Evict the Landlords

Evicted sharply details the injustices renters face. But the book's "solution" would end up enriching landlords.

Milwaukee’s North Side rose up last month, following the police killing of Sylville Smith. State officials like Democratic Wisconsin county sheriff David Clarke blamed the riots on “black cultural dysfunction” while Donald Trump called for “more cops on the street,” ignoring the fact that police violence provoked the riot in the first place. But as Matthew Desmond makes clear in his book Evicted, the police are but one part of a complex landscape of inequality in Milwaukee.

In Evicted Desmond uses the lens of real estate to bring the struggles of Milwaukeeans to life. Drawing on years of ethnographic research in some of Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods — including both the predominantly black ghetto on the North Side and a mostly white trailer park south of the Menomonee River — he shows how chronically unaffordable, inadequate, and insecure housing produces myriad social ills, running the gamut from unemployment to malnutrition, from psychological trauma to substance abuse, from failing schools to conflicts with police. “Without stable shelter,” he writes, “everything else falls apart.”

Desmond blends rich dialogue, vivid descriptions, and intimate character portraits with extensive statistical evidence, underscoring the national scope of the housing crisis. As working-class incomes stagnate and housing costs soar, millions of Americans now spend most of their income on rent, sometimes leaving only a few dollars a day for other expenses.

Hundreds of thousands are evicted each year: forced from their homes, their belongings stacked on the curb or carted away, lives uprooted, neighborhoods disturbed, children traumatized.

Eviction and shoddy housing, Desmond vividly shows, afflict the poor across racial lines. But like so many other social ills, poor black people — and in particular black women — experience it disproportionately.

Desmond sees eviction as the equivalent of mass incarceration for poor black women. “Poor black men were locked up,” he writes. “Poor black women were locked out.” Like mass incarceration — itself an epidemic in Milwaukee — eviction subjects the poor to often permanently stigmatizing punishment for minor violations. It further segregates the already marginalized, making it exponentially harder for people to overcome the difficulties that brought trouble their way in the first place.

But Evicted wants to do more than document suffering. Desmond presents eviction as a social process that reveals structures of power and exploitation. In keeping with its subtitle — Poverty and Profit in the American CityEvicted insists that we understand these terms as deeply entwined.

Huge profits are made on the backs of the poor — not only by landlords, but also by pawnshops, loan sharks, and moving and storage companies. This drive for wealth exacerbates poverty, as the evicted become even more vulnerable to predation. “There are losers and winners,” Desmond writes, “There are losers because there are winners.”

Or, to put it differently, poor people aren’t simply excluded from American prosperity: prosperity comes at their expense. Exploitation, Desmond stresses, is a word that “has been scrubbed out of the poverty debate.” His book seeks to restore it.

Two Different Headaches

While researching the book Desmond spent equal time with the landlords and the tenants, earning the trust of evictor and evictee alike. In Evicted he relates their views and experiences respectfully, refusing moralism or sentimentality. But a sense of irony and injustice comes through nonetheless.

In one scene he describes a North Side landlord, Sherrena, and her tenant, Arleen, as the landlord gives tenant a lift home from housing court on Christmas Day. (Milwaukee’s housing courts work through religious holidays.) Sherrena has just successfully arranged to evict Arleen, who fell behind on rent after paying for the funeral of a women she considered a sister.

“Both women had splitting headaches,” Desmond writes. “Sherrena attributed hers to how court had gone”: while she had won the right to evict Arleen, she’d hoped for a larger money judgment against her as well. The tenant’s headache, on the other hand, “was from hunger. She hadn’t eaten all day.”

Two months later, a different apartment Sherrena owns goes up in flames, taking the life of a baby and leaving a dozen people homeless. Despite her close personal connection to the young mother, Kamala — Sherrena taught her in fourth grade — the landlord asks the firemen about her business first. Is she liable for the inadequate smoke alarms? (No, she is not.) Is she obligated to return Kamala’s rent money for the month since the apartment no longer exists? (No, she is not.)

“The only positive thing I can say is happening out of all of this,” Sherrena reflects, “is that I may get a huge chunk of money” in the form of an insurance payout.

Sherrena may even care about Kamala and the tragic loss of her baby, but her number one priority is her own financial worries. The mortgage bills are relentless; at one point, after completing some expensive repairs, Sherrena reportedly has only a few dollars in her checking account to sustain her until the next round of rents roll in.

Nonetheless, Kamala’s loss becomes Sherrena’s gain, and cash grows from the ruins.

This is no aberration. As Desmond points out, often a landlord’s “worst properties yielded her best returns.” Sherrena brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in rent from a small empire of properties worth over $2 million. Her white counterpart south of the river, second-generation landlord Tobin Charney, rakes in close to half a million per year from trailer park rents. (How much money flows from these local landlords to banks and their investors is a question Evicted leaves mostly unexplored.)

The fatal February fire dramatizes the life-and-death stakes of America’s housing system, reminding us that Milwaukee has been burning for years. Mostly, though, Evicted does not focus on the spectacular blazes but on the slow smoldering, the everyday suffocation of people stuck in the lowest sectors of American society.

Even those whose homes do not go up in flames often end up losing their belongings, as the rates charged by storage companies exceed their ability to pay. Their stuff gets left curb-side, or worse, locked in storage for a few months, until the payments lapse. Then it gets junked, or else, sold.

Of course, local landlords and storage companies aren’t the only ones exacerbating poverty in pursuit of profit. Business interests have been working to produce poverty in Milwaukee for a long time. As Desmond writes:

Milwaukee used to be flush with good jobs. But throughout the second half of the twentieth century, bosses in search of cheap labor moved plants overseas or to Sunbelt communities, where unions were weaker or didn’t exist. Between 1979 and 1983, Milwaukee’s manufacturing sector lost more jobs than during the Great Depression — about fifty-six thousand of them.

The city where virtually everyone had a job in the postwar years saw its unemployment rate climb into the double digits. Those who found new work in the emerging service sector took a pay cut. As one historian observed, “Machinists in the old Allis-Chalmers plant earned at least $11.60 an hour; clerks in the shopping center that replaced much of that plant in 1987 earned $5.23.”

These massive job losses and slashed wages were compounded by “the end of welfare as we know it,” which cut assistance to the poor just when they needed it most, further stigmatizing those dependent on government aid to survive.

Deindustrialization not only spread poverty, it also deepened long-standing racial divisions in “America’s most segregated city.” As Desmond continues:

When plants closed, they tended to close in the inner city, where black Milwaukeeans lived. The black poverty rate rose to 28 percent in 1980. By 1990, it had climbed to 42 percent … Today in Milwaukee … one in two working-age African American men doesn’t have a job.

Trailer Park Privilege

The impact of racial discrimination on housing is of central interest for Desmond. He highlights the significantly steeper eviction rates and the higher rates of poverty and violence African American inner-city residents face relative to poor whites. In the wake of the recent protests, this important aspect has been much discussed.

Yet most critics’ frame the problem in a limited way. For example, in her review of Evicted Katha Pollit argues:

Desmond lays out the crucial role housing plays in creating and reinforcing white privilege. In Milwaukee, one of the most segregated cities in the United States, all black people suffer from housing discrimination and all white people benefit at least a little from the racial dividend.

Desmond himself goes further, confronting readers with the open expressions of white supremacy that remain all too easy to find among poor white Milwaukeeans. But if we push Desmond even further, we can see how this “racial dividend” for white people also isolates and punishes them, ultimately distorting and undercutting white working-class political agency and making all poor people more vulnerable to exploitation. The existence of a super-exploited, predominantly black ghetto combines with working-class whites’ racist attitudes to shore up an exploitative system, particularly during moments of crisis.

Thus, when local politicians and media turn Tobin Charney’s ill-maintained — but very profitable — trailer park into a matter of public scandal, his tenants rally to defend him. The fear of being pushed out of their current homes and into the “black ghetto” of the North Side makes Charney appear as an ally. As Desmond puts it:

That was the heart of it, what trailer park residents feared the most. When Mary and Tina and Mrs. Meyers and the whole trailer park talked about having to leave, what they were talking about was the possibility of having to move into the black ghetto.

Susie was one of several residents who had previously lived on the North Side, where her adult son had had a gun stuck in his face. “The alderman said this is a ghetto slum,” she vented. “I’ll show you a ghetto!” The situation twisted Susie’s stomach so much that her son hid her pain pills, fearing she’d swallow a handful.

Junk-collector Rufus also rallies to Charney’s cause, declaring in a speech for the media that “this is no slumlord. This is not a bad man.”

The existence of the North Side — both as material fact and as racist mystification — allows Charney to become, by comparison, “not a bad man.” It allows an overcrowded, rundown, poverty-stricken, and sewage-seeping trailer park to appear as “not a ghetto.”

Rather than seizing on public attention to press for much-needed improvements or for other meaningful reforms, the park residents cling to their existing conditions, rallying to the defense of a man whose six-figure annual income comes directly from their meager paychecks. Milwaukee’s white poor don’t benefit from a racial dividend here, they are trapped by it.

Liberal accounts of white privilege like Pollit’s tend to ignore this social control aspect, reinforcing a zero-sum game that pits white poor against black, while obscuring their common class interest in eliminating racial disparities and ideologies alike.

Part of the problem may lie in how Charney encourages his residents to see themselves as owners. As Desmond notes, “all but twenty trailers [out of well over one hundred] in the park were owner-occupied.” And yet, he points out, “The only benefit to owning your trailer was psychological.”

Indeed, far from protecting them from exploitation or eviction, ownership renders them all the more vulnerable, obscuring their landlord’s predation. Desmond discerns that residents feel a pervasive tolerance for — and, in some cases, admiration of — Charney’s millions, which speaks to the psychological power of “ownership society.” After all, aren’t many of them “owners” just like him?

Isolated Resistance

Back on the North Side, Desmond reports several residents’ fitful attempts to resist the power of landlords, but they remain dispersed, individual, ineffective — and meet with swift repression.

At one point, Patrice and Doreen, two of Sherrena’s tenants, separately decide to withhold rent to pressure their landlord for much-needed repairs. All they get are eviction notices. As Desmond points out, though housing law recognizes a tenant’s right to withhold rent in response to landlord neglect, in Wisconsin this does not apply to tenants already in arrears, which low-income renters often are. Economic inequality undercuts the law’s formal fairness.

The justice system clamps down even more brutally in the case of Vanetta, a single mother (and domestic violence survivor) who we meet in a homeless shelter. After having her hours at work slashed from five days to one, she takes desperate action to pay her electricity bill and thus keep Child Protective Services from taking her kids away.

She agrees to a friend’s plan to hold up two female shoppers. Police pick them up within hours. If they’d run, they might have been killed in the street like Sylville Smith.

In her confession, Vanetta explains that she “was desperate to pay my bills and I was nervous and scared and did not want to see my kids in the dark or out in the street.” The presiding judge recognizes the persistent poverty that motivated Vanetta’s crime, but nonetheless sentences her to “eighty-one months in the state prison system,” broken into “fifteen months of extended confinement” and “sixty-six months of extended supervision.” Her children watch as she is led away in handcuffs.

This moment brings out some of Desmond’s most impassioned prose, as he renders explicit the ruling’s subtext:

What the judge was saying, in essence, was: We all agree that you were poor and scared when you did this violent, hurtful thing, and if you had been allowed to go on working five days a week at Old Country Buffet … none of us would be here right now. You might have been able to save up enough to move to an apartment that was de-leaded and live in a neighborhood without drug dealers and with safe schools … But that’s not what happened.

What happened was that your hours were cut, and your electricity was about to be shut off, and you and your children were about to be thrown out of your home and you snatched somebody’s purse as your friend pointed a gun at her face. And if it was poverty that caused this crime, who’s to say you won’t do it again? Because you were poor then and you are poor now. We all see the underlying cause, we see it every day in this court, but the justice system is no charity, no jobs program, no Housing Authority. If we cannot pull the weed up by the roots, then at least we can cut it low at the stem.

At such moments, Desmond helps us understand the criminal justice system’s logic, even as he rails against it. It controls and punishes those who can’t find work, cutting them down and tearing them away from their families, even as it knows that the real problem lies elsewhere.

Opposing Interests

Right up until the end of Evicted, Desmond foregrounds systemic class antagonism:

Regardless of how landlords came to own property — sweat, intelligence, or ingenuity for some; inheritance, luck, or fraud for others — rising rents mean more money for landlords and less for tenants. Their fates are bound and their interests opposed.

This, Desmond argues, confronts us with a genuine contradiction: “There 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.”

Readers might expect the author to side with the latter, but in the very next paragraph he tries to smooth the opposition over. “There is a way we can rebalance these two freedoms,” he writes, by “significantly expanding our housing voucher program so that all low-income families could benefit from it . . . . A universal housing voucher program,” he explains, “would carve a middle path between the landlord’s desire to make a living and the tenant’s desire, simply, to live.”

Desmond’s proposal is deeply problematic. While it would give some housing protection to the poor, it would also “transfer [a state subsidy] directly to landlords.” Unlike rent control, or the publicly financed construction of nonprofit housing, the vouchers Desmond champions do not challenge the financial interests of real estate owners. Rather they promise to steady — and indeed to dramatically increase — the flow of rent to private landlords (not to mention the bankers above them).

Most immediately, pumping public money into the private housing market does nothing to bring down rapidly increasing rents. Indeed, as Desmond himself admits (in an endnote):

There is some evidence . . . that our current voucher program might be driving up everybody’s rent: not only voucher holders’ but unassisted renters’ too. The main reason is simple. If millions of poor people opt out of the private market for public housing, that will lower demand and, thus, rent at the bottom of the market. If those people are reintroduced to the private market, voucher in hand, that will increase demand and, with it, rent.

Thus, while Desmond’s “universal” voucher program might provide some temporary breathing room to millions of our poorest, it threatens to do so at the expense of millions of other middle-income and working-class people.

One can defend the proposal in humanitarian terms, but strategically speaking, it plays into the hands of those who would pit the working poor against the reserve army of the unemployed. Desmond makes no proposal that might unite these sectors around their common interests as renters. (His second proposal, to grant court-appointed representation to those facing eviction, is less problematic.)

Furthermore, Desmond’s proposed voucher would funnel billions in taxpayer dollars right back into the pockets of landlords, a class whose interests remain — as Desmond reminds us — “fundamentally opposed” to those of renters. This plan does not just postpone the fight for public housing or rent control, it strengthens those forces committed to making sure such proposals never happen.

As Desmond points out elsewhere, the idea of rental vouchers originated with the private real estate industry, which promoted them as an alternative to public housing after World War II. “Landlords and Realtors saw government-built and -managed buildings offered at cut-rate rents as a direct threat to their legitimacy and bottom line.” They called for “rent certificates” instead, denouncing public housing as “the cutting edge of the Communist front.” Senator Joseph McCarthy (of Wisconsin, it’s worth noting) cut his teeth in this fight.

The industry could not eliminate public housing from the 1949 Housing Act, but it has since worked to defund and delegitimize the idea — a huge win for real estate circles.

How can Desmond’s powerful account of contemporary tenants end with a call to enact policies preferred by their exploiters?

It makes sense that Desmond would ground his closing call for “establishing the basic right to housing in America” in a certain pragmatic logic, considering austerity’s decades-long hold over social services. But while framing his proposal as a “universal” solution sounds bold, it leaves us enmeshed in structures of class exploitation.

The Landlord Class

Making the call for vouchers all the more puzzling, Evicted shows a deep awareness of the growing class power of landlords. Desmond takes us to two different landlord-organizing sessions — one with Sherrena Tarver, and one with Tobin Charney, both south of the river.

Meeting in local hotels and function halls, property owners encourage one another, swap tips and legal insights, form social bonds, and consolidate a collective identity opposed to those they refer to as the “dregs of society” — their tenants. Desmond underlines the novelty of these events:

A couple generations ago, a gathering like this would have been virtually unheard of. Many landlords were part-timers: machinists or preachers or police officers who came to own property almost by accident (through inheritance, say) and saw real estate as a side gig. But the last forty years had witnessed the professionalization of property management. Since 1970, the number of people primarily employed as property managers had more than quadrupled.

As more landlords began buying more property and thinking of themselves primarily as landlords (instead of people who happened to own the unit downstairs), professional associations proliferated, and with them support services, accreditations, training materials, and financial instruments.

According to the Library of Congress, only three books offering apartment-management advice were published between 1951 and 1975. Between 1976 and 2014, the number rose to 215. Even if most landlords in a given city did not consider themselves “professionals,” housing had become a business.

Later on, Desmond provides an extended glimpse into Milwaukee’s Landlord Training Program, a state-funded program Charney is required to attend after his property’s decrepit conditions become public. Far from a lesson in respecting tenants’ rights or improving conditions, the session focuses on how landlords can maximize control over their tenants. It ends with a speaker leading attendees in a call-and-response chant, “This is my property . . . This is my property! . . . This is my property! Myyyy property!”

These landlords may compete with one another, but together they affirm their class identity, unapologetic owners of the places where other people live.

Charney’s tenants, on the other hand, appear isolated, discouraged, and divided from one another — not to mention from their fellow renters across the river. At one point, Scott, a former nurse and recovering heroin addict, lands a job to help him avoid eviction — cleaning out the homes of the recently evicted. While Scott works, his own trailer gets raided, this time not by the landlord but by another park resident; his neighbor looks on and lets it happen. On the North Side as well, under intense stress, friendships dissolve or even turn violent.

That said, a certain culture of mutual aid persists on both sides of the river. “All over the city,” Desmond writes, “people who lived in distressed neighborhoods were more likely to help their neighbors pay bills, buy groceries, fix their car, or lend a hand in other ways, compared to their peers in better-off areas.” But this ethic of mutual aid does not translate into political solidarity.

Indeed, in some ways it might even work against it. Desmond suggests that the public exposure of residents’ acute need undercuts their belief in collective power. “A community that saw so clearly its own pain had a difficult time also sensing its potential.” That is, people’s sense of shame — and their shaming of others — bars the development of solidarity.

Desmond’s housing voucher proposal might take some of the pressure off of these people, giving social bonds among them more of a chance. But it would do so by enlisting taxpayers in the cause of further enriching landlords. Moreover, as a program targeted only at the very poorest, it risks further stigmatizing and shaming those it aims to help.

Shifting Vision

Desmond struggles to see a way out of this impasse, and draws on Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward’s 1979 book, Poor People’s Movements for guidance. Piven and Cloward argue that “for a protest movement to arise out of [the] traumas of daily life, the social arrangements that are ordinarily perceived as just and immutable must come to seem both unjust and mutable.”

“It was not enough simply to perceive injustice,” Desmond adds, “Mass resistance was possible only when people believed they had the collective capacity to change things. For poor people, this required identifying with the oppressed, and counting yourself among them — which was something most trailer park residents were absolutely unwilling to do.”

In the place of solidarity, Desmond finds widespread disidentification:

For most [trailer park] residents . . . the goal was to leave, not to plant roots and change things. Some residents described themselves as “just passing through,” even if they had been passing through nearly all their life.

Lacking a sense of potential — and eager to identify with lives lived elsewhere — the poor tenants that Desmond lived with show a high tolerance for the status quo.

And yet, Desmond reminds us, things once looked very different. Evictions “used to draw crowds.” He nostalgically references a New York Times story from 1932 about community resistance: “Probably because of the cold,” he quotes, “the crowd numbered only 1,000.” Throwing the present into stark relief, Desmond recalls a prior era of renter rebellion:

In years past, renters opposed landlords and saw themselves as a “class” with shared interests and a unified purpose. During the early twentieth century, tenants organized against evictions and unsanitary conditions.

When landlords raised rents too often or too steeply, tenants went so far as to stage rent strikes. Strikers joined together to withhold rent and form picket lines, risking eviction, arrest, and beatings by hired thugs.

Desmond offers a paradoxical assessment of the rebel renters. On the one hand, he emphasizes their fundamental difference from the people he observes today. But he also emphasizes their similarity: “They were not an especially radical bunch, these strikers,” he writes, “Most were ordinary mothers and fathers who believed landlords were entitled to modest rent increases and fair profits, but not ‘price-gouging.’”

We should credit Desmond for bringing this history into view. After all, he could easily have confined Evicted to what he personally observed in Milwaukee. Nonetheless he misleads his readers when he downplays — in fact, suppresses — a crucial element of past tenant resistance: the role played by radical ideas and organization.

At least according to the landlords, politicians, and newspapers of the time, the Bronx rent strikers were radicals. The Bronx Home News described the same strike Desmond alludes to above: “When news of the [strike] settlement reached the crowd, they promptly began chanting the Internationale and waving copies of the Daily Worker as though they were banners of triumph.” Democratic politician Benjamin Antin reportedly told Bronx landlords that “this is a peculiar neighborhood . . . the hot bed of Communism and radicalism.”

Max Kaimowitz, one of the Bronx rent strike leaders, summarized his position:

When times were good, the landlords didn’t offer to share their profits with us. The landlords made enough money off us when we had it. Now that we haven’t got it, the landlords must be satisfied with less.

No doubt, the people who participated in such actions were “ordinary mothers and fathers.” But they came to see themselves as a class in part because of the radical organizers in their midst.

Desmond avoids mentioning this basic historical fact. He understates — or altogether ignores — the important role consciously anticapitalist forces played in these working-class communities.

It is quite an irony to discover that a text which repeatedly laments the loss of militant class-conscious tenant organizing steers clear of such a key element — especially one that unlike, say, mass industrial employment, we might bring back ourselves.

This suppression matters because it affects how we see the present.

This is not to suggest that embedding a few hundred radical organizers among today’s exploited renters would spark a new wave of rent strikes and tenant unions. Nor is it to argue that such mobilizations would force rent control measures or a massive investment in public housing — let alone the outright socializing of existing private housing stock — onto the political agenda. (Although it might not hurt.)

But without some sort of organized and class-conscious group, committed to helping poor and working-class people seize the social meaning and political power latent in their conditions, such actions are unlikely to occur.

Moreover, by scrubbing the role played by communists and socialists from his text, Desmond misses the powerful role of anticommunism and the Cold War in diminishing the political power of the American working class.

Anticommunism rendered the politics of anticapitalist working-class struggle “un-American,” intolerable, and hence even unthinkable, thereby helping repress the possibility of addressing the systemic exploitation that is Evicted’s central theme. Desmond suggests as much when he cites the redbaiting that helped to sink public housing.

Yet he passes a version of housing struggle history scrubbed free of reds onto his readers, reproducing the sense of impossibility liberal discourse confines us to. He suggests that working people are, ultimately, the products of their time — not the shapers of it. Even worse: that poor people are capable of feelings but not of ideas.

“A community that saw so clearly its own pain,” Desmond writes, “had a difficult time sensing its potential.” No doubt. But radical educators and organizers can help people see that what they’ve long understood as matters of individual or personal failings in fact represent social matters, produced by political decisions and subject to historical change.

Doing so helps people to see that they are not alone in their suffering, and, moreover, that deprivation is not a necessary state of affairs, but rather the result of actions and institutions that have been deliberately set up by those who aim to exploit them.

Of course, Desmond knows that dramatizing suffering is not enough. How we see the suffering matters. Yet he suppresses the conscious political effort that helped renters of the thirties to see — and to fight — their landlords in class terms. In doing so, he obscures one of the key tasks of today.

Nonetheless, Desmond’s powerful book is worthy of serious attention. By so poignantly tracing the causes and effects of profiteering, Evicted has the potential to call forth political desires and discussions that transcend the author’s own prescriptions, aiming instead at something more radical: a society that truly puts human need before profit.