Tuesday, March 15, 2016


When a low-income parent gets evicted, what happens?

Matthew Desmond’s new book, Evicted, looks closely at what happens to a series of low-income people, mostly parents, in Milwaukee.  It should be required reading for anyone who works at a community college or a public school in a low-income area.

Desmond insinuated himself into the lives of dozens of people in the Milwaukee area at the onset of the Great Recession, and followed their lives closely for years.  The book is written mostly as a series of character-driven vignettes, rather than as academic sociology, though he connects the dots in passing and at the end.  

I won’t attempt to go through the whole thing; there’s just too much.  Instead, I’ll offer a few highlights that seemed particularly revealing or relevant.

  • Rents in low-income areas often aren’t that much lower than in “nicer” areas.  But a combination of limited transportation, bars on tenants with previous evictions, selective enforcement of “nuisance” rules, and garden variety racism serve to confine many renters to the least desirable areas.
  • Evictions in some neighborhoods have become so common that they’re routine.  That wasn’t always true.  
  • Statistically, having children living with you dramatically increases the odds of eviction and homelessness.  
  • Rent often takes about 90 percent of income.  When that happens, naturally, people fall behind on the rent.  Many landlords make a deal with tenants: the landlords look the other way on small shortfalls, and the tenants agree not to report the deplorable conditions of the apartments to inspectors.  The money the landlords save on repairs is far more than the lost rent.  If a tenant “causes trouble,” such as by calling in police or housing inspectors, the landlord uses the missing rent to evict her.
  • “Section 8” vouchers are of limited applicability.  Many landlords don’t want to spend the money on repairs to get the units to pass inspection.  And in many places, the waitlist for vouchers is years long, when it’s open at all.
  • Most of the evicted tenants are women with children.  As Desmond put it, in some neighborhoods, the men get locked up and the women get locked out.  
  • Housing instability is both effect and cause of depression.  Repeated evictions, punctuated by stays in places with non-working plumbing or holes in windows, do a number on morale.  Some deal with depression by self-medicating.  Some become prone to impulsive decisions, trying to “live in color,” even if only for passing moments.  Some become so consumed that they largely give up.
  • Evictions make it harder to hold a job.  In turn, job loss makes it harder to keep an apartment.
  • People on the edge will take in new acquaintances, out of a sense of obligation.  Those abrupt arrangements tend to end quickly and badly.
  • Eviction records are easily available to most landlords.  Prospective tenants with checkered histories are relegated to the worst units, where they’re told that they’re hanging by a thread and should not cause trouble by “getting inspectors all up in here.”
  • When shelter is an open question, education can become a “second-order good.”  The harm to children is palpable.

Desmond’s book seemed much more careful than Alice Goffman’s “On the Run,” an ethnography of a low-income neighborhood in Philadelphia that focused on police-community relations.  Goffman’s book made an enormous splash, but raised some eyebrows by its methodology and the ambiguous position of the author.  (I thought the book largely successful, but upon reading Desmond’s book, some of the criticism makes more sense.)  Desmond’s book also stood in contrast to Kathryn Edin’s “$2.00 a Day,” which examined the daily lives of some of the most precariously-resourced people in the country.  In Desmond’s book, welfare payments formed the baseline for local rents.  In Edin’s, almost nobody received welfare, or even knew anybody who did; the system had become so difficult to access that it had essentially vanished.  I don’t know to what extent the difference reflects local context, or timing, but it was hard not to notice.  I’ll defer to my sociologist colleagues to sort that one out.

Still, putting the accounts together, it’s hard to come away without a sense of urgency.  The upward mobility that community colleges live for relies on a certain basic level of material security.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs isn’t perfect, but it’s hard to study for a Bio test when you don’t know where you’ll sleep that night.  And the transience that affects so many low-income students -- and is effectively blamed on them -- is often involuntary.  

It’s a depressing read, but a necessary one.  Highly recommended.