Matthew Desmond

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During a cold January in 2008, Arleen Bell and her sons Jori and Jafaris are evicted from their apartment. They move into a homeless shelter called the Lodge, then into a house on Milwaukee’s predominantly-black North Side, before being evicted again. After more moves, Arleen and the boys eventually move into an apartment with a black landlord named Sherenna Tarver. Evicted tells the story of the eviction epidemic in America, focusing on eight families in Milwaukee.

Sherenna was a teacher before becoming a professional landlord, running her business with her husband, Quentin. One of her tenants, Lamar, is a single father of two boys who does not have legs. He is currently in a dispute with Sherenna about work he performed for her, for which she’s refused to properly compensate him. A young mother named Patrice Hinkston used to live in the unit upstairs from Lamar, but after being evicted has moved back downstairs with her mother, Doreen, and her younger siblings.

College Mobile Home Park in Milwaukee’s poor, majority-white South Side is owned by Tobin Charney and managed by Lenny Lawson and Susie Dunn, who is nicknamed Office Susie. Tobin almost lost the park in May 2008 when the city council refused to renew his license. The trailer park residents rallied in support of him because they feared being forced to move to the North Side. One of Tobin’s tenants, Larraine, is facing eviction over unpaid rent.

Tobin’s license is eventually renewed on the condition that Tobin cleans up the trailer park, and he immediately begins evictions. A crack-addicted couple named Pam and Ned are issued an eviction notice. Pam is pregnant; two of her daughters are the only black children in the trailer park. She and Ned also have two other girls. The family temporarily moves in with Scott, a former nurse and heroin user in his late 30s, and his roommate Teddy.

Arleen, Jori, and Jafaris adopt a cat. When she was 19 Arleen lived in public housing, but she was persuaded to leave for the private market and now has little hope of being accepted for public housing again. 75% of people who are eligible for housing assistance don’t receive anything. A woman named Trisha moves in above Arleen.

Patrice was evicted after Sherenna refused to fix broken things in her apartment and Patrice withheld half her rent. Doreen, meanwhile, deducts $150 from her rent to pay a plumber after Sherenna will not call one herself. Sherenna issues an eviction notice to Doreen, too.

Scott used to be a nurse, but lost his license after he was found to be stealing opioids and getting high at work. Lenny, Office Susie, and Tobin attend a court-ordered Landlord Training Program together. Teddy moves back to Tennessee, and Scott begins working with a team that cleans out foreclosed homes. Arleen is evicted. Sherenna is surprised to see Arleen at the courthouse for her hearing; most evicted tenants do not show up.

Larraine desperately tries to find ways to stay her eviction. Ever since her husband Glen died of an overdose, she has felt that her life is stuck in a rut of hopelessness and misery. One of Larraine’s daughters, Megan, no longer speaks to her; the other, Jayme, promises to give Larraine a cut of the check she receives from Arby’s. Larraine’s wealthier brother Ruben agrees to pay Larraine’s overdue rent, but Tobin refuses it. Larraine moves into the trailer belonging to her brother, Beaker, who is in the hospital.

Sherenna and Quentin pay crews of hypes (drug addicts) to perform handiwork for them for measly amounts of cash. Sherenna has a new prospective tenant named Ladona who is a housing voucher recipient. She plans to rent a unit in a house she recently purchased to Ladona, and is happy because she can rent it for over market value. Sherenna has also begun dabbling in rent-to-own schemes, helping reliable tenants to raise their credit score so they can purchase houses.

Doreen makes a deal with Sherenna to stop her eviction. The new tenant moving into Arleen’s apartment, a young woman named Crystal Mayberry, agrees to let Arleen and the boys stay with her after their eviction date while they are looking for a new place to live. Crystal was raised in foster care and suffers from a range of mental health problems. Arleen and Crystal stay living together but often have screaming conflicts.

Scott moves in with D.P., the nephew of a friend from Narcotics Anonymous. After losing his keys, being fired, and having his electricity cut off in the same week, Scott attempts to check himself into rehab. However, there is an enormous crowd of people at the rehab center and he is not accepted, and goes on a three-day bender instead.

Arleen and Crystal hear Trisha being beaten by her boyfriend Chris upstairs, and Crystal calls 911. The police in turn reprimand Sherenna for the “nuisance activities” occurring on her property. Sherenna issues an eviction notice to Crystal and Arleen and forwards it to the police. Arleen again commences a search for a new apartment.

Kamala, the young mother who has moved in above Lamar, is playing spades at Lamar’s apartment when her own unit catches fire. Her two oldest daughters escape, but her eight-month-old baby dies. Sherenna is relieved to learn that she will not be held responsible as Kamala’s landlord, even though she can’t remember if she put smoke detectors in every room of the unit.

Arleen is still struggling to find a new home. Larraine’s food stamps are reinstated after having been cut off, and she uses a whole month’s supply on one meal, an extravagant lobster dinner, which she eats alone to celebrate her and Glen’s anniversary. Larraine knows that occasionally splurging on luxury purchases will ultimately have no effect on her financial situation—she will be poor regardless, and thus decides to treat herself from time to time.

Ned and Pam stay in a motel and with a friend of Ned’s while trying to find a new place. Landlords repeatedly tell them they will not accept children. Arleen visits her cousin J.P., who is living with her eldest son, Boosie, a drug dealer. Pam and Ned finally secure a unit after Ned pretends to be a single father.

After being evicted, Crystal moves into the Lodge, where she befriends a 20-year-old mother of three named Vanetta Evans. Crystal and Vanetta decide to look for an apartment together. Yet after lashing out at an employee at the Lodge, Crystal is kicked out and is forced to turn to her minister for help. Minister Barber finds an elderly couple for Crystal to stay with, but they kick her out after one night.

Sherenna uses the insurance money from Kamala’s unit to buy two new duplexes. Doreen’s daughter Natasha gives birth to a baby boy, Malik Jr.

Vanetta and her children stay with her sister Ebony. Vanetta is tried for a robbery she committed while desperately poor, and is sentenced to 81 months in prison. Crystal begins sleeping on the street and, after her SSI is cut off, turns to sex work.

Sober again, Scott takes a job working at an Alcoholics Anonymous bar called The Serenity Club. Three weeks into the job he and D.P. are evicted, and he goes to live with David and Anna, who are also members of AA. Scott relapses and is immediately kicked out. Eventually he goes home and borrows $150 from his mother to begin methadone treatment. He moves into a homeless shelter called the Guest House, where he eventually becomes a resident manager. After a year, Scott receives housing assistance that allows him to secure a department downtown and pay only a fraction of the rent each month.

Arleen and the boys move into a new apartment on the North Side. A relative of hers, T., is shot and killed by her cousin. She is kicked out of the new apartment and goes to stay with Trisha, who is also engaged in sex work. Trisha’s boyfriend Sunny, along with Sunny’s parents and sister, move into Trisha’s one-bedroom apartment too. Eventually everyone is forced to move. Before long, Jori goes to live with his father and Child Protective Services places Jafaris with Arleen’s sister. Arleen borrows money from her Aunt Merva and manages to get her electricity turned back on, which allows her to get the boys back.

In the Epilogue, Desmond discusses the importance of home as the center of a person’s wellbeing and identity. A stable home allows people to improve their lives, whereas housing instability and eviction leave people in a cycle of poverty and deprivation. It is thus vital that housing be considered a human right. America was founded on the belief that there is a right to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” and the right to housing is implicitly part of this because without a stable home, none of these other rights are possible.

Desmond recommends that the housing voucher system should be expanded so that all people in the bottom 30% of income would receive them. Eviction rates would plummet, and homelessness would be virtually nonexistent. It would also be important to make discrimination against voucher holders illegal and to stabilize rent in order for the program to be affordable.

In the book’s final section, Desmond gives a description of his own childhood growing up in a poor family where the gas was sometimes cut off. While he was in college, the bank seized Desmond’s childhood home. At this point he began working for Habitat for Humanity, and after graduating pursued a PhD in sociology to better understand poverty.

Desmond moved into Tobin’s trailer park in May 2008, and then to the North Side of Milwaukee in June 2009. He immersed himself in the lives of his subjects, recorded almost everything they said, and tried to intervene as little as possible. His encounter with his subjects’ suffering left him feeling guilty and despondent. He believes that his findings in Milwaukee are representative of much (if not all) of urban America. During his research, Desmond was also touched by the kindness and generosity of his subjects.