Book Review: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

February 12, 2019

by Leslie Wallin, Supervising Attorney and Volunteer Coordinator, CARPLS

NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of CARPLS as a whole

Evicted is an important book for anyone who wants to learn about poverty in the United States. I know – coming from a lawyer, ‘important’ is code for ‘long-winded and boring’. Not here, I promise.

*Thanks to Chicago Bar Foundation for the photo

Sociologist Matthew Desmond follows eight families, black and white, with children and without, who are caught up in the eviction system in Milwaukee from May 2008 to December 2009. Their stories are complex, and it is impossible to dismiss them.

We find that some of the most innocent-seeming actions—throwing a snowball, calling 911 because your child is having an asthma attack, playing a game of cards—can lead to dire consequences.

Desmond argues that a stable home is the foundation of our country – for how can you have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness if you do not have a home? He contends that housing instability is part of a long spiral of social instability. Evictions cause work instability. The stress of the situation can be overwhelming and can cause poor performance at work. Work must be missed to attend court, and during the move. Often, the tenant must relocate to housing farther away from work, causing more late days or missed work. So – while having no job and no income often causes evictions, evictions can also cause job loss. Which can lead to another eviction.

Forced dispossession and poor living conditions also cause or exacerbate health issues. An unstable housing situation can cause anxiety and depression, in both parents and kids. If kids don’t have stable schooling, this can lead to behavioral problems and may negatively impact the quality of their education. And not having a stable address can lead to missed notices and disqualification from or delay in receiving benefits. Which can lead to another eviction.

Evictions also cause community instability. One eviction, says Desmond, can destabilize both the neighborhood the person is evicted from and the neighborhood to which they are forced to go. When a person plans to stay in an apartment, she makes an investment in the neighborhood. Desmond notes that when neighbors trust each other and are engaged in making the neighborhood better, those neighborhoods have lower crime rates.

An evicted person, on the other hand, usually is forced to settle for a substandard apartment on a more dangerous block. The tenant plans to leave the undesired setting as soon as possible, so she never makes an investment in the new neighborhood – even if, through financial or other circumstances, her planned move never happens.

Through this spiral of personal and community destabilization, says Desmond, “Eviction does not simply drop poor families into a dark valley, a trying yet relatively brief detour on life’s journey. It fundamentally redirects their way, casting them onto a different, and much more difficult, path. Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.”

The epilogue of Evicted is entitled Home and Hope. Hope, because Desmond believes that the affordable housing problem can be solved, if we as a country recognize housing as a fundamental human need – like free public schools, food assistance, and social security.  His long-term solution is a call for a universal housing voucher program. More immediately, to address inequities in the current system, Desmond advocates for civil legal aid for tenants in eviction court.

As it stands now in Illinois, housing advocates are urging the establishment of civil legal aid for tenants. In Illinois, 81% of landlords are represented by an attorney, while only 12% of tenants are (Prejudged, March 2018). Eviction trials typically last under five minutes.  And while Chicago law gives tenants certain rights – like the right to pay for repairs and deduct the amount of the repair from the rent – there are strict written notice requirements that most tenants know nothing about. So, even where there is compelling evidence of substandard conditions, pro se tenants may have rights but no way to present them.

Advocates also back a bill (HB 4760) that would require courts to seal eviction cases until final judgment is entered. This is because prospective landlords routinely disqualify a renter if there has been an eviction case filed – even where the case has been dismissed. Of the 105,272 completed residential eviction cases in Cook County from 2014 to 2017, only 61% ended with a ruling of eviction in favor of the landlord (Prejudged, March 2018). This means there are literally tens of thousands of renters unfairly shut out of most housing in our Cook County area. This could be remedied, in large part, by allowing public access to only those eviction cases that are decided against the tenant, and by providing civil legal aid to tenants in eviction cases.

Part of our mission at CARPLS is to educate tenants about their rights and how to assert them. When possible, we do refer tenants to legal aid attorneys for representation in eviction court. However, the number of self-represented litigants continues to rise, which puts pressure on an already overburdened court system. This book is a good representation of this dynamic.

Evicted is riveting, harrowing, heartbreaking, and important.

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