An Interview with Matthew Desmond

The author of Evicted reveals why the housing crisis is one of the most pressing problems facing our nation.

Matthew Desmond

Matthew Desmond is a sociologist and Harvard professor whose work focuses on urban sociology, poverty, and race and ethnicity. His new work, Evicted, examines the housing crisis in America and makes the case that eviction and the lack of affordable housing in this country are one of the biggest driving forces of poverty and inequality.

Eviction used to be rare, but in recent years has become commonplace, often targeting single mothers and children. Desmond was interested in the consequences of eviction—what happens after someone loses their home? He looked for data to answer his question and found none, so set out to collect it. He moved into a Milwaukee trailer park, then an inner-city rooming house and met and interviewed families facing eviction.

Evicted takes readers into the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee and looks closely at these families teetering on the edge of losing their homes. We meet Arleen, who is struggling to keep her and her two boys alive on the meager amount of money she has left over after paying rent; Scott is battling a heroin addiction, while Lamar is handicapped and trying to work his way out of debt. Vanetta resorts to petty crime after her hours are cut. To get the full picture of the housing crisis, Desmond also interviews two landlords—Sherrena and Tobin—who hold their tenants lives in their hands and who are ruthless when it comes to getting paid.

Evicted is a masterful work of narrative nonfiction and Desmond gives an on-the-ground look at one of the most urgent issues facing our country. Desmond was awarded a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Award in 2015 and the book is a finalist for the 2016 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction and is shortlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction. Matthew Desmond talked with Read it Forward’s editor Abbe Wright about his extensive research, the books he turned to for guidance, and the incredible humanity he witnessed in the face of such terrible loss.

Get recommendations for the greatest books around straight to your inbox every week.

Read it Forward:  Evicted is the result of an enormous amount of work.  It must feel like a huge chapter in your life.  I know you’re an ethnographer—how did you tackle this research?  Did you set out to make yourself invisible or visible?

Matthew Desmond:  I started the old-fashioned way.  I knew I wanted to meet families getting evicted, talk to the landlords, and follow the whole process.  But how do you start?  Where do you find those families?  I was reading the local paper and I read this story about this trailer park where the landlord could lose the whole trailer park because there were so many code violations and police calls.

So naturally, I drove down and asked him if I could rent a trailer and he said, sure.  That’s how it started.  He didn’t end up losing the trailer park, but it was a really great place to meet families who were facing evictions every month.

I was very open about what I wanted to do and who I was and how I want to write a book about this and a lot of the landlords and the tenants were open to sharing their stories.  The first tenant I met was Larraine.  I was in the office with Lenny and she came in with her eviction notice and I saw her interact with him about this 24-hour notice that she had received.  When she left, I followed her back to her trailer and knocked on her door and she opened it, crying.  I said, this is what I want to know about and she let me in and started talking.  That’s how I jumped off.

I think there are times in the field where you do want to make yourself small, but I think there are also times in the field where you are part of the action too.  It kind of goes day-by-day, depending on what’s going on.

RIF:  Why do you think subjects were so willing to talk to you?  Eviction is obviously a huge problem that needs light shed on it, but a few of the people you interviewed were very wary of who you were, like Arleen, who thought you were part of Child Protective Services and was on her guard.

MD:  People thought a lot of things about me.  Some folks in the trailer park thought I was a spy for the city because they had this antagonistic relationship with the local government.  Some people thought I was a cop.  There was a time where I lived with sex workers in the roommate house and some people thought I was a John or a drug addict.  And then Arleen and other people asked about Child Protective Services.  There were a lot of suspicions.  And everyone was different.  Some people just opened up immediately—Scott was one of those people.  He told me about his fall from grace within the first 10 minutes of meeting him, how he got addicted to painkillers, then heroin and lost his job.  And then some people like Arleen were tougher nuts to crack.

When you take a genuine interest in people, really trying to get their stories and capture their lives, I think there’s something appealing about that.  When is the last time someone was like, I want to understand you as a person and I want to understand what you feel and how you think about certain issues?  And when I would interview landlords, they were often really proud of their work and wanted to share.

RIF:  Does getting the landlord’s perspective help alleviate the thinking that this is a black-and-white issue—that the landlords are bad and greedy and the tenants are good and are being unfairly forced out?  It’s a matter of a lot of grays, right?

MD:  It’s complicated.  I think we let ourselves off the hook if we demonize one party or the other.  We let ourselves off the hook if we say these tenants shouldn’t be making these mistakes—we don’t fully understand the context of their lives.  And we also let ourselves off the hook if we say, gosh these landlords shouldn’t be so greedy.

I think that you’re right.  If we really want to understand the problem of eviction in this country, we have to embrace ambiguities and the complexities of it.

RIF:  In looking at eviction from the landlord’s perspective, you realized that some of them are only about one or two steps ahead of the bill collectors themselves.  If they’re not collecting rent, they’re subject to losing their buildings and their livelihoods.  Did you feel a palpable sense that these landlords were driven by panic, trying to stay afloat?

MD:  An important empirical question to ask is, how much are the landlords making?  How much are they making when they own properties in the inner city or the trailer park?  Are they really just a few steps above their tenants?  Would a loss of a rent mean a really troubling problem for the landlords?

I worked really hard to figure that out; I analyzed property records, mortgage records, tax records, the landlord’s own books.  And what I found is the profits of landlords in the inner city and the trailer park are not what one would call modest.

Tobin, the landlord of the trailer park, is taking home over $400,000 a year after expenses, by my calculation.  So what does that mean?  Okay.  That income is what separates Tobin from most of his tenants, tenants that are on disability or working in the low-rate service sector. It’s literally a lifetime of difference with respect to income.

And so you’re right that landlords take the hits and gains directly and they are offering this completely-needed service to low-income families, but I also think we should just be empirically rigorous and be accurate.  We have to try to know the facts as much as we can about what the landlords are making—it’s really relevant to policy.  There are times where landlords took a hit.  There’s a moment in the book where the landlord Sherrena is basically broke and she’s going through a really tough time because she got an unexpected bill and encounters a moment of stress.  But Sherrena takes home in the average month what most of her tenants take home in a year.  Those are the facts.

RIF:  I see a ring on your finger.  What do you say to your partner when it’s time to fully immerse yourself in your next project?  How does living in a trailer park for months on end fit into your personal life?

MD:  I’ve been married for a while and my wife Tessa has been really supportive of this project from the get-go.  We lived apart during this time and I would go visit her on weekends sometimes, but we did spend a lot of time away from each other.  It was almost like having a parallel life and there was something about that which was really important for the project.

It allowed me to put in really long hours—to spend all day with people, sometimes late into the evening and try to sink as deeply as I could into people’s lives.  I think that she understood the vision and the importance of the project in trying to find out a new story about poverty and figure out how central housing is driving people to financial ruin.  But it wasn’t easy.

RIF:  Besides that, how else did this experience affect you personally as far as watching and bearing witness to all of these tragic events. Does that have a lasting effect on you?  I imagine it must. 

MD:  Yeah, it has a deep effect.  It’s heartbreaking.  I mean, when you watch a mother decide between buying food for her family or paying the rent, or, after a loved one dies, debating between paying for the funeral or paying the rent, you’re seeing people confront really terrible choices.  Poverty is not pretty.  Poverty is a very ugly thing.

There was one eviction I saw where the sheriff shows up and opens the door and it’s a state of confusion.  There are only children in the household, no adults.  It had been a single mother household, the mom had died, and the kids had just gone on living in the house.  When the sheriffs and movers walked in, it looked like a house ran by kids.  It was raining, and they evicted them.  And then we drove to the next eviction.  A few more evictions later, we knocked on this door on the south side of Milwaukee and a woman answered the door holding a wooden spoon.  She was cooking dinner and didn’t know the sheriffs were coming and so she asked for a few more days.  They said no and she resolved herself and the sheriffs and the movers went into the house and began taking it over.  The kitchen smelled of spices and beans, there was a can of coke with a straw in it on the counter, and on the wall, a little blackboard that had “oil change – 4:00 PM” written on it.  Watching these images of home, of stability, of regular, normal lives getting ripped up certainly had an effect on me.  I think it left me pretty heartbroken.

But I also saw a lot of guts and a lot of spunk and a lot of brilliance.  And I heard a lot of laughter and witnessed incredible moments of humanity.  There’s a story I tell in the book where Crystal and Vanetta are at McDonalds and they see this kid come in, begging for food and they pool what they have, when they’re homeless, and buy him lunch.  When I think back on that moment, which is often, it’s such a clear reminder of how people refuse to be reduced to their poverty.  Vanetta would call it having heart.  And that’s a big thing that I took away too.

RIF:  Did you read any books in preparation for this?  As I was reading, my mind kept going to Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich’s ethnography about surviving on minimum wage.  What was on your reading list? 

MD:  There are a few reading lists I worked from.  One big one that’s been hugely important to me is the literature on poverty in America.  Social scientists have amassed this huge body of work on deindustrialization and on the creation of the inner city and why America is unmatched among all advanced democracies in the depth and expanse of its poverty.  But not as much has been said about housing.  We either looked through housing because we cared about neighborhoods and things like levels of gentrification or racial segregation or we wanted to know about housing policy and public housing, even though the vast majority of poor people are living unassisted in the private market.

Research on poverty was hugely important to me.  People like William Julius Wilson and Sandy Jencks, Robert J. Sampson, Bruce Western and Kathy Edin are kind of my intellectual heroes.  And then there’s a tradition of investigative journalism, especially with respect to issues of poverty.  People like Adrian Nicole LeBlanc and Kate Boo who are writing these in-depth visceral reports from impoverished communities—those are important to me.  And then there’s writing on the city by authors like Jane Jacobs and Joseph Mitchell who make the city their object.  I took a lot from them as well.

RIF:  I know you’re originally from Arizona.  Why did you pick Milwaukee as the location for your research? 

MD:  If you want to tell a story about America by looking at one city, of course, every city is different, but some are much more different than others.  I feel really comfortable in cities like Milwaukee and Buffalo and Detroit and I was kind of moved by Milwaukee.  I thought Milwaukee was a good place to sit down and write about this problem that’s gripping the United States.  And if you know what’s happening in Milwaukee, I think you have a better chance of representing what’s going on in Cleveland, in Saint Louis, in Indianapolis, in Cincinnati, in Philly as well.  And in cities like San Francisco, New York, or Seattle, these are the places where the housing crisis is felt most acutely.  So it is a Milwaukee story, but it’s an American story too.

RIF:  Reading this book gave me so much perspective.  You realize just how lucky you are when you read these scenarios.  I was moved to tears by one story in the book about the woman who, after being evicted, chose homelessness over losing all her possessions, but then couldn’t keep up with the payments to the storage unit and ended up losing everything anyway.

MD:  Yep.  Larraine’s story is one insight into how eviction is a direct cause of poverty.  So Loraine gets evicted, right?  All her stuff gets taken by eviction movers—it was either that or piling them on the sidewalk.  She chose to put them in storage, which immediately puts her back almost $400.

Then she has to figure out how to save enough for first month’s rent and last month’s rent on a new home and still make payments on her possessions.  And what it did was consign her to a long period of homelessness, where she basically crashed on a stranger’s couch so she could keep up payments on her things, which she eventually couldn’t do anymore and so, lost all her possessions.

When I started this project, I always thought there were certain things about poverty that lead to eviction.  That eviction was the outcome of poverty, which of course it is, but it’s also a direct cause of it.

RIF:  Right.  You say in the book that it’s not always that you lose your job and that’s what causes you to get evicted, but often being evicted causes you to then lose your job—maybe the only place you can find to live is hours away from your work or available transportation.

MD:  Yeah.  That was a big surprise to me and I think that speaks to the benefit of combining this kind of on-the-ground reportage with larger statistical data.  I saw people, like Ned, who lost his shop through eviction and there’s a woman we meet ever so briefly in the book, Tina, that I actually followed for months and months and months.  She lost her job through an eviction.  And so I saw these things on the ground, but I kind of thought they were aberrations.  So diving into the statistical data that we collected from over 1,000 renters in Milwaukee helped me see that people that lose their homes are far more likely to lose their jobs.  Housing instabilities are directly linked to workforce instability and if we want to stabilize the workforce and give people a chance to actually do their jobs, flourish and save funds, we can’t do that without fixing the housing crisis.

RIF:  So, in your opinion, is the housing crisis one of the most oppressing problems facing this nation?

MD:  Absolutely.  I mean we’re at a point right now where half of poor renters below the poverty line are spending over 50% of their income on housing and at least one in four is spending 70% of their income on housing.  We can’t do anything about inequality if we don’t address that problem.  And now it’s a problem that’s spreading out beyond just poor communities.  The latest data shows that one in five of all renters in America is spending over 50% of their income on housing.  So we do have to address that head-on if we want to make a dent.  So a lot of times when we hear policy and prescriptions about how to ameliorate poverty in the U.S., they are talking about jobs.  Good jobs, better jobs, great.  But it’s half the solution.  We have to address this other thing too.

RIF:  When you look at the cover of your book, how do you think it encapsulates the message inside? 

MD:  The home is a lot more than just a place to live.  It’s the center of our lives.  It’s where memories are made.  It’s what our community is centered around.  I think what the cover does in a really effective way is convey this kind of emotional and spiritual impact that the eviction epidemic is having.

And I think it’s spot-on to represent these photos that have been removed from the wall because the face of the eviction epidemic is moms and kids.  It’s moms and kids.  The majority of households evicted in Milwaukee have kids living in them.  And so it’s not just about losing shelter.  It’s about losing a community.  It’s about losing schools.  Eviction rips apart the social fabric.  There’s a study in the book that shows that moms have higher rates of depression two years later after their eviction.  It’s a sticky thing—it really gets under your skin and can zap your spirit.  And I think a big part of that isn’t about what comes after an eviction, although that’s considerable.  It’s about the thing itself.  What do you think?

RIF:  I think it’s breathtaking.  To me, it’s a visual that says a family lived here once and they and all their stuff is gone, in almost a ghost-like fashion.

MD:  Yeah and the image invites us to think about what would it be like otherwise.  What if people like Arlene didn’t have to devote so much time and so much energy and so much money into housing her children in basically substandard conditions?  What if she didn’t have to do that?  What if she could sit down and plant roots?  Maybe she could take community college classes.  Maybe she could save up enough money to get some really serious asthma treatment.  Maybe she could meet neighbors and form a support group of sorts.  Maybe she could be politically involved.  I mean we’re reducing people that were born for better things because we’re not allowing them to have this very basic necessity.

RIF:  If 25% of poor renters are spending over 70% of their monthly incomes on rent, the amount of money that’s left over after rent is so shockingly low.  It’s hard to imagine how it could be possible for a family to survive on that. 

MD:  It’s important to note because when people who haven’t gone through an eviction think about what causes it, they might say, well, people make mistakes.  I don’t think the book shies away from those kinds of things, but when you’re in a situation like Arleen’s, where you’re giving all of your income to rent, eviction is more like an inevitability than irresponsibility.  And I think that it’s our responsibility to try to put ourselves in those people’s shoes and ask what we would do if we had to choose between turning the gas on or paying the rent or if we had to choose between paying for a funeral or paying the rent.

RIF:  You’re an associate professor of sociology and social science at Harvard University—what do you love most about teaching?

MD:  I love my students.  I love my students’ commitment to this issue and to getting it right.  I teach a class at Harvard called Poverty in America and I have students go out and talk to folks facing these issues, interview people working minimum wage jobs, observe eviction court, or talk to police officers patrolling high crime neighborhoods.  They come back with these amazing field reports and try to link up what they’re seeing or interfacing with on the ground level with what we’re learning in class about history or theories that help us understand this issue.  They give me a lot of energy.  They push me and challenge me. I love teaching that class.

RIF:  That’s really cool.  It must be exciting and always different.  You are imbued with the ripe energy of the students.

MD:  Yeah and they want to know what to do to fix it, and that’s so encouraging.

RIF:  What do you tell them?  What can any of us do?  Are there things we can do?

MD:  There’s so much we can do—so much.  I think that we all have a responsibility to—not a personal responsibility, but a civic responsibility.  When a flood comes rushing to your town, it’s not the levy that has your name on it, but the sandbag.  We have a responsibility because we can make a difference.  There are large and small things we can do.  Not every student in my class is going to write books about inequality or go into social service.  Some of them will go into business or medicine or law or teaching.  Who knows?  But in all of our capacities, I think we have an ability to make a difference.


 

Author Photo: © Michael Kienitz

Featured Image: iluistrator/Shutterstock.com

MATTHEW DESMOND is the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University and codirector of the Justice and Poverty Project. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows, he is the author of the award-winning book, On the Fireline, coauthor of two books on race, and editor of a collection of studies on severe deprivation in America. His work has been supported by the Ford, Russell Sage, and National Science Foundations, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times and Chicago Tribune. In 2015, Desmond was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” grant.

About Abbe Wright

Abbe Wright

ABBE WRIGHT is the Editor of Read It Forward. As a kid, she used to get in trouble at summer camp for using a flashlight to read inside her sleeping bag after lights out, but these days, she lives in Brooklyn, where nobody minds if she stays up late reading. She has written for Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Cut and tweets about books (and The Bachelor) at @abbewright.