"The Rent Eats First": A Review of Matthew Desmond's EVICTED

The first book to be included in my goal of reading more frequently is Matthew Desmond's Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Meticulously researched and incredibly thorough, Evicted follows several landlords and tenants in Milwaukee, WI as they navigate the complicated system of property ownership and poverty.

This book is a non-fictional account of real people and real stories (albeit with names and some personal details changed), but it reads more like a novel than any other book like this that I've ever read. Desmond was physically present for the bulk of the conversations and interactions he writes about, so his telling of what happens feels more like that of a reliable narrator than a detached academic.

It took me a little more than a month to read this book, and I often had to put it down and pause for a bit because the stories Desmond tells aren't always easy to read. I'm so glad this was the first book I read as part of this new push to read more, as it's setting the bar high for the types of books I want to read in future months: gripping, insightful, and able to change my perspective on the world around me.

I highly recommend this book to everyone, especially if you're interested in housing policy or social justice issues in the urban environment. 

Read below for some excerpts and passages that especially stuck out to me.

"Women from black neighborhoods made up 9 percent of Milwaukee's population and 30 percent of its evicted tenants. 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." (Page 98)

Discussions around racial inequality often mention the growing rates of mass incarceration in the United States, particularly as they affect people of color and lower-income communities. While I completely agree that our criminal justice and prison systems are in need of reform, I find it particularly interesting that the issue of eviction and unstable housing -- being as prevalent as it is in this country -- doesn't seem to enter the national conversation nearly as much, if ever. 

" Or they might quote from How the Other Half Lives, published over a century ago: 'There is nothing in the prospect of a sharp, unceasing battle for the bare necessities of life to encourage looking ahead, everything to discourage the effort. ... The evil day of reckoning is put off till a to-morrow that may never come. When it does come ... it simply adds another hardship to a life measured from the cradle by such incidents.'" (Page 115)

This quote reminds me of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, the idea that people can only concern themselves with higher order needs, like long-term success, planning for the future, dreaming of higher education, once lower order needs are taken care of. Without physiological concerns -- such as being fed and sheltered -- out of the way, people tend not to think beyond those and plan for a strong financial future. 

This makes sense if you think about it. How can someone thinking about insurance plans or setting up a savings account if they're fighting to keep their home?

"Women tended not to negotiate their eviction like men did, and they were more likely to avoid landlords when they fell behind. These responses did not serve them well." (Page 128)

Yet another example of women not negotiating as often or as strongly as men. 

"Because most of their tenants didn't have bank accounts, collecting rents was a face-to-face affair." (Page 145)

I have a hypothesis that someone who has a bank account and access to basic personal finance resources (i.e. a bank, personal and small business loans, savings accounts, etc.) is much more likely to live a financially stable and upwardly-mobile life. Communities and neighborhoods where there aren't banks are called "banking deserts" and I believe that they are as detrimental to a community's overall health in a similar way a food desert is.

This idea is something I've been thinking about for several months and I'll be exploring it further in the rest of this blog, so stay tuned!

"Over three centuries of systematic dispossession from the land created a semipermanent black rental class and an artificially high demand for inner-city apartments." (Page 251)

The oppression of black people in America didn't end when slavery was abolished or when the Civil Rights Act was passed. This book shares some jarring stories, a few vignettes that showcase the broader effects of racism against people of color in this country and how they continue to affect our fellow Americans to this day. The fight against racist housing policies has been an ongoing battle, and this work demonstrates that it's far from over. 

As the problems related to income and racial inequality are discussed more and more often as part of a national discussion, I hope that reforms to our housing and urban development systems, too, reach a point where they're viewed as equally important to our nation's prosperity as the size of our military or the strength of our economy.

"[...] They could start a savings account or buy their children toys and books, perhaps even a home computer." (Page 295)

A savings account seems like a trivial thing to most people that I know. But, again, Desmond uses it here to represent a sense of financial planning and security that is largely unattainable for the people in this book (and the millions of others like them). When their lives are consumed by the search for a stable and safe home, there isn't room for much else.

"But the majority of poor families aren't so lucky, and their children [...] are not getting enough food because the rent eats first. In 2013, 1 percent of poor renters lived in rent-controlled units; 15 percent lived in public housing, and 17 percent received a government subsidy, mainly in the form of a rent-reducing voucher. The remaining 67 percent, 2 of every 3 poor renting families, received no federal assistance." (Page 303)

The staggering low percentage of people receiving federal assistance really surprised me. It's not uncommon to hear stereotypical blanket statements made about low-income communities and poor people: that they get government handouts because they can't find work or because they're somehow working the system. Here is proof that many millions of the people who are in need of government services are in no way getting the help they deserve.

There's a really interesting Planet Money podcast episode about the housing voucher system in Hartford, CT that I encourage anyone who's interested to check out. It follows a young mother as she attempts to navigate the slow-moving bureaucratic system and find a stable home for herself and her children. 

"Legal aid to the poor has been steadily diminishing since the Reagan years and was decimated during the Great Recession. The result is that in many housing courts around the country, 90 percent of landlords are represented by attorneys, and 90 percent of tenants are not. Low-income families on the edge of eviction have no right to counsel. But when tenants have lawyers, their chances of keeping their homes increase dramatically. Establishing publicly funded legal services for low-income families in housing court would be a cost-effective measure that would prevent homelessness, decrease evictions, and give poor families a fair shake." (Page 303)

The idea of guaranteed legal aid to the poor in housing court is picking up steam in some jurisdictions. Earlier this week, New York City's City Council held a hearing on a bill that would guarantee lawyers for any low-income residents facing eviction. You can read more about this here.

"Most of the 12 million American who take out high-interest payday loans do not do so to buy luxury items or cover unexpected expenses but to pay the rent or gas bill, buy food, or meet other regular expenses." (Page 306)

Here the concept high-interest payday loans is given as an oft-used alternative to traditional financial resources, like investments or savings accounts. Payday loans are dangerous but are often the option people have in order to get enough money for rent or utilities bills. 

I plan on investigating payday loans further as a part of my personal research into banking deserts. If anyone knows of any resources or information on this topic, please let me know!