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.