ArticlePDF Available
BOOK REVIEW
Review of Matthew Desmond: Evicted: poverty
and profit in the American City
Crown Publishers, 2016, 448 Pages, ISBN: 978-0553447439
Cody Hochstenbach
1
Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017
Access to decent and affordable housing as a basic human right is under intense pressure
across the world, and especially in cities. The functions of housing as commodity and
profit-making machine crowd out housing’s function as shelter. This enables landlords,
investors and the property-rich to make windfall gains, leaving the poor, disadvantaged and
unfortunate confronted with acute housing precarity. With Evicted: Poverty and Profit in
the American City, Matthew Desmond (2016) has written a landmark book documenting
this precarity. It is an eye-opening masterpiece, foregrounding the key role of an extractive
and unjust housing system in producing poverty. The book focuses on evictions, situating
them within the broader, often heart-breaking, life stories of the urban poor. Desmond
shows how evictions are not one-off events but occur regularly, and are typically
accompanied by other hardships such as substandard housing and spells of homelessness.
Evicted is based on rigorous ethnographic research in Milwaukee, Wisconsin between
May 2008 and December 2009. Desmond first spent months living in a mainly white trailer
park, and then moved into a poor, predominantly black inner-city neighborhood. The result
is an astonishing piece of work, presenting rich and intimate accounts of eight families’
lives as they struggle to navigate housing precarity, evictions and grinding poverty—it is
not uncommon for poor families to spend the vast majority of their income on the monthly
rent. The writing is excellent, which has in no doubt contributed to the book’s success. By
following a landlord as well, Desmond sidesteps the potential pitfall of relying too much
on one side of the story. While the book primarily draws on ethnographic material, it also
builds on multiple complementary studies (see, for example, Desmond 2012a; Desmond
et al. 2015; Desmond and Shollenberger 2015). These are often based on quantitative data
and underpin that the ethnographic work captures commonplace phenomena.
&Cody Hochstenbach
c.hochstenbach@uva.nl
1
Centre for Urban Studies, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands
123
J Hous and the Built Environ
https://doi.org/10.1007/s10901-017-9574-1
Because Evicted has already been much discussed elsewhere, I will use the remainder of
this review to elaborate on some of the book’s most interesting findings and conclusions
from a housing perspective.
The main takeaway of the book is that eviction is a widespread phenomenon that leaves
deep marks on the often already scarred lives of individuals and their children. There are
many mechanisms at work here. For one, having an eviction record directly worsens your
chances of being accepted into other housing, and hurts your labor-market position. Fur-
thermore, an (impending) eviction and the subsequent housing search take up much time,
and physical and mental energy. Finding a house—any house—often becomes the primary,
or only, concern. Everything else becomes of secondary importance: benefit claimants may
miss mandatory appointments, the employed may neglect work, and children may miss
school. All of this comes at a dire longer term cost. As Desmond concludes: ‘‘Eviction does
not simply drop poor families into a dark valley, a trying yet relatively brief detour on life’s
journey. It fundamentally redirects their way, casting them onto a different, and much more
difficult, path. Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty’’ (p. 298–299).
In a similar vein, eviction frequently triggers not just one move, but necessitates people
to move around multiple times in a brief time period. In desperate need of housing, evicted
families are typically forced into accepting substandard housing. This is often slum
housing located in unsafe neighborhoods. They may settle for insecure housing, or housing
that is simply too expensive. In other words, eviction reproduces housing precarity and sets
the scene for subsequent moves, forced or voluntary, in the near future.
While evictions used to be relatively rare even during the Great Depression, Desmond
notes (p. 3–5), they have by now become routine. In Milwaukee alone, every day an
average of sixteen families are evicted through the court system—a figure that still dis-
regards other, informal ways of eviction. Chances of being displaced depend on who you
are though. It is, unfortunately, unsurprising that ethnic minorities are overrepresented.
Desmond lays bare the still ever present racial discrimination on the housing market. In
addition, he notes some other important, though less often thought of, differences in
eviction rates. Women are substantially more likely to be evicted than men, as their on
average lower wages make them more vulnerable to end up in precarious housing situa-
tions. Especially black women are likely to face eviction at some point, leading Desmond
to conclude that ‘‘[i]f incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished
black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were
locked up. Poor black women were locked out’’ (p. 98). Furthermore, Desmond observes
that evicted households typically have children living in them. Children, and the nuisance
they may cause, are used by landlords as an easy excuse for short-term eviction. They are
also less likely to rent out their property to families with children at all, or charge addi-
tional fees or deposits (p. 230). The result is that many families with children end up
homeless, with lasting effects on future generations—a particularly bitter feature of an
unjust housing system.
To cope with grinding poverty and the trauma of eviction, getting help from others often
proves crucial—for example to find a temporary place to sleep post-eviction. However,
evicted tenants often do not seek, or do not get, help from family or friends. Many of their
ties are too poor and troubled themselves to help. Many poor people facing eviction in fact
do have some resourceful middle-class family or friends, but these often do not know how
to help or do not want to help. Poor people are reluctant to reach out to middle-class friends
or family anyway—preferring to reserve their help for extraordinary emergencies.
Intriguingly, Desmond describes how ‘‘[i]f you could not rely on your family, you could
reach out to strangers, make disposable ties’’ (p. 162). Such disposable ties may provide
C. Hochstenbach
123
short-term relief from desperate situations. In the long run these ties are unlikely to last
though, and may subsequently reproduce insecurity. Elsewhere, Desmond has described
this short-term coping strategy as the ‘‘forming, using and burning [of] disposable ties’
(2012b, p. 1295).
The book convincingly illustrates how housing precarity and evictions come at a huge
and unnecessary cost, not just for poor people but also for society as a whole. In the
epilogue, Desmond joins others (e.g. Madden and Marcuse 2016; Minton 2017) in arguing
that decent and affordable housing for all is essentially a question of political willingness,
not market efficiency. Recognizing housing as a basic right, Desmond argues, necessitates
us to curb the right of others to profit excessively from housing and exploiting the poor.
Although developing a universal de-commodified housing program costs money, not
tackling housing precarity and evictions comes at a much higher costs. Furthermore,
current US homeowner tax benefits already far exceed projected costs of such a program.
Evicted first and foremost documents the widespread exploitation and injustices present
in today’s US housing market. But for me, as a Dutch reader, the book also reads as an
important warning. In many European countries, housing marketization is eroding access
to affordable housing, weakening tenant rights and forging sharper inequalities
(Hochstenbach 2017). Evicted shows what may be in store for us, should we continue down
this path. To me, cherishing our social housing seems a way more appealing alternative.
References
Desmond, M. (2012a). Eviction and the reproduction of urban poverty. American Journal of Sociology,
118(1), 88–133.
Desmond, M. (2012b). Disposable ties and the urban poor. American Journal of Sociology, 117(5),
1295–1335.
Desmond, M. (2016). Evicted: Poverty and profit in the American city. New York: Crown Publishers.
Desmond, M., Gershenson, C., & Kiviat, B. (2015). Forced relocation and residential instability among
urban renters. Social Service Review, 89(2), 227–262.
Desmond, M., & Shollenberger, T. (2015). Forced displacement from rental housing: Prevalence and
neighborhood consequences. Demography, 52(5), 1751–1772.
Hochstenbach, C. (2017). Inequality in the gentrifying European city. PhD thesis. Amsterdam: University of
Amsterdam.
Madden, D., & Marcuse, P. (2016). In defense of housing: The politics of crisis. New York: Verso Books.
Minton, A. (2017). Big Capital. Who is London For? London: Penguin Books
Review of Matthew Desmond: evicted: poverty and profit in
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Book
Full-text available
Gentrification plays a key role in the class transformations many major cities are currently experiencing. Urban neighbourhoods are remade according to middle-class preferences, often at the cost of lower-income groups. This dissertation investigates the influence of gentrification processes on socialspatial inequalities in urban regions, focusing specifically on Amsterdam and Rotterdam. It shows that gentrification constitutes a forceful process of urban change, affecting many neighbourhoods in different ways. These urban processes ultimately produce growing disparities between booming central areas and struggling peripheries and suburbs. In doing so, gentrification amplifies inequality between poor and affluent groups, but also exacerbates increasingly pressing inequalities between and within generations.
Article
Drawing on novel survey data of Milwaukee renters, this study documents the prevalence of involuntary displacement from housing and estimates its consequences for neighborhood selection. More than one in eight Milwaukee renters experienced an eviction or other kind of forced move in the previous two years. Multivariate analyses suggest that renters who experienced a forced move relocate to poorer and higher-crime neighborhoods than those who move under less-demanding circumstances. By providing evidence implying that involuntary displacement is a critical yet overlooked mechanism of neighborhood inequality, this study helps to clarify why some city dwellers live in much worse neighborhoods than their peers.
Article
Residential instability often brings about other forms of instability in families, schools, and communities that compromise the life chances of adults and children. Social scientists have found that low-income families move frequently without fully understanding why. Drawing on novel data of more than 1,000 Milwaukee renters, this article explores the relationship between forced relocation and residential instability. It finds that low incomes are associated with higher rates of mobility due to poorer renters' greater exposure to forced displacement. Not only do higher rates of formal and informal eviction, landlord foreclosure, and building condemnation directly increase the mobility of poorer renters, but forced displacement also increases subsequent unforced mobility. A forced move often compels renters to accept substandard housing, which drives them to soon move again. This article reveals mechanisms of residential mobility among low-income renters, identifies previously undocumented consequences of forced displacement, and develops a more comprehensive model of residential instability and urban inequality.
Article
Combining statistical and ethnographic analyses, this article explores the prevalence and ramifications of eviction in the lives of the urban poor. A quantitative analysis of administrative and survey data finds that eviction is commonplace in inner-city black neighborhoods and that women from those neighborhoods are evicted at significantly higher rates than men. A qualitative analysis of ethnographic data based on fieldwork among evicted tenants and their landlords reveals multiple mechanisms propelling this discrepancy. In poor black neighborhoods, eviction is to women what incarceration is to men: a typical but severely consequential occurrence contributing to the reproduction of urban poverty.
Article
Sociologists long have observed that the urban poor rely on kinship networks to survive economic destitution. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork among evicted tenants in high-poverty neighborhoods, this article presents a new explanation for urban survival, one that emphasizes the importance of disposable ties formed between strangers. To meet their most pressing needs, evicted families often relied more on new acquaintances than on kin. Disposable ties facilitated the flow of various resources, but often bonds were brittle and fleeting. The strategy of forming, using, and burning disposable ties allowed families caught in desperate situations to make it from one day to the next, but it also bred instability and fostered misgivings among peers.
Evicted: Poverty and profit in the American city
  • M Desmond
Desmond, M. (2016). Evicted: Poverty and profit in the American city. New York: Crown Publishers.
In defense of housing: The politics of crisis
  • D Madden
  • P Marcuse
Madden, D., & Marcuse, P. (2016). In defense of housing: The politics of crisis. New York: Verso Books.
Big Capital. Who is London For? London: Penguin Books Review of Matthew Desmond: evicted: poverty and profit in…
  • A Minton
Minton, A. (2017). Big Capital. Who is London For? London: Penguin Books Review of Matthew Desmond: evicted: poverty and profit in…
Big Capital. Who is London For? London: Penguin Books Review of Matthew Desmond: evicted: poverty and profit in…
  • D Madden
  • P Marcuse
Madden, D., & Marcuse, P. (2016). In defense of housing: The politics of crisis. New York: Verso Books. Minton, A. (2017). Big Capital. Who is London For? London: Penguin Books Review of Matthew Desmond: evicted: poverty and profit in…