America’s Insidious Eviction Problem

An on-the-ground look at how the practice of removing tenants from their homes is exacerbating cycles of poverty, especially among minorities and women.

Personal belongings sit outside a California home after an eviction. (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters)

An eviction can be extremely unsettling, with a family’s most personal effects—clothes, furniture, children’s toys—piled on street corners or hastily packed into trucks or cars. But while spectators may soon forget the disturbing scene, an eviction can haunt a tenant, and their family, for years: The psychological, legal, and financial damage inflicted by the process makes it difficult to find new housing, or to keep a job, or provide a stable education for children. And as rents climb in many American cities, evictions are becoming more and more commonplace.

In his new book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond, a sociologist at Harvard and McArthur Genius grant recipient, follows the lives of landlords and tenants in some of Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods. Desmond spent time living in a trailer park where residents were threatened with a mass eviction, and in a rooming house on Milwaukee’s North side. For more than a year, he shadowed two landlords and several tenants to capture intimate portraits of the circumstances, court hearings, and personal challenges that lead up to, and followed, the eviction process.

Desmond shows evictions from both sides: He illuminates the reasoning and tactics used to remove tenants from their homes, those that seem both sensible and dubious. He also details the housing conditions that many residents with histories of evictions are forced to cope with for fear of being evicted again. I spoke with with Desmond about his extensive research, how race and gender factor into the eviction equation, and how the scourge of eviction causes many struggling Americans to fall deeper into poverty. The interview below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Gillian B. White: The book focuses on stories of eviction, but on a more macro level, the book is about poverty and inequality. Why did you decide to use eviction as the lens for those issues?

Matthew Desmond: I wanted to try to write a different poverty book, to focus on not just a place or a group of people, but a set of relationships. I thought eviction was the best way to do that. It brings landlords and judges and tenants together in this process that you can follow over time. I realized not only that had we overlooked this very central aspect of poverty, but eviction was coursing through the American city and acting as a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.

White: Why did you pick Milwaukee?

Desmond:  A lot of the stories about urban America tend to be written on the margins. We focus a lot on these big global cities—New York, San Francisco—or we focus on cities that are having the toughest time—Detroit, Newark, Camden. But if you want to write a story that has a shot at representing an experience that’s very broad, Milwaukee is a very good candidate. The numbers that we crunched in Milwaukee are very similar to the numbers in Kansas City, Cleveland, Chicago, and other cities that I’ve looked at. So I think that the book is set in Milwaukee, but it tells a broader American story.

White: I was really struck by the granular detail that you were able to include, such as conversations between an evicted mother named Arlene, and the young woman her family stayed with while they tried to find a new home. What was the process for your research and how long did you spend in the two locations?

Desmond: I began by moving into the trailer park on the far South side of the city, and I lived there for about five months. And then after several months in the trailer park, I moved into the rooming house in the inner city and I lived there for about nine or 10 months. After I moved away from Milwaukee, I kept in close contact with the families and the landlords and went back as often as I could.

White: At one point you share that your parents lost their home in foreclosure. How did that impact the way you looked at home loss and the economic issues related to it?

Desmond: I don’t know if it did. I do know after that happened, there was a period in my life where I started getting more and more interested in poverty. When I was confronted with just the bare facts of poverty and inequality in America, it always disturbed and confused me. I thought [poverty and inequality] was not only unnecessary, but also out of character and out of line with our broader ideals.

White: How do you think it goes against the broader ideals of America?

Desmond: I think that we value fairness in this country. We value equal opportunity. Without a stable home, those ideals really fall apart. Without the ability to plant roots and invest in your community or your school—because you’re paying 60, 70, 80 percent of your income to rent—and eviction becomes something of an inevitability to you, it denies you certain freedoms. A finding of the book is that eviction causes job loss. So for folks that are working for low wages, the lack of affordable housing can cause them to make mistakes at work and eventually lose their jobs. That seems out of step with what we as a nation feel is right, and fair.

White: The two locations you spend time in are really different and clearly segregated. In one passage, the residents of the trailer park—who are mostly white and facing a potential mass eviction—are particularly incensed at the prospect, not so much of being kicked out of their home, but of being forced to move to a black neighborhood. What are the differences you saw in these two impoverished areas, and how evictions and tenant-landlord relationships differed?

Desmond: What you learn when you are following folks who are actively and desperately looking for homes—renters who have been evicted—is that the folks from the trailer park just blotted out the inner city (the predominantly black North side of Milwaukee) as an option. And these are the most desperate, poorest white renters in the city.

But on the North side, when you follow African American families getting evicted, they typically start their search not looking in the inner city but looking on its edges. They’re going to a predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods, or even going to white neighborhoods, and applying there. Eventually, after a string of rejections, they find themselves back in the inner city. It really rams home the point of how much of a role housing discrimination plays in where people live and why cities are so segregated.

White: I thought one of the most powerful passages in the book was this: “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women.” Framing it both in that racial and gendered context was really interesting. How does eviction touch women and minorities specifically?

Desmond: The face of the eviction epidemic is moms and kids, especially poor moms from predominantly Latino and African American neighborhoods. We found that about one in five African American women renters report being evicted at some point in their lives. The equivalent is about one in 15 for white women renters. So there’s an enormous discrepancy.

If you’re a single mom who is devoting 80 percent of your income to rent, you’re going to be behind. That allows this relationship between landlords and desperate tenants where tenants get a home, and landlords get the ability to skimp on maintenance requests, without threat of coming under scrutiny from the city. Tenants can report a situation, but it greatly increases their risk of eviction. We have to be mindful of the weakness of certain legal protections under these conditions.

The big discovery was just how children can really provoke evictions. This is something that I saw on the ground for myself, but it’s also something we found in the statistical data too: People that are in front of a judge or a commissioner in eviction court are three times more likely to get evicted if they live with kids, even after you control for how much they owed a landlord. That’s an enormous discrepancy. What you’re seeing there is the landlords’ judgment to work with families without kids on a more regular basis because kids, from a strictly business point of view, can bring certain complications to landlords. So I think mothers do face certain difficulties in the rental market. And they can’t consume smaller housing.

This is also a very broad problem. It affects the young and old, it affects white, Latino, and African American communities too.

White: You note that housing and other essentials are easy gateways to exploitation because people don’t have the option of forgoing these things. What did you see and how did you digest it?

Desmond: I tried very hard to capture perspectives of tenants and landlords too. Their jobs can often be hard and tricky, and writing them off as greedy or demonizing them really gets us away from the harder conversation that we need to have. One of the questions that I thought was really important to ask was, just how much money are they making? The profit margins are not small. That raises a question: To what extent can we address poverty without addressing the fact that some people make a lot of money off the poor?

The line in the book “the hood is good” is something that’s totally validated. I went in with a question: Why would someone own and operate property in the inner city? And I left, after doing this data analysis, thinking: Why wouldn’t you do it? The profit margins can be quite rewarding. I think that means that if we want to fix poverty, we have to address the fact that poverty isn’t just a product of low income. It’s a product of extractive markets.

White: One of the things you brought up that I thought was really interesting was the nuisance property ordinance, and the role that it plays. How does that affect some communities more than others, and why is it problematic and linked to evictions?

Desmond: When I started noticing these gender patterns, going to eviction court and noticing a lot of moms with kids, or hanging out with landlords and noticing them bringing evictions against women a lot more. I started asking landlords, “What's going on, what do you guys think is happening?” And a few landlords said, “You need to look into this nuisance-ordinance thing.”

So I analyzed two years’ worth of nuisance ordinances in the city, merged them with 911 calls so I could compare the properties that got nuisance complaints, with the properties that could have gotten nuisances. (The ones that called 911 three or more times.) What you find was that if you’re in a property in a majority-black neighborhood, you’re far more likely to get this nuisance citation. Domestic violence was the third most common nuisance in the city, right behind noise and trouble with subjects.

Most landlords abate the nuisance by evicting the tenant. In most cases, the tenant is not a couple—but a woman being abused by someone who doesn’t live with her, like an ex-boyfriend coming back and kicking the door down or something like that. This was incredible to me, that this person’s in a domestic-violence situation, we’re evicting them, and that being approved by the city. It has a disproportionate effect on predominantly African American neighborhoods in the city of Milwaukee. It has a disproportionate effect on women who are put in this devil’s bargain—where they can either choose to call 911 and risk eviction, or not call and risk more abuse.

White: That is insane to me.

Desmond: Yeah. I’ve worked with the ACLU, it’s picked up this study and tried to change exactly that.

White: One of the more disheartening things from the book is that after people were evicted, they were looking for assistance finding shelter or for food and it didn’t seem like there were many instances where public programs were easily accessible.

Desmond: I think most Americans think that the typical poor family lives in public housing, or gets some kind of housing assistance, and the opposite is true. So about one out of four families that qualifies for some kind of housing assistance get it. In cities like Washington, D.C., the waiting list is not counted in years but in decades. Young mothers who apply for housing assistance in our nation’s capital literally could be grandmothers by the time their application is reviewed. For the evicted, there are ways that we’re systematically denying them aid. Not only do landlords count evictions as strikes against new applications, but public-housing authorities do too.

White: Toward the end of the book, you acknowledge what a difficult thing it is to break the cycle of poverty. But you had some thoughts on improving the eviction situation. What do you think the most impactful changes would be?

Desmond: It’s a big question. We’ve made a lot of progress. When you’re confronting problems as deep and gnarled as urban poverty in America today, we often can get depressed, and say, nothing works. But if we just look at housing, it’s amazing the progress we’ve made over the last several generations.

Now, there’s this problem of affordability. So what do we do about that? We can do things like provide free legal assistance to families in housing court. But our answer depends on how we think about housing—if we consider it a right, if we consider it central to all these other freedoms and opportunities that this nation provides.

If that’s true, we have to consider basic affordable housing as something that’s part of what it means to be an American. I think that we need a response that’s big enough to match the size of the problem. The book advocates for a universal voucher program, which would mean that everybody below a certain income level would receive a housing voucher. It would stabilize communities, it would allow people to plant roots, it would give people breathing room. We know from previous studies that one of the biggest things that people do after getting a voucher after years on the waiting list is they buy more food, because for the poor, the rent eats first. So a voucher program would be a massive anti-poverty initiative.