Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond follows eight different families who struggled to pay rent in poor areas of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Around the time of the 2008 financial crisis, the author lived in the same units as the other tenants and rented from the same two landlords, whom he also profiles in vivid detail. Amongst many other major awards, this book won a 2017 Pulitzer Prize.
The eviction cycle. Imagine that you are either in a low-paying job or receive government benefits, but that income isn’t enough to pay for rent, utilities, and food. So in any given month, one of those bills doesn’t get paid. That means eventually you get behind on rent, and eventually you get evicted.
After you are evicted once, your housing options instantly shrink. (Not many landlords want to rent to someone who just got evicted.) Just as payday loans specifically target folks with no other borrowing options, there is a subset of housing units that target folks with evictions. You may be surprised that the units in the poorest neighborhoods can cost just as much as a nicer unit in a better neighborhood (that does background checks). As with payday loans, you could argue lenders need to charge higher interest rates to cover more frequent defaults. You could similarly argue that landlords in low-income areas need to charge higher rents to cover unpaid rent and higher turnover costs.
After some time in shelters or crashing with relatives, you scrape together enough to make first month’s rent and a deposit. But every month, rent again takes up 70% of your income (ex. $500 rent and $700 to $800 income), so eventually you fall behind again. The sink gets clogged. Now, the landlord doesn’t want to pay a plumber $100 an hour when you are already owe them two months of back rent. But if your landlord doesnt’t fix the sink, you’re not going to treat the apartment nicely either. You’re also not going to pay any more rent. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but they do save both sides money (in the short-term). Your next eviction is only a matter of time, and cycle repeats.
Stable housing forms the core of a good community. Forced moves can hurt your employment prospects as you miss work while searching for housing. Forced moves lead to increased student absences or having to move schools entirely. Forced moves cause people to lose valuable property like furniture, appliances, clothing, and other household items.
Landlord economics. I didn’t see that much landlord “profit” when my rough calculations showed they were basically two people working full-time in a highly-leveraged business. Yes, landlords Sherrena and her husband “owned” 36 units and brought in $120,000 in gross rent annually, but that is before paying the mortgage, taxes, maintenance, and the time spent as full-time property managers. There was a constant flow of finding new tenants, fixing up damaged units, collecting partial rent payments when possible, and evicting those who fell too far behind. Every missed rent check was $500 less out of their monthly income. An Amazon reviewer stated that he followed up on the properties and found that by 2016 Sherrena no longer owned any of them (many went into foreclosure). I happened to invest $2,000 into an investor loan backed by an 6-plex in Milwaukee and it also went into foreclosure. I’m sure there are landlords doing fine, but I wouldn’t describe it as “easy profits”.
The mobile home park was a bit different. This seems to be a weird loophole where technically you are only renting a plot of land and a utility connection. The “mobile” home (which never moves) on the concrete pad is simply given free to the tenant, who then assumes the responsibility of maintaining everything inside. The landlord doesn’t have to worry about plumbing, electrical, heat, roofing, and so on. If you get evicted, you can’t afford to move your “free” home, and it gets handed off to the next tenant.
Housing assistance statistics. In 2012, 1 in 9 occupied rental households in Cleveland and 1 in 14 in Chicago were summoned to eviction court. Having an eviction can subsequently disqualify you from future public housing assistance, which led the Pulitzer committee to call this book a “deeply researched exposé that showed how mass evictions after the 2008 economic crash were less a consequence than a cause of poverty.” Here are some statistics from the book:
- 1% of poor renters live in rent-controlled units.
- 15% of poor renters live in public housing.
- 17% of poor renters receive a government subsidy (rent-reducing voucher).
- 67% of poor renters receive no federal housing assistance.
In addition to the 2/3rd of poor renters with no federal housing assistance, another of the book’s arguments is that existing housing assistance programs simply don’t do enough to help people back on their feet. It’s like if you have a broken leg and you need eyeglasses. You need both fixed to get back to work, but you are only given enough money to solve one of the problems. Even if I give you a cast, you’re still blind. If I only give you eyeglasses, you still can’t walk. Money is being spent right now, but people are still stuck in the same place as before. Perhaps more money upfront would help people get back firmly on their feet.
The author’s proposed solution is to signficiantly expand the existing housing voucher program where every family below a certain income level would be eligible for a housing voucher. The voucher could be used to pay for rent on the open market (but not too luxurious or unsafe), similar to how food stamps work. He proposes a variety of sources for the money, for example getting rid of the mortgage interest deduction.
This book reminded me of Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich from over a decade ago. (Here is her NYT review of this book.) Yes, bad decisions can play a role but however you arrive, it is exceptionally hard to break out of the cycle of poverty. You are sensitive to any small setback (car repair, medical bill, theft). Many things actually end up being more expensive when you are broke. Hard work is necessary but not sufficient. You need either a big dose of help (family, friends) or a long streak of avoiding bad luck.
The storytelling in this book is what stays with you. Out of all the families profiled in the book, the only ones that eventually broke the cycle got help from family. That way, they could get everything together long enough to and either land a stable job or finish education/training. The author’s solution is essentially to have the government do that same thing, but the question is whether fellow Americans (strangers) want to help out in the same way (higher taxes). I don’t know about that.
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