Author Matthew Desmond, recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” grant and co-director of the Justice and Poverty Project, gives an intimate, possibly enraging account of the ways inadequate housing affects poor people, especially single mothers. Evicted follows eight Milwaukee families that struggle to keep their homes and shows how easily those homes can be lost to skyrocketing rents, bad public policy, exploitative businesses, or a landlord’s whim. Our reviewer said: “This stunning, remarkable book—a scholar’s 21st-century How the Other Half Lives—demands a wide audience.” Here the author talks about the people he interviewed and how they shared their lives with him—both the miseries and the joys.
How did you come to write about the housing crisis in Milwaukee?
America is the richest democracy with the worst poverty. That’s always troubled me, and I wanted to understand the role that housing insecurity and eviction plays in deepening poverty in this country.
Your book depicts multiple families enduring various humiliations and hardships—being forced out of their homes, watching their children’s mental health suffer, struggling with drug addiction. How did they respond to your presence?
In a lot of different ways. Some people opened up immediately; others were more standoffish and cautious. But over time people became more willing to share their lives with me. Living in their communities helped quite a bit. I still talk often with people I met in Milwaukee, almost daily with some of them. People like Arleen, Scott, and Vanetta not only showed me the miseries of poverty, they also showed me humor, courage, and big-heartedness in the face of adversity.
You cite national housing statistics; for example, the majority of poor renting families spend more than half their income on rent. How did you go about collecting data for Evicted?
As I was spending time with tenants and landlords on the ground, I found myself needing answers to basic questions about the housing crisis, like how many people get evicted each year and the long term consequences of forcing families from their homes. But I didn’t find any study or available data that addressed those questions. So I decided to gather the data myself. I collected and analyzed hundreds of thousands of eviction court records, interviewed over 250 people after their eviction hearing, and most important, surveyed over 1,100 renters all over Milwaukee, asking them over 200 questions to better understand how housing instability affected their life chances and kids’ well-being. What I was learning on the ground, living alongside families facing eviction, deeply informed these larger data efforts. Questions I developed to record evictions are now being incorporated in the American Housing Survey, which will finally give us some nationally representative data on evictions.
The reader comes to worry for Arleen, Crystal, Vanetta, and the other people you followed. What do you hope readers take away from their stories?
I wanted to write about people in their full complexity, to show the human toll of America’s housing crisis and entrenched poverty without reducing people to their hardships. When you spend a lot of time with families below the poverty line, you quickly realize how ungenerous assumptions about the poor fall drastically short of the mark. I’d like readers of this book to have a bit of catch in their voice, to replace canned sentences with halting ones, when talking about inequality in this nation.
How are the families doing?
My wife and I have set up a foundation to directly help the families in Evicted. Through that work, we have partnered with families to find them better housing, address unmet medical needs, and quickly address crises, preventing one problem from spiraling into several. Many families in the book are curious that people are interested in their stories. I think their stories show us the human potential we could unlock in this country if we got serious about ending poverty.
Karen Schechner is the senior Indie editor.