Desmond presents a portrait of a wealthy country that continues to rot from within.
People used to move to Portland, Oregon for its cheap rent. Ten years ago, Portland was one of the more affordable west coast cities, a more viable option than its sister city Seattle to the north for artists and middle-class families. Today, the city’s rents are out of control. The median rent for a three-bedroom apartment is more than $1,400 per month, landing Portland in the top 20 most expensive cities for rentals. And this is for people who can actually afford their apartments.
In Matthew Desmond’s Evicted we don’t see working white families or trust fund bobos trying to find an apartment with the perfect feng shui. Instead, we meet some of the denizens of Milwaukee whose economic woes are so great that they are forced to live in conditions so awful that they read as if they are coming via reports from a developing nation, not the United States. We meet people like Lamar, a double-amputee, whose rent leaves him with than $2.50 a day to subsist on. Lamar has no other option. Either he pays a ridiculous amount of his wages to a landlord, or he is homeless.
Evicted weaves it way through the lives of people such as Lamar as Desmond takes us through grimy apartments in Milwaukee’s North Side to a sketchy trailer park on the city’s outskirts, sparing us no detail of the awful conditions in which these people must live. Story after story of broken appliances, combative neighbors and even maggot and excrement-filled units feed Desmond’s book. These people have no choice. This is the only type of unit someone can get, even if they are spending up to 80% of their monthly income.
Damning as it may be of landlords, Evicted also helps us understand how the people who populate its pages have ended up in such dire straits. Many of them have disabilities, mental or physical, that render them unable to work. Others, such as a former nurse named Scott, suffer from drug or alcohol addiction. Others are just working families that don’t really make much money. One thing that unites them all, however, is the threat of eviction, a very real danger if they miss a payment.
In Evicted, Desmond levels his tales by providing the perspective of both the tenant and the landlord. In no place is that power disparity more apparent than in eviction court. Landlords don’t really need a reason to displace a tenant, especially those who miss payments. However, many of the folks in Desmond’s book willfully miss rent. Many of them can’t afford basics such as food and clothing. Some strike deals with the landlord, but these are often Faustian bargains that almost never benefit the tenant. The eviction scenes in the book are often painful as families lose not only their homes, but most of their belongings. This sort of displacement is especially painful for children as they are ripped from their homes and away from their friends and schools.
Not everyone suffers in Evicted. By helping perpetuate the extreme poverty of their tenants, the landlords here are able to make quite a profit, even after making enough to maintain (or not maintain) their buildings. Desmond presents a portrait of a wealthy country that continues to rot from within. If the current administration is any barometer, it’s time to stuff our pockets, no matter the human cost. Evicted shows us just a of the few people who suffer from such a sentiment.