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'One Book' Author Matthew Desmond On 'Eviction'

Matthew Desmond photo
Courtesy photo
MacArthur Foundation
'Evicted' author Matthew Desmond. The book is the 2019 'One Book, One Community' choice.

Matthew Desmond’s book “Evicted” is being read by incoming MSU students and East Lansing residents as this year’s “One Book, One Community” selection. Desmond tells stories of how poor renters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin struggle to pay rent, how even one eviction can change their lives for years, and how landlords deal with tenants who fall behind. 

Desmond tells WKAR’s Scott Pohl that America stands out among developed countries for having one of the worst poverty rates.

SCOTT POHL: I wanted to begin by asking you what was at the root of your interest in issues related to poverty in America and in this case, eviction rates in particular.

MATTHEW DESMOND: For me, America really stands out among developed democracies for having one of the worst poverty rates, and that's really troubled me. We know quite a bit about the relationship between poverty and work and welfare and the family criminal justice system, but there's been a lot less work on housing, especially like the private rental sector where most low income families live. That's kind of one impulse that drove me to study eviction and kind of find a way to animate and humanize this problem.

POHL: How did you come to choose Milwaukee?

DESMOND: There's a lot of books on places like New York and San Francisco and L.A., and those books are really important, but those cities are quite unique in the American spectre, and so I thought that if you do a book on Milwaukee, you do a book about lives of folks that resemble more closely the lives of Americans living in cities like St. Louis and Cleveland and Omaha, Nebraska, and most urban places around the country. I thought that it just gave us a better shot at representing, you know, kind of the middle of America.

POHL: I've asked you to do a brief reading from the book. Could you start on page 98 for me, please?

DESMOND: Sure. “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, and poor black women were locked out.”

POHL: Out of the entire book, that very brief passage, I think summed up a lot of the story of “Evicted,” and I wanted to ask you if you could explain how eviction seems to have hit women, African American women particularly, hard.

DESMOND: If you go into any eviction court around the country, you see a ton of moms and kids waiting for their case to be called. In the South Bronx, for example, in New York City, until recently, there was literally a daycare. Inside of eviction courts, there were so many kids coming through the doors every day. Low income African American women are evicted at incredibly high rates. In Milwaukee, one in five black women reports being evicted sometime in her life compared to one of 15 white women, and that's a really troubling statistic. I think it speaks to this kind of locked up locked out dynamic that that paragraph is trying to get at.

It's also not true that eviction is only a problem that's found in places like the north side of Milwaukee or in inner city, predominantly black neighborhoods. It’s in mobile home parks that are predominantly white, which I write about a good amount in the book. It's in Latino communities. It's in expensive cities on the coasts, and it's in pretty cheap cities, you know, in the southeast and in the Midwest.

Today, one in five of all American renters spends over half of their income on housing costs. It's a big problem. - Matthew Desmond

POHL: It's striking while reading “Evicted” the extent to which you became embedded with these people and in certain parts of Milwaukee to hear their stories. It wasn't quite clear how embedded you became until reading the epilogue of the book. Could you tell us a little bit about how much time you spent not just visiting these people but living with them?

DESMOND: Yeah, I started by moving into a mobile home park. I lived there for five months and, then I moved into a rooming house in the inner city of Milwaukee. I lived there for about 10 months, and those two neighborhoods were the basis for meeting folks like Arleen, Larraine, Venetta and Lamar. I followed those tenants everywhere they'd let me, and I spent a lot of time with their landlords too. I'm still in touch with a lot of folks in the book. I think that when you do work like that, when you're sleeping on people's floors and eating from their tables and watching their kids, you form real friendships and affections.

I think that some folks who write books like this think you have to be objective to write the book and by objective, they mean distant. But I think there's a lot of distance actually, I think there's probably too much distance, and I think that it's possible to fall in love with people and still write about their lives in an honest, complex way.

POHL: “Evicted” has tons of direct quotes from people who use language that I'll describe as colorful. I wonder if you worried at any point that some readers might have a stereotypical response to the way these people talk?

DESMOND: I don't think we can write scared, you know, and I think if we write scared, we don't do justice to what life is like on the ground level. I never thought that it was my job to sugarcoat what poverty looks like. If you look poverty really hard in the eyes, it can look vicious and brutal and ugly, and it can also look amazing and generous and funny. I thought that my job as someone that's documenting the human wreckage of the affordable housing crisis, was to capture all of that.

One part of the book that sometimes comes up with this kind of question is the chapter on lobster on food stamps. It's when Larraine, my neighbor in the trailer park, took her entire allotment of food stamps for one month and spent it on lobster tail and king crab legs and lemon meringue pie and a Pepsi to celebrate the anniversary of her and her boyfriend who had died. When I found out about that I was both incredulous and just frankly angry at Larraine, but also scared about how to write this thing. I called my wife and I was like, I had a Reagan commercial over here, I don't know how I'm gonna put this on the page. But what was very clear was Lorraine was not embarrassed that she did this. She had good reason to do this, and she helped me understand it wasn't my job to apologize. It was my job to try to understand, and she invited me to kind of grasp the simple concept that Lorraine isn't poor because she makes decisions like that. She makes decisions like that because she's poor, and that's not just a finding that's backed up by her experience, it’s a finding that’s backed up by a lot of social science too. I think that's the conceit of the book, that's the bet with the book, that if you write about people's lives in their full complexity, readers will respond to that.

POHL: “Evicted” was published in 2016. How much, if at all, have things changed?

DESMOND: I think that there's a lot of change and there's not enough change. We have seen since the book came out a lot of policy changes around the country, and this isn't attributable to the book. The book joins a larger effort from tenant organizers and local activists and politicians to really try to give people more rights in eviction court and preserve affordable housing and drive down family homelessness.

We've seen laws change in places like Virginia and California and Wisconsin since the book has come out, but we also still are in the midst of a really acute, painful housing crisis. Unless the country acts in a big way, you know, we're going to remain in this crisis for a long time, and it's going to mean that homeownership is out of reach for a lot of young Americans. It's going to mean that we see evictions in this country, not in the thousands or in the hundreds of thousands even, but in the millions every single year.

The scope of eviction is kind of hard to get our heads around, but think of the highest number of people we've seen foreclosed in recent memory. That was in 2010, during the height of the foreclosure crisis, so every single year in America there's more eviction filings that happened to renters, than there were foreclosure filings that happened to homeowners at the height of the crisis. It's like a foreclosure level crisis every single year for American renters, and that's a problem that's going to take real bold leadership.

POHL: The public radio program “On The Media” recently did a series of programs devoted to the subject of eviction, and you were part of that project. Tell me about being involved with “On The Media.”

Matthew Desmond photo
Credit Courtesy photo
Author Matthew Desmond lived in a trailer park and in inner city Milwaukee for 'Evicted.'

DESMOND: One thing that I really try to do with my work is try to reach a lot of different audiences, and I want to reach audiences that don't read the newspapers that I read, that don't listen to the podcasts I listen to, but I do listen to “On The Media.” When they approached, (host) Brooke Gladstone really wanted to try a different take on the housing crisis. The media story of the housing crisis I think has been stuck in a little bit of a rut. You know, most of the stories are like, you know, it's really expensive to live in Portland, or it's really expensive to live in Chicago, and that's true, but there are a lot of other questions, thousands of questions that are really unanswered about this crisis. We try to push that narrative a little bit. We try to emphasize the landlords take, the tenants take on the crisis, and we try to emphasize and highlight solutions that are working around the country.

POHL: If you were magically made U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, what would you do about the problems associated with evictions?

DESMOND: I think that when most Americans think of the typical low income family, they might imagine them living in public housing or getting some other kind of housing assistance from the government, but the opposite is true. Only about one in four families who qualify for any kind of help get it, so the remaining majority, the unlucky majority, receive nothing, no help. For those families, they're often paying 50%, 60%, 70% of their income to rent an apartment at the very bottom of their city's housing market. You know, that is a problem that is completely unacceptable. That's the bad news.

The good news is we have programs that we know can help. When families finally receive a housing voucher, for example, after years on the waiting list, and then when they finally get this ticket that allows them to pay only 30% of their income on rent instead of 60% or 70% or 80%, they do one consistent thing with their freed up money, which is they buy more food, and their kids become stronger and healthier. They move to better neighborhoods, they don't move as much. These things work, and so I think that the government has a responsibility to ensure that every American has a safe, decent, affordable place to live. The reason is really simple: without a stable home, everything else falls apart no matter what your issue is, and so there could be a deeper investment in affordable housing. That could be through programs like the Affordable Housing Choice Voucher Program. It can be incentivizing low income development.

We have the tools that work, we just are dosing the problem at too low of a level.

Matthew Desmond will speak at the Hannah Community Center at 6:30 p.m. Sunday (to be livestreamed hereand at MSU’s Fall Convocation in the Breslin Center Monday at 9 a.m.

Scott Pohl is a general assignment news reporter and produces news features and interviews. He is also an alternate local host on NPR's "Morning Edition."
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