Evicted is a work of sociology with a narrative form: it tells the interconnected stories of a network of impoverished people in Milwaukee affected by eviction. Desmond’s choice to focus on this network—rather than on the stories of particular individuals—allows him to show how eviction is a systemic, rather than an individual problem. In this way, he challenges the idea that eviction is the fault of people who have failed to work, make enough money, and be “responsible” tenants. He shows that people, and especially impoverished people, ultimately function as communities rather than as individuals. Eviction destroys community, replacing a positive system of interconnection with a system in which everyone is dependent on one another in an exploitative, mutually harmful way.
In the book, Desmond contrasts two different versions of interconnection, one positive and one negative. The positive form is the system of mutual support and interdependence that exists in neighborhoods, and particularly poor communities. The negative form is the structure of exploitation that means that property owners, loan sharks, moving companies, and other entities profit from the poverty and deprivation of poor tenants. Desmond demonstrates that eviction replaces the positive form of interconnection with the negative one, and argues that this process must be reversed.
Desmond’s portrayal of the negative network of interconnection works to show that eviction actually harms everyone, even the wealthy and powerful. The landlords may be far wealthier than the tenants, but their wealth depends on the exploitation of the tenants’ poverty. Similarly, other groups such as police officers, professional movers, charity workers, lawyers, and politicians are all intimately connected to the system of eviction that has become the norm in American society. Eviction is an ecosystem with many different, intersecting parts that has a harmful impact on everyone it touches (even those whom it also benefits). For example, Sherenna makes huge profits out of her property management business, but is also constantly stressed by the instability and unpredictability of the eviction-dense rental market. By bringing all of the different parts of the negative system of interconnection into view, Desmond makes an even more compelling case for the need to radically change the status quo.
Of course, people like landlords, movers, and police need to be able to earn money and survive like anyone else; yet it is highly problematic when their survival depends on the exploitation of others. In order to change this, the negative network of exploitative interconnection needs to be replaced by the preservation of communities that encourage people to support one another.
Desmond draws on the history of positive interconnection and community to demonstrate that there is an alternative to the destructive network of exploitation in existence today. He cites the anthropologist Carol Stack, who argues that in the 1960s and 1970s, poor black families were “immersed in a domestic web of a large number of kin and friends whom they [could] count on.” Desmond himself argues that “it was next to impossible for people to survive deep poverty on their own,” and proposes that while this system of community support may emerge from desperate circumstances, it is actually a positive thing. At another point in the book, he discusses how poor neighborhoods are kept safe by the presence of certain individuals who know and “watch” the streets, keeping track of residents’ needs and behaviors. This system, which is much safer, more sustainable, and more productive than the alternate model of police surveillance, arrest, and incarceration, is broken by eviction. When neighborhoods are constantly torn apart by people being forced to move in and out on short notice, the community cannot take care of itself. Crime, drug use, poor school performance, incarceration, and suicide ensue.
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Community and Interconnection Quotes in Evicted
Sherrena saw all this, but she saw something else too. Like other seasoned landlords, she knew who owned which multifamily, which church, which bar, which street; knew its different vicissitudes of life, its shades and moods; knew which blocks were hot and drug-soaked and which were stable and quiet. She knew the ghetto's value and how money could be made from a property that looked worthless to people who didn't know any better.
It took a certain skill to make a living off the city's poorest trailer park, a certain kind of initiative. Tobin’s strategy was simple. He would walk right up to a drug addict or a metal scrapper or a disabled grandmother and say, "I want my money." He would pound on the door until a tenant answered. It was almost impossible to hide the fact that you were home. It was hard to hide much of anything. Office Susie knew when your check arrived; she put it in your mailbox. And Lenny could plainly see if you had enough money to buy cigarettes or beer or a new bike for your kid but not enough to pay the rent.
When city or state officials pressured landlords—by ordering them to hire an outside security firm or by having a building inspector scrutinize their property—landlords often passed the pressure on to their tenants. There was also the matter of reestablishing control. The most effective way to assert, or reassert, ownership of land was to force people from it.
Men often avoided eviction by laying concrete, patching roofs, or painting rooms for landlords. But women almost never approached their landlord with a similar offer. Some women—taxed by child care, welfare requirements, or work obligations—could not spare the time. But many others simply did not conceive of working off the rent as a possibility. When women did approach their landlords with such an offer, it sometimes involved trading sex for rent.
The power to dictate who could stay and who must go; the power to expel or forgive: it was an old power, and it was not without caprice.
"This moment right now," Sherrena reflected, "it’s going to create a lot of millionaires. You know, if you have money right now, you can profit from other people's failures. . . . I’m catching the properties. I'm catching ‘em."
In the 1960s and 1970s, destitute families often relied on extended kin networks to get by. Poor black families were "immersed in a domestic web of a large number of kin and friends whom they [could] count on," wrote the anthropologist Carol Stack in All Our Kin. Those entwined in such a web swapped goods and services on a daily basis. This did little to lift families out of poverty, but it was enough to keep them afloat. But large-scale social transformations—the crack epidemic, the rise of the black middle class, and the prison boom among them—had frayed the family safety net in poor communities. So had state policies like Aid to Families with Dependent Children that sought to limit "kin dependence" by giving mothers who lived alone or with unrelated roommates a larger stipend than those who lived with relatives.
But for the most part, tenants had a high tolerance for inequality. They spent little time questioning the wide gulf separating their poverty from Tobin's wealth or asking why rent for a worn-out aluminum-wrapped trailer took such a large chunk of their income. Their focus was on smaller, more tangible problems […] Most renters in Milwaukee thought highly of their landlord. Who had time to protest inequality when you were trying to get the rotten spot in your floorboard patched before your daughter put her foot through it again? Who cared what the landlord was making as long as he was willing to work with you until you got back on your feet? There was always something worse than the trailer park, always room to drop lower.