‘Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City’ by Matthew Desmond is a piece of contemporary narrative non-fiction reporting very much in the same vein as one of my favourite non-fiction books of 2016 Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge. While Younge explored the circumstances of ten fatal shootings involving children and teenagers in a single day in 2013, Desmond follows eight families in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and their experiences of the private housing rental market in the city and its suburbs. During previous financial crises in the twentieth century, evictions were comparatively rare, but numbers have skyrocketed since the last recession. Desmond explores the reasons behind why this has happened as well as the far-reaching social consequences.
The tenants Desmond features in the book include disabled veteran Lamar, single mother Arleen, former nurse Scott who lost his licence because of his drug addiction and Crystal who recently left the foster care system. Desmond also meets their landlords including Sherrena, one of the few black female landlords in the city and Tobias who owns a trailer park and makes a profit of around $400,000 each year. His portraits are balanced and fair, avoiding sentimentality and acknowledging the frustrations on both sides but always returning to focus on the injustices of the situation.
Poverty is often described as a “cycle” but the circumstances that cause so many to be trapped in it for so long have rarely been so starkly and eloquently described as they are here. With the tenants typically spending 70-80% of their income on rent for property barely fit for human habitation, many of them quickly fall behind on payments, raising the risk of forced eviction which consequently makes it almost impossible to find anywhere else to live. Towards the end of the book, Desmond raises the issue of exploitation with so many poor tenants having little or no access to legal representation or other means to challenge the unsafe and unaffordable conditions they live in. As he says in the epilogue, “Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty” (p.299).
Desmond is a Harvard sociologist but he wears his academic background very lightly in this engaging narrative which focuses less on statistics (although there are plenty of shocking ones) and more on the human cost. He deliberately chose to tell the stories in the third person rather than the first person even though he reveals in the afterword that he had personally intervened in some of the situations described. He also proposes a possible solution to the crisis in the form of universal housing vouchers for all families below a certain income but progress towards such a scheme currently seems unlikely.
‘Evicted’ was the much-deserved winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction earlier this year. It is a powerfully immersive piece of reporting written with extraordinary insight.