Evicted addresses one of the darkest aspects of capitalism: the fact that it is possible for wealthy people to make enormous profits by exploiting those who live in what Matthew Desmond calls “grinding poverty.” This might seem surprising at first. Given that impoverished people have very little money themselves, how is it possible that wealthier people are able to generate significant profits through them? Where does this money come from? In Evicted, Desmond emphasizes that although the exploitation of the very poor may not initially appear to be a profitable venture, a lot of money can be made in this way. This is because people who are denied basic rights—in this case, access to housing—become so desperate that they are forced to accept exploitative treatment because they have no other choice. For this reason, “exploitation thrives when it comes to the essentials, like housing and food.” Due to this potential for exploitation, Desmond argues that government intervention is necessary to guarantee that everyone is able to meet their basic needs. Only this solution will ensure that poor people are no longer exploited for profit.
Evicted illustrates the issue of exploitation through its depiction of landlords, and in particular Sherenna, who gives several upfront descriptions of how her career as a property manager depends on exploiting impoverished people for profit. Describing the foreclosure crisis that ensued during the 2008 recession, Sherenna explains: “If you have money right now, you can profit from other people’s failures.” She later adds: “The ‘hood is good. There’s a lot of money there.” Sherenna’s phrase “the ‘hood is good” points to the paradox in the system of exploitation she is describing. When it comes to investment and profit, most people would not assume that poor communities would be lucrative. Yet as Desmond himself argues, “We have overlooked a fact that landlords never have: there is a lot of money to be made off the poor.” Desmond’s use of the word “we” suggests that most people are dangerously uninformed about the extent to which impoverished people are exploited for profit. Those who are not ignorant to this fact are the ones doing the exploiting.
In this sense, Desmond shows that landlords’ desire to make money has given them special insight into opportunities to profit from an unjust housing system. Crucially, he does not argue that this is necessarily easy. At one point he claims: “It took a certain skill to make a living off the city's poorest trailer park, a certain kind of initiative.” Throughout the book, Desmond shows that managing properties—and particularly making the decisions over whether unreliable or struggling tenants are allowed to stay or go—is difficult, and that not everyone would be able to successfully make a career out of being a landlord. At the same time, the words “skill” and “initiative” also have a somewhat ironic tone here. As the book shows, the skill and initiative required to succeed as a landlord often take the form of cruelty and ruthlessness. Making money by exploiting the most vulnerable may be a “skill”—but not a particularly admirable one.
In his analysis of the American housing system, Desmond disputes the commonly held belief that exploitation in housing emerges only as a result of the market itself. Instead, he argues that “exploitation within the housing market relies on government support.” For this reason, he contends that it would be fairly simple for the government to put an end to the exploitation of poor people. This requires a two-pronged approach: ensuring that impoverished people are no longer forced to accept exploitation in order to meet their basic human needs, and preventing wealthier people from profiting from this exploitation. Desmond argues: “If we acknowledge that housing is a basic right of all Americans, then we must think differently about another right: the right to make as much money as possible by providing families with housing—and especially to profit excessively from the less fortunate.” Only by both addressing the needs of the poor and limiting the opportunities to profit from poverty will this dynamic of exploitation finally end.
Poverty, Exploitation, and Profit ThemeTracker
Poverty, Exploitation, and Profit 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.
Poor families were often compelled to accept substandard housing in the harried aftermath of eviction. Milwaukee renters whose previous move was involuntary were almost 25 percent more likely to experience long-term housing problems than other low-income renters.
When tenements began appearing in New York City in the mid-1800s, rent in the worst slums was 30 percent higher than in uptown. In the 1920s and ‘30s, rent for dilapidated housing in the black ghettos of Milwaukee and Philadelphia and other northern cities exceeded that for better housing in white neighborhoods. As late as 1960, rent in major cities was higher for blacks than for whites in similar accommodations. The poor did not crowd into slums because of cheap housing. They were there—and this was especially true of the black poor—simply because they were allowed to be.
Some landlords neglected to screen tenants for the same reason payday lenders offered unsecured, high-interest loans to families with unpaid debt or lousy credit; for the same reason that the subprime industry gave mortgages to people who could not afford them; for the same reason Rent-A-Center allowed you to take home a new Hisense air conditioner or Klaussner “Lazarus” reclining sofa without running a credit check. There was a business model at the bottom of every market.
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.
To Sammy, Pastor Daryl, and others, Larraine was poor because she threw money away. But the reverse was more true. Larraine threw money away because she was poor.
Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.