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Nowhere to go

Eviction isn't just a momentary lapse in housing; it's often the start of a downward spiral


It was kids playing a game, a snowball thrown at the wrong car on a cold January day, that led to Arleen’s eviction. But that moment created an avalanche of instability in her life and that of her two young sons: a few months at a homeless shelter euphemistically nicknamed “the Lodge”; renting a house without running water, which they had to leave when the city deemed it unfit for human habitation; another in an apartment complex known as a den for drug dealers, which she left after a few months out of concern for her sons’ safety. 

Matthew Desmond, Princeton sociologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Evicted"

Illustration: Viktor Miller Gausa

It was yet another move for a kid who attended five schools between seventh and eighth grades, who once missed 17 straight days of school while the family stayed at a domestic violence shelter. The rent on Arleen’s next apartment consumed 88 percent of her welfare check, leaving her with less than $100 to last the month. Then there were the costs of a funeral.

Eviction seems so straightforward: You don’t pay the rent, you get evicted. But sociologist Matthew Desmond found out that it’s not so simple while researching his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Evicted."

Renters can get evicted for calling the police to report domestic violence, or for the things their children do – have an asthma attack, hit a car with a snowball – that draw the attention of local officials or provoke an angry motorist to kick down the front door. The blemish of an eviction on their records sends people into ever worse neighborhoods, the landlords relying on renters’ desperation to justify increasingly squalid conditions. Poor families and criminals end up in the same places because both are deemed undesirable, but for vastly different reasons.

“Eviction is not just a condition of poverty; it’s a cause of it,” Desmond told The Rotarian. “We are paying for its fallout. We’re paying for higher rates of depression and we are paying for higher crime in neighborhoods with more evictions. We’re paying for kids’ health issues and the educational fallout. Investing in safe, affordable housing is not only something that has a moral benefit; it has economic benefits too.”

Desmond spent more than a year living in poor neighborhoods in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA, to research the book and subsequently conducted additional surveys drawing on his fieldwork with the support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (he later received the foundation’s “genius grant” in 2015). The resulting book paints such detailed portraits of families going through eviction that it reads like a novel. It was named one of the 10 best books of 2016 by the Washington Post and one of the best books of 2016 by New York Times book reviewers, among its many accolades.

Desmond, now a professor at Princeton University, is familiar with Rotary and its mission: His father, Nicholas Desmond, was a member of the Rotary Club of Winslow, Arizona, USA, before moving to Massachusetts. The Winslow Rotary Club gave the younger Desmond a scholarship to support his undergraduate work at Arizona State University.

I wanted to write a different kind of poverty book, one that wasn’t just about poor folks or poor places, but these relationships.

Desmond spoke with senior staff writer Diana Schoberg, who lives in Milwaukee and was a renter herself in the city while he was doing his research. They talked about the high cost of living in run-down housing, the financial burden of the eviction cycle on society, and what we can do about it.

TR: Your book reads like a novel. How did you gain access to and the trust of the people you profiled?

Desmond: Living in the neighborhood helped a lot. In the trailer park, Larraine and Scott, Ned and Pam – those were my neighbors. I would spend days hanging out with Lennie in the office, which was right in the middle of the trailer park, and just became a presence. Some folks were very open from the beginning. Some folks were much more reserved and cautious. I took time with them and shared my previous publications so they knew what my work was about. Folks thought I was a cop, or a Child Protective Services worker undercover, or a drug addict. There were a lot of suspicions, all of which were completely understandable and much more normal in these neighborhoods than a social scientist.

TR: Did you get involved in the families’ lives or did you have rules for yourself about the boundaries you were going to keep?

Desmond: I didn’t have many rules about that. I was trying to understand their lives as deeply as I could and with as much complexity as I could. That meant that some nights I slept on their couches and their floors, and I watched their kids, and they bought me dinner and I bought them dinner. I wanted to try to bear witness to this problem, and that meant trying to involve myself as little as possible in certain scenarios, but as I talked about the book, there were some times when I helped out and there were a lot of times when they helped me out, like you do with friends.

TR: Did you go into the book wanting to write about evictions, or had you wanted to write about poverty and then evictions became the issue that stood out?

Desmond: I wanted to write a different kind of poverty book, one that wasn’t just about poor folks or poor places, but these relationships. Eviction was the narrative device. I had no idea how common evictions were. I had no idea that one in eight Milwaukee renters were evicted every two years, that eviction has such a big impact on people’s lives. Eviction became much more than just a way to write a certain book – it became the thing to really understand in a deeper way.

TR: The difference in rent between some of the squalid apartments you write about and well-kept places in safe neighborhoods was only $100 or $200 a month. Why is that?

Desmond: Researchers from [University of California] Berkeley have geocoded rentals on Craigslist, and you see this compression of rents in a lot of soft-market cities all around the country. This isn’t a uniquely Milwaukee thing – this is something you can see in a city like Cleveland or Baltimore or Pittsburgh or Philadelphia. Why is that? What’s going on?

The median asking rent in Milwaukee in 2010 for a two-bedroom apartment was $600. In the middle of the [poorer] north side, rents are about $550. So you have a slight reduction in housing costs, but the neighborhood and housing quality are vastly different.

Most landlords in Milwaukee set rents by looking at Craigslist or the newspaper to see what apartments are going for. If you geocode the addresses of properties advertising in Craigslist and the newspaper, they’re not on the north side of Milwaukee. They’re usually [in wealthier neighborhoods]. So the rents are skewed upward. That might be something that’s happening.

What’s interesting is that historically it doesn’t seem that weird. Even Jacob Riis talked about it when he wrote How the Other Half Lives [in 1890]. The rents in the tenements were actually a bit more expensive than rents uptown. That suggests that it has policy implications. It suggests that maybe the nonprofit sector can get more involved in very poor neighborhoods than they are. And it suggests that the housing crisis isn’t just driven by these kinds of bloodless forces, like supply and demand, but is also driven in part at least by a profit motive.

TR: How do you balance the right to profit that a landlord has, versus a need for someone to have safe and affordable housing?

Desmond: This is a moral discussion that the nation needs to begin to have. When I think about how to address this problem at scale, I always come back to public-private partnerships. I think that’s the way out of this crisis that can help the most people. Profits are involved in that, people making a living are involved in that, but the state is also involved in that, and much more housing assistance to families in need is involved with that. That’s why the book calls for a mass expansion of housing vouchers, which are these public-private partnerships. In America, we have chosen to house the vast majority of our families of modest means in the private rental market, which means landlords and property owners in that market have to be at the table.

TR: You portrayed the landlords so richly in the book. Tobin lends money to someone to attend a funeral, and Sherrena bought food for Arleen when she moved in. But as Sherrena said, “Love don’t pay the bills.” What makes the landlords you met tick?

Desmond: My job was to try to write about everyone with as much complexity as I could. Depending on how we lean politically, we might be more inclined toward the landlords or toward the tenants. And maybe we’re inclined to paint one of those groups in a really poor light, but if you look at the problem from the sidewalk level, it’s just much more complex than that. You see landlords in the book being generous and being forgiving and sometimes being very hard and sometimes cavalier. They’re human. One thing that makes them tick is making a good living. This is where the rubber meets the road on hard questions on affordable housing. The landlords in "Evicted" made a good living, and they rented exclusively to low-income families. How much inequality are we OK with? How big a profit should we tolerate, and are some ways of making a profit more upstanding than others?

One thing we’re doing now is trying to understand how landlord profit margins vary across neighborhood types. We’re finding some statistical evidence that profit margins are higher in poorer neighborhoods because the mortgage and the property tax bills are lower, but rents, like we just talked about, aren’t that much lower. That raises normative questions for us and public policy questions, too.

TR: How do we change the problem when it is so systemic? What role could an organization like Rotary play?

Desmond: Only about one in four families who qualify for housing assistance get any. The vast majority of poor folks get nothing. Their kids don’t get enough to eat, because the rent eats first. One in four poor families who are renting is spending over 70 percent of its income on housing costs. Even with imperfect policies, we need a vast expansion of housing assistance to those families. One way to get there is building a broad coalition – and involving not the usual suspects. If you care about educational quality and allowing kids to reach their full potential, then you’ve got to give them a stable home. If you care about reducing health care costs, the top 5 percent of the users consume 50 percent of health care costs in hospitals. And guess who those users are? They’re the unstably housed. They’re homeless folks.

This lack of affordable housing is going to hit our business leaders hard. They’re going to experience more turnover in their workforce. They’re going to experience the resistance of folks to move to high-cost cities even if the jobs are better. Folks that are part of Rotary have a vital role to play, not only as business leaders, but as community leaders as well. When low-income neighborhoods are communities – when folks know their neighbors – there are massive returns. They can drive down crime in their neighborhood, become more politically engaged, form that stickiness of neighborhoods that’s so important for kids’ well-being. Eviction threatens that.

TR: Are there other countries that we can look to for solutions?

Desmond: We’re unique among other advanced industrial societies for the level of poverty that we have and the kind of poverty that we have. If you give a talk on this book in Amsterdam or London or Paris, people are flabbergasted, outraged. They’re just not used to the material hardship that we have come to tolerate as a nation.

We can look to countries that have universal housing programs like the Netherlands or Britain. We can look at countries that have installed mandatory mediators between landlords and tenants like France has. Or countries like Germany that make a much more serious investment in public housing than we have. Or countries that don’t have these massive homeowner subsidies like we do, but have equal or similar rates of homeownership. Canada is one, the UK is another. But the good news is that we don’t have to – the policies we have here work pretty darn well. Our housing voucher program [often referred to as Section 8] is a great program. It lifts over 2 million people above the poverty line every year, and it makes kids healthier. Families move less. They live in better neighborhoods. It works. The problem is that it’s just not enough to go around.

TR: What sort of financial burden does the eviction cycle have on society as a whole?

Desmond: To answer that question, we need to ask, What does eviction do to a family? Families not only leave their homes. Kids lose their schools, you lose your community, you often lose your stuff because it’s piled on the sidewalk or taken by movers. Eviction comes with a mark: It pushes families into worse housing, worse neighborhoods. Those are things that can have a lasting and deep impact on kids’ well-being. We have a study that shows that moms who get evicted have high rates of depression two years later. We know that suicides attributed to evictions and foreclosures doubled between 2005 and 2010 [years when housing costs soared]. We have a study that shows eviction can cause job loss because it can be such a consuming, stressful event. It can make you make mistakes at work, lose your footing in the job market.

TR: Your book has gotten a lot of attention. Has that translated into any changes?

Desmond: We’re seeing a lot more people talk about this issue than before. This work has helped push forward arguments like the right to counsel in housing court, which New York City passed earlier this year. It is the first city in the country to take a stand to say folks who are facing eviction around the city should have legal representation. I testified at that hearing citing the research on what eviction does to families. Philadelphia is now considering something similar.

We’ve had movement on the federal level too. One example of that has to do with research that connected evictions to nuisance ordinances and domestic violence. Domestic violence survivors had to choose between calling 911 and risking eviction, or not calling 911 when they were in an abusive relationship. At a meeting on Capitol Hill, Sen. [Elizabeth] Warren really latched on to those ordinances. She organized 28 senators to write a letter to HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development], and HUD very shortly thereafter issued guidance putting federal law back on the side of domestic violence survivors. The ACLU has been involved in that effort as well. It started a campaign called “I Am Not a Nuisance” where it’s litigating against these ordinances across the country.

If the book has made a difference, it’s because people are responding to the folks in its pages, folks like Arleen and Larraine and Scott. People are recognizing that this level of social suffering and blunting of human capacity is not right, and it’s not us.

Get involved

Matthew Desmond founded Just Shelter to enhance the efforts of community organizations working on issues related to affordable housing, eviction, and homelessness.

Find out how you can get involved at