How I Relate to Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
As I read Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, the portrayal of the friction-filled lives and terrible living conditions experienced by eight tenant families in Milwaukee as telling “an American story” that can be found in average cities across the country, and isn’t reserved to places like Detroit, Los Angeles, or Chicago, I thought about two opposing experiences I’ve had living in two different cities: New York City and Salt Lake City.
In 1998, when I first graduated from law school, having accepted a job offer in NYC, I took a day off from studying for the NY Bar Exam to go on a housing hunt. Not being from the City, safety was a concern. I scanned the newspaper for good places to rent. The cheapest place I could find that still met our basic requirements was on the West Side. As I got closer and closer to the address, I noticed that the surroundings were getting dumpier and dumpier. I pushed the buzzer on the walk-up, and a man buzzed me in, but when I opened the door and saw the dark, dirty, banged-up, ever-so-steep flight of stairs, I got the heebie-jeebies, turned around, and walked away. I soon found out that that had been in Hell’s Kitchen.
So I have a confession to make (a big, bad one): I gave up on trying to find the perfect, relatively cheap place full of character, and was lured into signing a promotional contract with a new development — yes, Donald Trump was my “landlord” — I was the very first tenant to move into the first Trump Place on the upper West side by the Lincoln Center, along the Hudson. Apart from riding the subway, I didn’t see too much of the stereotypical inner-city life, spent long hours at the office, and went to church with lots of other DINKS. But within a year, I had a baby, and my husband and I moved to downtown Salt Lake City.
When we first went to church in downtown SLC, we quickly discovered that it looked nothing like the congregation in NYC. For one thing, the pews were relatively empty (ironically surprising). For another, the people were not well educated, and with the exception of a wealthier retired community and a few others, the congregants were primarily residents of a retired and/or disabled public-housing high-rise, or part of a permanent low-income class, living in ghetto-like neighborhoods, including three homeless shelters.
Shortly after getting sworn in to the Utah Bar (still nursing my baby), I discovered that I would be called upon regularly (along with a couple of others) to be the pro bono legal services for my congregation. My first case was an eviction case.
A family with young children was being asked to vacate immediately or incur triple damages and attorneys fees, with back rent owed regardless. After helping my clients put up bond, and counterclaiming with, among other things: partial payment, with prior notice of a broken furnace and sewage problems; and stolen tools (the landlord had taken my handy-man client’s specialty tools, affecting his ability to work), I got chewed out by opposing counsel. He said, “What are you doing? You must be new around here; this isn’t the way it’s done. You’re unnecessarily complicating things.” When I went to court, I saw that the docket was set up for these cases to be rubber stamped quickly; the judge and opposing counsel were chummy from having seen so much of each other, with nobody there with representation to defend themselves against their slumlord. The case dragged on (for discovery) while the living conditions got worse and my clients looked for other options. The landlord, nervous about some of the allegations against him, did return the tools, and we got the case dismissed, without damages or attorneys fees; but ultimately, my clients moved back with the in-laws out of state, and the landlord was never really held accountable as a bad actor.
I spent four years living in SLC’s inner city before moving to the suburbs. I saw situations similar to Desmond’s documented vignettes of how the poor are exploited, and how people’s housing situation affects every other aspect of their lives: from the devastating effects of high interest pay-day loans to try to keep afloat, to the heart-wrenching stories of DCFS being so quick to take children away from poverty-stricken families and putting them into juvenile homes or foster care, to people living in constant fear, if not of gang violence or deportation, then of eviction.
Desmond eloquently explains that when we discuss the housing issue, “[t]here are two freedoms at odds with each other: the freedom to profit from rents and the freedom to live in a safe and affordable home.” While he paints a picture that makes it clear that we can’t blame tenants for their plight (they have no options to get ahead), he doesn’t cast all of the blame at the feet of landlords, either: “[i]f given the same opportunity, would any of us price an apartment at half of what it could fetch or simply forgive and forget losing thousands of dollars when the rent checks didn’t arrive?” But we’re deceiving ourselves if we say the housing market should just be left as is to regulate itself; after all, the government is actively supporting the exploitation, with a system that “legitimizes and defends landlords’ right to charge as much as they want; that subsidizes the construction of high-end apartments, bidding up rents and leaving the poor with even fewer options; that pays landlords when a family cannot, through onetime or ongoing housing assistance; that forcibly removes a family at landlords’ request by dispatching armed law enforcement officers,” and on and on.
I completely agree with Desmond that we need to “uncover the ironies and inefficiencies that arise when policymakers try to help poor families without addressing the root causes of poverty.” After all, simply increasing wages, without any other action, just leads to higher rents, and the poor still have the same impossible burdens to meet. Desmond believes there’s a way to re-balance the two competing freedoms: by significantly expanding our housing voucher program (and ensuring regulation). I’m not sure this will solve what’s a very difficult problem, but we certainly need to have a real, serious conversation about it.
It starts with awareness. Just as I failed to witness the day-to-day struggles of many living in NYC, many residents of SLC are oblivious to the dire situations of people just blocks southwest of their high-end downtown living. Now when I drive along the West Side Highway in NYC, I feel sick as I see that the entire West Side has been turned into a long string of character-lacking, high-end housing, bearing the name of Trump. I contributed to there being fewer and fewer places for low-income people to live within the City because I couldn’t see the big picture. Why haven’t we been having these conversations during this election season? In the last several months, we’ve scarcely heard about the ever-increasing income gap or what the two major-party candidates plan to do about the multi-faceted problem of poverty in our country. Both parties seem to benefit from not finding answers. We need to create a less polarized, less special-interest driven electoral system that allows us to see each other, talk to each other, understand each other’s concerns, needs and interests, and start making real progress for the good of our country. For me, the inner city is a crazy memory, but for millions of Americans, it’s a devastating daily reality.
Tiani Xochitl Coleman is a mother of five, a graduate of Cornell Law School, and president of NH Independent Voters.
Dr. Jessie Fields
The book, EVICTED Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond teaches us so much about how eviction impacts the lives of poor people in America and about how profitable poverty is in our cities.
I find the book to be a powerful combination of personal tragedies, grit in the face of exploitation and hardship, and important revelations about causes of poverty. It is a stirring, compelling must read. We come to live with the families as the author did and many moments in the book provoke deep sadness and tears at their suffering.
When Vanetta and Crystal, two young black women who had been evicted and were staying in a shelter were denied housing because of their race, the author explains that housing segregation was not an accident of urban industrialization.
The ghetto had always been a main feature of landed capital, a prime moneymaker for those who saw ripe opportunity in land scarcity, housing dilapidation, and racial segregation.”
Property in poor communities plagued by long standing housing segregation cost landlords less, they are still able to charge relatively high rents without the expense of having to maintain the property.
One of the many stories in the book is the disproportionate impact of eviction on Black women, their children and families.
The everyday stories of our cities: too bleak to wrap in stanzas
Such fury jumps the meter, misery will burst the rhyme
Like a forced move down below
With no heat in winter
Clogged sinks and empty shelves
To worse on the streets.
Arleen, Jori, Jafaris
Vanetta and her little boy
Crystal spinning out of control.
Lamar and the boys
The Hinkstons: Doreen, Patrice, Natasha
Lorraine, Pam and Ned
However poor whites
And blacks kept divided.
Matthew Desmond, a Harvard professor moved into Tobin’s trailer park in May 2008 and lived there for several months, followed by living in a rooming house in the black community on the North Side of Milwaukee until June 2009. Desmond immersed himself in the lives of poor families black and white and he worked to understand the landlords as well. In the last chapter of the book, “About This Project” he writes about the personal impact the work had on him.
The honest answer is that the work was heartbreaking and left me depressed for years.”
“You do learn how to cope from those who are coping.”
There is also in the book many examples of the decency and humanity that poor and working people steadfastly uphold even in the midst of it all.
Dr. Jessie Fields is a physician practising in Harlem, a leader in the New York City Independence Clubs, and a board member of the All Stars Project and Open Primaries.