It is January 2008; Jori and his cousins are snowball fighting when a car pulls up and a man gets out. Jori runs into the apartment where he lives with his mother, Arleen, and younger brother, Jafaris. Jori locks the door but the man breaks it down, before leaving. On learning about the broken door, the landlord evicts Arleen and her sons. If Arleen doesn’t leave on time, she will either have to pay $350 for a truck to load her belongings into storage, or have all her possessions left out on the sidewalk.
The opening of the book is decidedly bleak. The snowy weather, the violent attempt to break into Arleen’s apartment, Arleen’s eviction, and the grim “choice” she faces regarding her possessions all create the impression of a dreary and unjust world.
Arleen takes 13-year-old Jori and 5-year-old Jafaris to a homeless shelter called the Lodge, where they remain until Arleen finds a house in the predominantly black North Side of Milwaukee. Although the house frequently has no running water, Arleen describes it as her “favorite place.” Yet after only a few weeks the city deems the house “unfit for human habitation” and evicts her again. This time the family move into a neighborhood with a heavy population of drug dealers.
All of Arleen’s choices seem to be between a rock and a hard place: expensive storage or seeing all her belongings left on the sidewalk; a homeless shelter or no running water; a house that is “unfit for human habitation” or a dangerous neighborhood. Yet she still manages to stay optimistic enough to describe one dilapidated house as her favorite place.
Four months later, Arleen finds a better apartment, and the family moves there. The rent is $550 a month, average for a two-bedroom in an impoverished neighborhood in the fourth-poorest city in America. Arleen receives a $628 welfare check each month. Upon their arrival Arleen’s new landlord, a black woman named Sherenna, drops off a large back of groceries, some of which are from the food pantry and some of which she purchased herself.
To some extent, this turn of events seems promising. Sherenna’s kindness suggests that she defies the stereotypical image of landlords as miserly and merciless. Yet at the same time, rent for the apartment will take almost 90% of her welfare check each month, which is clearly not a sustainable arrangement.
In the past, evictions were rare, even in impoverished communities. Neighbors would turn up in massive numbers to protest evictions, sometimes overpowering the indifferent marshals. Today, many sheriffs are employed full-time to carry out evictions, and housing courts are always packed with families. Most tenants spend between 50-70% of their income on rent, and millions are evicted each year because they cannot pay. Half of evictions in Milwaukee are “informal,” meaning that they are not legally mandated. Overall, between 2009 and 2011 one in eight Milwaukee renters were evicted. Similar statistics exist in cities such as Kansas City, Cleveland, and Chicago.
This passage introduces the central issue of the book: eviction. It establishes that although eviction itself is not a new problem, it has become so widespread and damaging that it warrants urgent attention. People may not be aware of how frequently evictions occur and there is insufficient protest against eviction, despite the fact that such protest occurred in the past. Housing instability and eviction need to be addressed immediately.
Evicted focuses on eight families in Milwaukee, but “tells an American story.” The book not only analyzes evictions, but also describes their “fallout,” showing how eviction affects many more people than the individuals who are evicted. The housing crisis is one of the “most urgent and pressing issues” in America. While focusing on other factors such as jobs, welfare, and mass incarceration is important, until people are able to pay their rent the problem of poverty will persist.
Throughout the book, Desmond shows that housing is such a crucial issue because it is so fundamental. Welfare, incarceration, and even employment do not affect everyone, but housing does. Every single person on earth needs a stable, adequate, and affordable place to live, and eviction must therefore be central to all discussions of poverty.