[Marxism] [SUSPICIOUS MESSAGE] Evicted

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Feb 22 07:53:49 MST 2016

NY Times, Feb. 22 2016
Review: In ‘Evicted,’ Home Is an Elusive Goal for America’s Poor

Poverty and Profit in the American City
By Matthew Desmond
418 pages. Crown. $28.

One of the most heartbreaking moments in Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted: 
Poverty and Profit in the American City”— and there’s a shameful 
assortment to choose from — is when 13-year-old Ruby Hinkston takes 
refuge in the public library. She’s come to use the computer. It turns 
out that she’s been slowly building her dream house with a free online 
game, and she wants to visit it again.

“It had clean, light-reflecting floors,” Mr. Desmond writes, “a bed with 
sheets and pillowcases, and a desk for doing schoolwork.”

This cheerful vision in pixels forms an almost unbearable contrast to 
the filth of Ruby’s own apartment. The kitchen sink is stopped up, as is 
the bathtub and toilet. There are mattresses everywhere, their exposed 
innards revealing humming burrows of cockroaches — and the mattresses 
may be the least terrifying of their redoubts. They also fill the 
kitchen drawers and erupt from the nonworking drains.

Living in extreme poverty in the United States means waging an almost 
gladiatorial battle for creature comforts that luckier people take for 
granted. And of all those comforts, perhaps the most important is a 
stable, dignified home. Yet as a culture, notes Mr. Desmond, we have 
somehow failed to commit ourselves to providing this most fundamental 
and obvious necessity.

“Every year in this country,” he writes, “families are evicted from 
their homes not by the tens of thousands or even the hundreds of 
thousands, but by the millions.”

“Evicted” is a regal hybrid of ethnography and policy reporting. It 
follows the lives of eight families in Milwaukee, some black and some 
white, all several leagues below the poverty line. Mr. Desmond, a 
sociologist and a co-director of the Justice and Poverty Project at 
Harvard, lived among them in 2008 and 2009 — first in the poor, white 
College Mobile Home Park, a dark hole of vanished ambitions and drug 
abuse (one woman is “Heroin Susie,” not to be confused with “Office 
Susie”); and then in a rooming house run by the landlords Sherrena and 
Quentin, who eventually introduced him to many of their black tenants in 
other properties. One of those units was Ruby’s, with the volcanic 
cockroach problem.

The result is an exhaustively researched, vividly realized and above 
all, unignorable book — after “Evicted,” it will no longer be possible 
to have a serious discussion about poverty without having a serious 
discussion about housing. Like Jonathan Kozol’s “Savage Inequalities,” 
or Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickeled and Dimed,” or Michelle Alexander’s 
“The New Jim Crow,” this sweeping, yearslong project makes us consider 
inequality and economic justice in ways we previously had not. It’s sure 
to capture the attention of politicians. (Hillary, what are you reading 
this summer?) Through data and analysis and storytelling, it issues a 
call to arms without ever once raising its voice.

What makes “Evicted” so eye-opening and original is its emphasis. Most 
examinations of the poorest poor look at those in public housing, not 
those who’ve been brutally cast into the private rental market. Yet this 
is precisely where most of the impoverished must live. Sixty-seven 
percent of poor renting families received no federal assistance for 
housing at all in 2013 — there simply weren’t enough vouchers or 
subsidized apartments to go around. The very people least capable of 
spending 70 to 80 percent of their incomes on rent are exactly the ones 
forced to do so.

“If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished 
black neighborhoods,” Mr. Desmond writes, “eviction was shaping the 
lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were 
locked out.”

With vacancy rates for cheap housing in the single digits, the moment is 
ripe for exploitation. It’s a landlord’s market. So exploit they do.

They keep the rents at punishingly high levels — if their latest tenants 
can’t pay, they can always evict them, pocket the security deposit, and 
move on to the next desperate soul. They rent units that run afoul of 
the property code, which is perfectly legal in Milwaukee as long as 
tenants are told in advance — caveat rentor. They deny their tenants 
basic appliances, which the law also, amazingly, permits — not just in 
Wisconsin, but in most states.

“If you didn’t include a stove or a refrigerator,” explains Mr. Desmond, 
“you didn’t have to fix it when it broke.”

The greatest perversity of all? The ghastliest hovels, like Ruby’s 
house, often yield the highest returns. They cost nothing to maintain, 
because you owe nothing to a tenant who’s behind on rent. Evictions are 
cheaper than making repairs; the mortgage payments on these places are 
minimal; if all goes to hell, you can always stop paying taxes and 
surrender the place back to the city. It’s win-win. As Sherrena, Ruby’s 
landlord, likes to say, “The ’hood is good.”

“Evicted” is filled with such infuriating paradoxes and demon’s loops. 
Mr. Desmond explains them one by one, sometimes in the main text and 
sometimes in the footnotes, which make for an engrossing reading 
experience all on their own. (Think of them as the director’s cut.) 
They’re filled with history, theory and original tenant survey data. 
There’s even additional dialogue.

But “Evicted” is most memorable for its characters, rendered in such 
high-resolution detail that their ghost images linger if you shut your 
eyes. To respect their privacy, Mr. Desmond has given them pseudonyms, 
but their voices are as distinct as fingerprints, their plights 
impossible to invent. (If you doubt they’re real, read Mr. Desmond’s 
last chapter, “About This Project,” and come to your own conclusions.)

There’s Doreen, Ruby’s mother, who presides over a three-generation 
household of eight. There’s Doreen’s neighbor, Lamar, a black single 
father, who’s facing eviction and can’t collect disability, even though 
he has no legs. There’s Arleen, who’s evicted or forced out of her house 
so many times over the course of the book that I lost count, at one 
point calling on 90 landlords before finding another home — only to be 
kicked out a few days later.

The portrait of Sherrena is priceless. She loves her gambling, loves her 
red Camaro, loves her annual trips to Jamaica. “If you ever thinking 
about becoming a landlord,” she earnestly tells Arleen, after taking her 
to eviction court, “don’t. It’s a bad deal. Get the short end of the 
stick every time.”

And then there are Ned and Pam, a pair of crack addicts with five 
evictions and a scroll of a rap sheet between them, who still have an 
easier time finding housing than any of the black men and women. “They 
were white,” Mr. Desmond explains.

As these people brokenly shuttle from pillar to post, their lives 
inevitably decline. How can you hang on to a job, send your child to 
school, or build roots in a community if you are constantly changing 
homes, each one more dilapidated and dangerously located than the next?

“Just my soul is messed up,” Arleen says after her being thrown back out 
on the street. Her children can see it. They’re the emotional 
seismographs in “Evicted,” detecting every tremor in their mother’s 
mood. Her son, Jori, dreams of making things right. He wants to become a 
carpenter one day. He wants to build her a house.

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