Bleak House

Living among renters in a hotbed of evictions to try to understand this complex—and mostly unknown—driver of poverty.
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Living among renters in a hotbed of evictions to try to understand this complex—and mostly unknown—driver of poverty.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. (Photo: Courtesy of Crown)

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. (Photo: Courtesy of Crown)

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
Matthew Desmond
Crown

Matthew Desmond wants America to think harder about eviction—not just about how often it happens (part of the problem is that we don’t exactly know), but also about how brutal it can be. In recent years, the 36-year-old Harvard University sociologist has earned notice for his innovative statistical analyses of the complex eviction landscape in Milwaukee. Last fall, he was awarded a MacArthur "Genius Grant" in part for his finding that being kicked out of your rental is a direct driver of poverty, rather than just one of its symptoms.

Prior to his path-breaking quantitative work, Desmond was learning about evictions up close. From May 2008 to June 2009, he lived as a renter in two of Milwaukee's eviction hotbeds: first a run-down trailer park, and then the city's struggling North Side. In his new book he saves the crushing numbers for an afterword; instead, he zooms in on the real-estate sagas of nine families and renters he lived alongside, plus their landlords. The cramped, self- perpetuating suffering of the renters' stories brings to mind Charles Dickens, though generally without the redeeming twists of fate.

Most evictions occur outside of formal legal maneuvers, and so don't generate public records. This—combined with the assumption by most academics that moves are planned or voluntary—has led to systemic undercounting of the crisis. Desmond's book could be written again and again, in cities across America, each edition underwritten by our disastrous "collective decision not to provide all our citizens a stable and decent place to live."

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