"There are losers and winners. There losers because there are winners. 'Every condition exists,' Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote, 'simply because someone profits by its existence. This economic exploitation is crystallized in the slum.'"
(Matthew Desmond, Evicted)
(Matthew Desmond, Evicted)
Now replace that picture with a different one: an inner city landlord who lets properties go into foreclosure when they accumulate too many fines or repairs. She escapes liability by registering each property under a different LLC (Limited Liability Company) created online with the city's Department of Financial Institutions.
However, her name never appears on the paperwork, so the city never seems to realize it's dealing with one person who owns multiple properties (an oversight that could be eliminated by changing the LLC rules, and requiring the creator to give their name -- but I digress). If this isn't gaming the system -- once the associated costs to the city and its taxpayers are considered -- what it is?
Suffice to say, these details aren't part of Milwaukee's online scarlet letter. It's one of many unsettling details that you'll find in Matthew Desmond's book, Evicted, which is written in a classic old school approach. The author (who's an academic and social researcher, not a journalist) spent roughly a year getting to know two major landlords -- including the one cited above, who specializes in the inner city, and her white male counterpart, who lords over a trailer park -- and those who rent from them.
What Desmond found, and what the reader will encounter, is a perfect storm of one-sided lawmaking, legal loopholes, and economic forces that leave his subjects living in conditions that might make Charles Dickens blush. Between 2009 and 2013, for example, roughly half of Milwaukee's renters experienced a major housing problem. About one-third lived with clogged plumbing that lasted a day or more, for example. One in five dealt with broken appliances or windows for three days (or longer). Households with African-Americans and children were the most likely to face these problems.
The biggest costs are often the psychological ones, as Desmond suggests -- citing the eight-person family forced to constantly "bucket out" their kitchen sink and toilet, which their inner-city landlord refuses to fix. The experience of "living in degrading housing in dangerous neighborhoods sent a clear message about where the wider society thought they belonged," Desmond writes. "People who were repulsed by their home, who felt they had no control over it, and yet had to give most of their income to it -- they thought less of themselves" (p. 258).
At its core, however, Evicted is a simple snapshot of economic power -- who has it, and who doesn't. In Milwaukee, these imbalances seem far more one-sided than most cities, starting in the 1930s, when the death rates for its African-American residents were about 60% higher citywide, due to poor housing conditions....because the provisions of FDR's New Deal didn't apply to them (pp. 251-52). This is not an accident. This is policy, plain and simple.
Conditions grew markedly worse during the 1990s, as the city's industrial base hollowed out -- just in time for the welfare-to-work movement. As a result, 1 in 2 African-American men are unemployed, such as Lamar, a legless ex-veteran who coughs up $550 of his $628 monthly welfare check for rent...leaving him with the princely sum of $78, which he supplements (like many of Evicted's subjects) with various off-the-book endeavors (p. 78).
As Desmond suggests, America could correct this imbalance with a federal voucher program that would allow renters to stop spending so much money to rent -- which would pump more money into the economy, and make cities more livable again. One in five of renting families in America spends half its income on housing, yet 67% don't get any federal help. This is an unacceptable state of affairs when -- contrary to neoliberal urban legend -- resources do exist to address it.
Of course, when a one-sided marketplace is allowed to fester, new sub-economies spring up to take advantage of someone else's misery, which Evicted also vividly documents. Consider Eagle Moving & Storage, which only did one or eviction moves per week when it started up in 1958. Today, as Desmond reports, 40% of its business comes from eviction moves, fueled by 35 employees and a 308,000-square-foot building that -- wait for it -- that a now-defunct furniture factory once occupied (p. 113).
Eagle makes additional bank by charging hefty storage fees and insurance to store evicted renters' property, which most of them wind up losing. How would you afford additional fees when all your stuff is sitting on the sidewalk? It's a reminder of the one-sided dynamics that spring up when the powers that be figure (rightly, in most cases) that nobody's really paying attention. "Exploitation. Now, there's a word that has been scrubbed out of the poverty debate," Desmond asserts.."It is a word that speaks to to the fact that poverty is not just a product of low incomes. It is also a product of extractive markets." (p. 305)
The crushing irony here, according to Desmond, is that half of all evictions in Milwaukee are informal ones -- which those on the receiving end prefer, because there's no formal record to stop them from moving into an equally Dickensian space, a situation that's never addressed through the assembly line rough justice dished out by the city's eviction court. "Something has gone very wrong with our justice system when it makes more sense for tenants to skip court and quietly move out when their landlord says go than it does for then to plead their case themselves," Desmond states, "which often leads to an order to move and an eviction on their record" (footnotes, p. 398).
However, this problem could be corrected by giving low-income people the right to civil representation -- as they've already done in many obvious places (France, Sweden), and some not so obvious (Azerbijan, India, Zambia), Desmond notes. Putting pressure on the powers that be also reaps some badly-needed social dividends. For example, Desmond's research persuaded Milwaukee in 2011 to exclude 911 calls involving domestic violence, stalking and sexual abuse from its so-called "nuisance ordinance." Otherwise, renters who find themselves calling the cops in those situations would still potentially face eviction -- or homelessness -- by having those crises going on record, and (fucked-up as it is) count against them.
Of course, this problem isn't confined to Milwaukee. Consider Lagos, Nigeria, where 60% of those residents living in Africa's largest city spend most of their money on rent, with the vast majority confined to one-room units. As the world grows more urbanized, and less affordable, Evicted offers a timely reminder to redress the balance -- especially when many of the protections that Americans take for granted nowadays (child labor laws, the minimum wage, workplace safety regulations) only came about "when we chose to place the well-being of people above money," Desmond contends.
Keep those words in mind, and burn them into your memory bank forever. The first step in correcting injustice is the admission that it exists -- which is only one of many reasons why neoliberalism, which has singularly failed in addressing economic injustice, belongs in the dustbin. On that level, Evicted offers an appropriate starting point to marshal our collective outrage, and put it to good use. --The Reckoner