The latest book we’ve read at LURN was Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. For me, it took me on a roller coaster of emotions. Set in Milwaukee, Wisconsin the author depicts the experience of tenants and describes the impact eviction has on individuals. Here’s a review of the book and how it made me reflect on my work.
Throughout the book, Desmond highlights an important pattern he saw: black women are evicted far more than any other group. In the book, he tells stories of individuals who face eviction. For example, he shares the story of Arleen who lives in North Side, a predominantly African-American community. Arleen is faced with eviction when she fails to pay her rent on time because she helped pay for her sister’s funeral. Because of the family emergency, Arleen missed her appointment with her welfare caseworker, which resulted in a decrease in her benefits that month. These unexpected circumstances left her with very little money, and because of her late rent payments, the landlord decided to evict Arleen. Unfortunately, if she gets evicted, eviction records are “displayed for twenty years” and even “dismissed evictions and criminal charges” are seen using Consolidated Court Automation Programs (CCAP). Landlords use programs like CCAP to get background information on prospective tenants.
Arleen faced having an eviction on her record, but she is not alone. According to Desmond, over the course of one month “three in four people in Milwaukee eviction court were black. Of those, three in four were women. The total number of black women in eviction court exceeded that of all other groups combined.” In Milwaukee, “women in black neighborhoods made up nine percent [of the population] and 30 percent of its evicted tenants.” The author documents these statistics well to provide the reader with context to better understand what Arleen is facing: a broken system that discriminates against black women.
As a reader, this particular style of combining stories with statistical findings provided me with an in-depth analysis of the realities of eviction. Desmond makes it a point to capture the real stories behind the data he presents. Similarly, embedded in LURN’s micro-loan application process, our team evaluates prospective borrowers on their financial history while also taking into consideration their social capital and personal history. In my work, I find that contextualizing entrepreneurs’ life stories, humanizes the entire process.
But aside from that, what else am I doing to communicate the stories I hear from entrepreneurs? How can I elevate my communication style to express people’s experience and share valuable information like Desmond? What I learned from the author’s writing style is that when you create the opportunity for someone’s story to shine and support it with quantitative findings, we are doing our job in telling our community story. And this is what the author accomplished in his book. Desmond wrote stories about people who faced eviction, like Arleen, while gathering important information that helped the reader understand their experience.
Furthermore, towards the end of the book Desmond shares his solution to address eviction. The author suggest expanding the housing voucher program to include a universal voucher program. This would “dedicate 30 percent of [a tenant’s] income to housing costs, with the voucher paying the rest.” As we witnessed with Arleen, she did not have enough money to cover unexpected expenses and rent. The universal voucher program could alleviate rent-burdened households (renters who spend 30% or more of their total annual income on rent) like Arleen’s.
The author does recognize, however, that each city operates differently and a universal voucher program might not work everywhere. In Los Angeles, we are in desperate need of affordable housing, but there are segments of our community who may not see the importance of it. The recently proposed Measure S, an initiative to stop all development, showcased the City’s distrust of housing policy and new development. How can we use the lessons in Desmond’s book to describe the issues people are facing and to more importantly, find solutions? And how can we make sure the collective work we are doing in Los Angeles is connected to people that are the hardest hit by these economic realities?
Milwaukee is not an isolated story. According to Redfin, in 2015 an estimated 2.7 million renters in the U.S. faced eviction. And in 2014, Los Angeles County was ranked 20 among Counties with the highest eviction rate “as one out of every 80 renters lost their home.” I hope that others who read this book can empathize with the stories Desmond writes about; because the narratives he highlights are seen in our own streets of Los Angeles. I witnessed the spirit of Arleen in community members who participate in actions such as Renters’ Day. If we can listen to each other’s struggles and empathize with one another, how might that change our communities?
(Photo by Philip Montgomery)