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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Evicted,’ down and shut out in America

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By Sunday, Mar 27, 2016 Arts & Entertainment

evicted coverEvicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

By Matthew Desmond

Crown, 407 pages, $28

Writer Adrian Nicole LeBlanc spent over ten years in the South Bronx immersed in the lives of a colorful heroin dealer, one of his girlfriends and her family. LeBlanc joined them for hot summer struts down Tremont Avenue, an extravagant weekend getaway paid for with heroin money, sleepless nights in rat-infested housing, and all the life and death in between.

Out of this first-hand research evolved her award-winning 2003 nonfiction book, Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx. That compelling story raised the literary bar for reporting from the front lines of the American inner city, and Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond has now raised it again, with his new book Evicted, published by Crown. With a minutely-researched analysis of the desperate housing situation for people whose incomes have not gone up as rents have, he forces us to reckon with the fact that millions of Americans have been denied the most basic of human needs and rights: a place to call home.

Desmond profiles the families and single people he met during the nine months in 2008 and 2009 he spent living and writing in a boarding house on the black North Side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and a trailer on the white South Side. He follows around the charismatic, complicated Sherrena as she collects rent from her poor, African American tenants, among them Lamar and his crew of teenage boys, Arleen, with her two sons Jori and Jafaris, and roommates Chrystal and Vanetta. No one’s living situation is stable. At one stage, Chrystal and Vanetta call or visit seventy-three different apartments before getting approved for a two-bedroom at $500 a month. The door doesn’t lock, the cabinets are sealed shut, and there is no stove or refrigerator.

As a resident of the poor neighborhoods he reports from, Desmond is an observer of birthday parties, church services with women speaking in tongues, and smoke-filled afternoons around a card table. He is there when the men in the moving truck come to haul all of his neighbors’ worldly possessions out of their homes and into storage.

He’s got a keen eye and a big heart. He’s adept at zeroing in on the details that make a story resonate for readers, then panning out to the larger context in which to place it. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc calls Evicted, “an extraordinary and crucial piece of work.” She begs us, “Read it. Please, read it.” (I second her request. In a follow-up story, I will confront the housing situation in our own resort community of South Berkshire County. For many local people, and for many reasons, it is bleak and getting bleaker.)

The tenants in Evicted are shut out of both public housing and voucher programs through their scarcity. To say that demand for affordable housing exceeds supply would be to grossly understate the problem. In Milwaukee 75 percent of families who qualify for housing assistance do not get it. Arleen was told that the 3,500 family-long waiting list for subsidized housing was “frozen” and had been for four years. Arleen and Desmond’s other subjects are therefore forced to make their way in the private housing market. They don’t manage well, because the economics of their lives are unmanageable.

They do not or cannot work for all manner of reasons, including addiction, physical disability, and mental illness. They end up as both the makers and martyrs of misfortune, living “with so many compounded limitations that it was difficult to imagine the amount of good behavior or self-control that would allow them to lift themselves out of poverty.”

Lamar lost his legs to frostbite while on a weeklong crack cocaine binge in an abandoned house. If Desmond had mentioned that detail in his introduction to Lamar, I may have been less likely to feel for the man. Perhaps I would not have been able to get past his past at all. But as it is, we are not told of the reason for Lamar’s disability until we know he’s a Vietnam veteran, until after we’ve seen his “spare and tidy” apartment with the pantry that “bordered on obsessive compulsive” and only after we’ve been party to scenes of Lamar scrounging up a hot plate for the new young woman with three hungry babies upstairs, and doling out free advice to the teenage boys who congregate at his house for the peace and fellowship they don’t find at home. “The neighborhood boys knew they could show up at Lamar’s place day or night for a bit to eat, a drag off a blunt if they were lucky, and a romping game of spades.”

He tells his son’s friend, who’s just gotten in trouble with the cops for mouthing off, “It ain’t worth it, doing stupid stuff…Prison ain’t no joke.” Lamar attends football practices and tries to steer the boys right, in a neighborhood where hands-on, consistent fathering is not much in evidence. He’s an asset to his family and the small community he’s built around his card table.

Author Matthew Desmond

Author Matthew Desmond

One of the less visible side effects of eviction that Desmond highlights is the damage it does to any promise of community in urban areas. The frequent turnover of residents means no one’s invested in keeping the peace; no one is invested in the overall well being of a neighborhood when you are in always in a state of just passing through. Desmond quotes from Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “The public peace — the sidewalk and street peace — of cities is not kept primarily by the police, necessary as police are. It is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves.” A “perpetual slum” is created in areas that experience a constant turnover of families, and by the sense of failure among those who must stay there. No one is motivated to create a garden, or a citizen’s watch, or a childcare swap, in a hopeless place.

Shereena the landlady isn’t in the community-building business. She’s an inner city entrepreneur. She’s also an investment and credit repair consultant, and sells seats in two vans that transport mothers, girlfriends and children upstate to visit incarcerated relatives, for $25 to $50 a head. Lamar tries to convince Sherrena to let him paint and repair damaged walls in lieu of $260 in back rent, but she can get the job done better and cheaper by hiring a desperate drug addict off the street. “She got guys that’ll do it for a hundred. The whoooole thing. Drywall and all.”

Shereena and her husband Quentin own 36 rental units on the North Side, and they make a good living. As she says, “the ‘hood is good.” She owns a red Camaro but on her rent collection and general landlady business rounds drives an old Chevy Suburban that starts up with a screwdriver. But Sherrena is not a clear-cut bad guy, and doesn’t always turn to eviction as soon as she legally can. One time, Sherrena brought Arleen a stove from an unused unit, and delivered groceries when there was no food for the boys.

Arleen has five kids, two of whom live with her, and has survived on welfare since her mother died and she quit her last cleaning job. She’s chronically depressed. Her welfare benefits — $20.65 a day, or $7,536 a year — have not changed since 1997, while rents, of course, have gone up and up and up. In 1997, the Fair Market Rate (FMR) for a one-bedroom apartment in Milwaukee was $466 per month, which would have given Arleen $162 left to live on. In 2007, the FMR was $608, leaving her $20 with which to make do for thirty days.

Arleen ends up in eviction court with Sherrena on December 23rd, after contributing to the costs of her sister’s funeral and falling $870 behind on rent. Sherrena expects the room that day to be full, and it is. As both she and Desmond note, “Many parents chose to take their chances with their landlords rather than face their children empty-handed on Christmas morning.” Sherrena would impatiently remind her tenants who asked to reduce their December rent payment that they’d had eleven months to prepare for the holiday. But as a housing specialist at a nonprofit said of her poor clients, especially those with young children, “Everything is pretty much driven by the moment.” There’s no brain space for future planning when your life is focused on providing for basic needs like shelter and food.

Most of those evicted have no idea where they’d go next, and most of those evicted are African American mothers like Arleen. Women in Milwaukee’s black areas made up 9 pecent of the city’s population and 30 percent of its evicted tenants. Desmond notes that on December 23rd, “As usual, the courtroom was full of black women….Children of all ages encircled [them].” The book’s overriding observation, most often quoted in recent reviews of Evicted and interviews with Desmond is: “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.”

With Evicted, Matthew Desmond rewards us with a good story for our time spent in the dark, broken places of our national community that most of us would just as well keep out of view and mind. Isn’t that one of the reasons we turn to literature, so it will illuminate for us a hidden corner of life, a corner where we’re surprised to find crouching some aspect of ourselves?

The struggling men and women Desmond profiles are so richly drawn that about three quarters of the way through Evicted, I had a long, vivid dream. After reading a chunk of chapters with a low-grade fever, I dreamt that I’d become Vanetta, the young black mother of three. Hers is for me the saddest trajectory in Evicted. After her hours at a waitressing job are cut, she takes part in an armed robbery. She’s sentenced to prison as her oldest boy, who’s just graduated from preschool, looks on stoically from his seat in the courtroom, “strong, just like his momma had taught him.”

The judge in the case knows the deal, according to Desmond’s interpretation of her thinking. If Vanetta had been able to maintain a full-time schedule at Old Country Buffet, “none of us would be here right now. You might have been able to save enough to move to an apartment that was de-leaded and clean in a neighborhood without drug dealers…….But 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 someone’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.” I tossed and turned after I put down the book and turned off the light, trying to figure out where my babies would live while I was locked up.

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