The good: Evicted is riveting; the stories of the people Desmond follows are as compelling to read as any novel. Throughout, Desmond reports shocking data on rental housing in the US in a way that is neither dry nor preachy.
The bad: Much of the most important information is buried in footnotes. If you read Evicted, be sure to read the footnotes. Evicted‘s only weak part is that ends with a set of poorly thought-out policy recommendations.
Bottom line: Anyone who reads Evicted will put the book down with a thorough understanding of the basic issues facing American rental housing and be convinced of the need for urgent reform.
Evicted won a Pulitzer Prize, and it’s not hard to see why. It is a gripping book that has had a profound effect on many’s understanding of the American rental housing system. The main threads of the book follow a handful of low-income Milwaukee renters — families as well as individuals. Their struggles to find housing leave the reader in suspense, dying to know how the next round of applications will turn out.
But the book is also packed full of hard statistics on the issues of rental housing.
It’s worse than the data suggest
At this organization, we talk a lot about how our housing system is even worse than the data suggest. This absolutely beggars belief, as the statistics are appalling. Desmond himself cites a Milwaukee County Eviction Court Study that revealed that a majority of tenants in eviction court spend at least half their income on rent; one-third spend at least 80% of income on rent.
While this concept — that the data do not adequately capture just how bad our housing system is — comes up over and over in American housing policy, I have seen no better example of this than Evicted. For example, Desmond points out that an involuntary move — a formal or informal eviction — is usually followed soon after by a ‘voluntary’ move. A glance at this data suggests that if it’s not an eviction, then people are choosing to move, and therefore the system is not the problem. But Desmond points out that these data actually show that after people are forced out of their housing, in a panic they accept any housing they can find, even if it is substandard; they thus have to move a second time out of the substandard housing they took in desperation. This was partly the topic of episode 1 of the podcast Housing for Us: even if you are not being evicted (formally or informally), most renter household moves are not truly voluntary.
For another example, Desmond also points out that informal evictions — where a landlord illegally forces a tenant to move before the end of a lease — are twice as common as formal evictions. Further, Desmond capably refutes the maddening tendency of pundits to treat housing quality and affordability as separate issues. He also shreds the absurd misconception that there can be a free-market solution to affordable housing issues by pointing out that the lowest-quality housing is also the most profitable for landlords.
For yet another example of how our housing system is worse than the data suggest, Desmond shows how a single eviction can financially ruin someone for the rest of their life, via a process called docketing judgments. He points out that evictions are not merely a housing issue — an eviction makes it more likely someone will lose their job, for example. Similarly, people often lose all or nearly all of their possessions in an eviction. This financial and logistical setback compounds all the obvious problems of an eviction. As Desmond puts it, “Eviction does not simply drop poor families into a dark valley, a trying yet relatively brief detour on life’s journey. It fundamentally redirects their way, casting them onto a different, and much more difficult, path. Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.”
Another key issue he highlights is that if a person has been in eviction court, it ruins her ability to find a new apartment. This is even the case if the tenant was found to be in the right. I personally know of a case in which a landlord attempted to evict a tenant for nonpayment of rent, and, without a lawyer, she appeared in court with 8 years worth of rent receipts. The judge was aghast, stating he couldn’t even produce 8 years of receipts for his mortgage payments, and the landlord’s own lawyer looked as though he was ready to punch the landlord. Yet by merely appearing in court records — even though she was clearly in the right and the case was thrown out — this woman’s ability to find her next apartment was destroyed. As a result, tenants thus allow landlords to informally evict them since going to court could essentially force them into homelessness, even if the judge finds the landlord to be in the wrong. This suggests, yet again, that half measures, like guaranteed representation for tenants in eviction court, do not go far enough. What we need is a wholesale rethinking of how rental housing in this country works.
I could cite some more examples, but the point is clear: Desmond is not fooled by the data. He looks at what the data actually says and then explains why the situation is even worse than the data suggest.
The one-man show
Evicted is evocative of a style popularized by Katherine Edin, who does extensive fieldwork. Edin rents an apartment in a low-income neighborhood and sets out to meet single mothers (Promises I Can Keep), absentee fathers (Doing the Best I Can), or the poorest of the poor ($2 a Day). Her books are often cowritten so she can work with someone who parses the data. Someone else crunches the numbers that guide what questions can only be answered through fieldwork. In all cases, readers are left understanding the rationality of actions taken by people which mightappear irrational from the outside.
Evicted is a similar project, but Desmond is a rare talent who is a genius in two wildly different areas (he is literally the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant). Desmond did the fieldwork of Evicted, but he also was its data expert.
Evicted is even more special because, unlike Edin’s projects, which rely on existing public datasets, Desmond isn’t delving into public datasets; he is literally creating the dataset. Evicted is a combination of Desmond’s fieldwork from living for a year in Milwaukee low-income housing, and the Milwaukee Area Renters Survey, a survey he designed to study the issues of low-income renters. Since Desmond himself designed the survey, he could construct it to answer the questions he knew didn’t yet have answers in existing datasets.
Because the survey questions were so well thought out — and the surveyors so talented (the response rate was an unthinkably high 83%; some polls have the gall to report findings with a 10% response rate) — the result is an unparalleled view into one rental housing market. Though done in Milwaukee, there is absolutely no reason to believe that its lessons cannot extend further to most American cities: the lessons of Evicted are surely applicable in most areas of the country.
Some of the most shocking statistics from the survey:
- One out of 17 African American women in Milwaukee is evicted every year
- The median price to rent a two-bedroom apartment in the quarter of Milwaukee neighborhoods with the highest crime rates was $575; for the quarter of Milwaukee neighborhoods with the lowest crime rates, $600.
- Monthly rent for a two bedroom apartment in Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods was just $50 lower than the city-wide median. This shows with data what the landlords Desmond talked to already knew: it is profitable to rent to low-income renters. Low-income renters can be taken advantage of; they are desperate and have no option but to pay high rents and accept unsanitary or dangerous living conditions. As one landlord callously puts it to Desmond, “The hood is good. There’s a lot of money there.” Specifically, she is referring to her $10,000 per month income, none of which goes to maintaining her properties, and exceeds most of her tenants’ annual incomes. It’s difficult to see how Desmond could have stood to spend so much time around the landlord to get to know her business, given how brazen she is about blighting neighborhoods and passing costs onto the public. At one point, she calls a desperately poor tenant she is evicting “selfish.”
- A shocking half of all Milwaukee renters experienced a serious housing maintenance issue in the years 2009-2011. Specifically, one in five renters had a broken window and one in ten went without heat for at least one day.
- There was simply no correlation between housing prices and the quality of housing.
- Serious mental health issues follow people who have been evicted for years, as does financial hardship: people who have been evicted in the past 2 years are more likely to go without enough to eat, without a phone or other utilities, or without medical care, due to cost.
For good measure, Desmond sprinkles in appalling housing statistics from other sources. Children living in poor quality housing are ten times more likely to die in housefires than people living in good housing. When I say that American housing policy kills people, this is what I mean. Studies have shown that even temporary stays in substandard housing can be permanently detrimental to physical health, mental health, and development — especially for children.
Evicted paints an unattractive picture of the profession of landlord. Desmond points out that landlords parasitically profit off everyone else’s competition for good schools and safe neighborhoods. Landlords amass fortunes most quickly by offering the worst housing. Landlords pocket the profits of owning rental housing while finding ways to dodge taxes and pass as many costs onto the public as possible. Landlords amass fortunes by knowingly destroying housing stock and blighting neighborhoods they don’t live in.
Another strength of Evicted is that Desmond is upfront with the limitations of his project. His Milwaukee Area Rental Survey found that a shocking 23% of all Hispanic renters were evicted in the years 2009-2011; twice the rate of African American renters. However, most of the evictions were informal evictions: tenants being involuntarily forced out of their homes outside of the legal system (in other words, illegally). Presumably due to language barriers — Milwaukee’s primarily Hispanic renter neighborhoods are inaccessible without Spanish language proficiency — Evicted’s English-speaking author was unable to collect firsthand experiences and all we have is the survey data. This deserves further investigation; not only is the scale of the problem even worse for Hispanic renters than African-American renters, but also it is of a different nature.
Evicted (sadly) ends with bad policy recommendations
I had two problems with Evicted. First, Desmond buries some of the most important information in footnotes. Granted, he can’t cover everything and he has to bury some information in footnotes in order for the book’s narrative style to work. But some of the buried information is extremely important. For example, Desmond uncovers an outrageous scam perpetrated by Milwaukee’s worst landlords, but it’s entirely buried in the footnotes. This scam was later exposed in a long investigative series by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. From the footnote, Desmond clearly understands the scope of the problem as well as the scope of wrongdoing by landlords. When the Journal Sentinel broke this story, it rocked the city. This should not have been in a footnote. That incredible statistic I cited above about rents in high crime vs low crime areas? A footnote. Docketing judgments? Mostly in a footnote. Some extremely dramatic testimonies — and extraordinarily callous responses of judges — which Desmond overheard in eviction court are also in footnotes:
Once, upon learning that an elderly woman being evicted had lived without electricity for a month because her landlord was slow to repair the wiring, a court commissioner replied, “That isn’t necessarily a fact we need to work out today.” Another time, a housing court judge listened patiently as a tenant described sewage in her bathtub and rotting floorboards. Then he responded, “You’ve told me everything except that you are current on your rent.”
These are but a few examples; I never recommend Evicted without encouraging people to read the footnotes.
Second, Desmond’s policy recommendations make no sense. Of course, that’s not Desmond’s area and he can’t be faulted for not also being an expert in, say, the field of public housing. This was actually part of this was my motivation for being involved in this organization; if someone of Desmond’s erudition can’t get good information on housing policy, what hope do the rest of us have?
Desmond’s first policy recommendation is for a dramatically expanded housing voucher program. In his short argument in support of this idea, he cites the supposed wild success of the Netherlands’ housing allowance program. However, he attributes far more power to the Netherlands’ housing allowance program than it actually has. In the Netherlands, nearly a third of all housing stock is public, including three-quarters of all rental housing. For private rental housing stock, nearly all is subject to rent controls (we looked at this housing system in depth in episode 2 of the Housing for All podcast). The Netherlands has one of the best housing systems in the entire world, and though important, housing allowances are one small part of it. Desmond’s telling entirely leaves out the massive Dutch public housing sector as well as near-universal rent control on private rentals, mistakenly attributing the success of those policies to the housing allowance program.
Desmond also conflates American housing vouchers with Dutch housing allowances; though they sound similar, in practice vouchers and allowances operate in dramatically different ways. Early in the book, Evicted contains the most savage take-downs of housing vouchers, exposing them as inefficient and grift for landlords. That Desmond ends the book by recommending a greatly expanded voucher program is vastly incongruent with the performance of vouchers in the real world, even by his own account in the same book.
Desmond also argues that expanding public housing would be too expensive to solve America’s housing crisis. But that doesn’t make sense either, a discussion we had in episode 2 of the Housing for All podcast. Today, four out of five residents of Singapore live in public housing, but when they started building public housing in the 1960s, Singapore’s per capita GDP was one fifth that of the US’ at the same time, poverty was so severe that people would take the clothes off the dead to sell to the living, and a full quarter of the population was homeless. Half of Hong Kong’s residents live in public housing, but when they started building public housing, Hong Kong’s per capita GDP was just one quarter that of the US, infant mortality was nearly 1 in 10 (today, that would be among the worst rates in the world), and the island was receiving 100,000 refugees per month. Nearly two-thirds of the residents of Vienna live in public housing, yet their public housing program was started when the economy was in ruins from World War I:a single homeless encampment outside Vienna had over 100,000 residents, a quarter of all residents would spend some time in a homeless shelter every single year, and the country was experiencing hyperinflation. In sum, places with far fewer resources than we have now, facing far greater difficulties than we face, have used public housing to “build their way out” of the problem. We could do the same; the reasons we don’t are political, rather than practical, as Desmond claims.
In sum, Desmond’s policy recommendations are just bad: vouchers are bad policy and should not be conflated with housing allowances. Housing allowances play an important role in many well-functioning housing systems, but public housing and rent controls are far more important to those systems. And public housing is a cost-effective solution viable in the US today.
Evicted checks all the boxes. A reader will put the book down with a thorough understanding of issues of the American rental housing system — from formal evictions to informal evictions, nonrenewals, and maintenance issues, but she will also walk away convinced that reforming our rental housing system is urgent. This urgency is inescapable when reading the book’s accounts of desperation, and especially so when, at the end, Desmond checks in on the people who had miraculously found stable housing. Their lives went from unlivable — spending 70-80% of their income on housing, no time to better themselves because they are constantly looking for a new apartment — to happy, fulfilled, and successful. “The time and emotional energy they spent making rent, delaying eviction, or finding another place to live when homeless could instead be spent on things that enriched their lives: community college classes, exercise, finding a good job, maybe a good man too.” Evicted is a gripping book that reads like a novel. There is no better introduction to the issues of our rental housing system.