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.