An imprecise distinction can be made between the working poor and the poor; between episodic poverty and persistent poverty; between functional poverty and totally debilitating poverty. Matthew Desmond compelling portrays the downward slide from “stable poverty” to “grinding poverty” in his study of housing in Milwaukee, titled Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Penguin Random House, 2016). Although several interdependent factors weave in and around his report, Desmond shows that eviction causes poverty (not the other way around). Further, eviction is contagious—each one dragging relatives and neighbors into deeper poverty. And, each eviction degrading nearby housing and putting stress on nearby institutions.
From one perspective those working poor who slide into deep poverty can be faulted. Some of them abuse drugs; some choose irresponsible sexual partners; some physically attack a partner or friend and some are into petty crime. Desmond is upfront about self-defeating behavior, including buying premium food items rather than staples, investing too much in pets (or in one case, keeping a cat with an asthmatic child), and seeking advice (legal, parenting or spiritual advice) from people who obviously have failed. However, Desmond is patient as he explores the psychology of those on the margin, that tenuous area between working poverty and desperate poverty, between unpleasant housing and eviction.
He finds “a hazy depression” on the downside of that divide. Eviction saps confidence and convinces people that they are destined to be poor forever. Those sliding down are overtaken by small tangible problems and lose any appetite for political agency. A righteous observer, including an elected official or a minister in Desmond’s story, can say that a person is poor because she frivolously spends her money on steak or lobster. The other way around is probably more accurate: The person spends frivolously because she is poor.
Desmond goes inside the daily experience of landlords—vividly in one case. This woman is intelligent and clocks many hours. She is enterprising, acquiring her first 36 rental units within four years. She uses each property as collateral for a loan on the next. She is compassionate in some situations, or so it can seem.
Yet, the landlord welcomes each new tenant to one or another apartment that has a door off its hinges and/or a cracked window and/or serious plumbing issues and/or mold and/or furnace problems. Why? First, as Desmond explains, because landlords (at least in Milwaukee) are “allowed to rent units with property code violations…as long as they were upfront about the problems.” Second, because landlords know it is “cheaper to deal with the expense of eviction than to maintain their properties.” The eviction court processing fee is $89.50. Third, these landlords can sometimes make more money from an eviction (by way of penalties and a lien, for example) than from collecting delinquent rent. This is why some landlords, including one of Desmond’s main subjects, do not screen out apartment seekers who have prior evictions or misdemeanors. Though it is counter-intuitive, there is “a business model at the bottom of every market.” Providing housing for the poor is only a sideline in the model that Desmond details.
The essential character of Desmond’s principal landlord, along with the nature of this business, is gradually revealed. Early in the book she is whining about a tenant who is $30 short on monthly rent. She is more disturbed, however, because of an earlier “bad job for the painting.” The tenant, the reader learns, is disabled. At one point the landlord agrees to forgive $260 in back rent in exchange for painting the apartment. Upon inspection, the landlord reneges on the agreement with a passive-aggressive sentence containing two profane adjectives. Eventually, the tenant is evicted.
What this landlord says about her purchases of foreclosed houses applies to her attitude toward tenants: “You know, if you have money right now, you can profit from other people’s failures.” Yet for all her aggravation and irregular hours, this landlord gains unappealing rewards: a modest home and occasional gambling excursions to the Caribbean.
These predatory landlords, famously including Jared Kushner (see N.Y. Times Magazine, 5/28/17), are impervious to moralizing. They are part of a larger business and a culture that, as Desmond explains, goes back to the late 1400s. In the modern economy “piles of money [can] be made by creating slums” and thereby compounding poverty. Through the detailed stories of a handful of Milwaukee individuals, Desmond opens readers’ minds to the bigger dynamics of real estate and poverty.
Are there alternatives to exploitative rent situations? A subsequent blog will present some positive examples.
Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter about faith and work.