing. And many landlords are barely earning enough on the rent to pay their mortgage, so when a tenant is late or doesn't pay at all, it can seriously screw up the landlord's finances. Of course that's not an excuse for them treating a tenant badly, but it does put them in a difficult, often desperate situation as well.

  4. I have this on my to-read list. Listening to the description makes me think about Adrian LeBlanc's Random Family, which just focused on a group of family/friends in the Bronx for a few years and everything that happened then. This book is of course more focused on the particular issue of eviction, but the whole snowball effect and how the cost of mistakes is compounded if you're already poor.

  5. I can see how this would be a very sad book to read. Although not the same, but in a similar vein, over the last few years there have been a rash of instances where people rent properties through someone only to find out later it was a scam. Often times, these are people who do not have much, are desperate for a place to live and now they are out of the money for rent or a down payment. It is sick how people take advantage of others.

    I get a lot of calls at my office from landlords on the verge of evicting families. Sometimes I think they are hoping we can help the process along faster. I suppose we can if a person ends up getting arrested or runs to avoid us, but on the other side of the coin, my agency can connect them to resources to help them stay if they're willing as well.


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