People like Larraine lived with so many compounded limitations that it was difficult to imagine the amount of good behavior or self-control that would allow them to lift themselves out of poverty. The distance between grinding poverty and even stable poverty could be so vast that those at the bottom had little hope of climbing out even if they pinched every penny. So they chose not to. Instead, they tried to survive in color, to season the suffering with pleasure. They would get a little high or have a drink or do a bit of gambling or acquire a television. They might buy lobster on food stamps
Something fundamental is missing. We have failed to fully appreciate how deeply housing is implicated in the creation of poverty. Not everyone living in a distressed neighborhood is associated with gang members, parole officers, employers, social workers, or pastors. But nearly all of them have a landlord.
As the woman rushed away to frantically call people to come over and help, the movers exchanged tired glances and whispered curses. They hated doing a full house toward the end of the day but that was precisely what they had on their hands. A mover started in on a girl’s bedroom, painted pink with a sign on the door announcing THE PRINCESS SLEEPS HERE. Another took on the disheveled office, packing Resumes for Dummies into a box with a chalkboard counting down the remaining days of school. The eldest child, a seventh-grade boy, tried to help by taking out the trash. His younger sister, the princess, held her two-year-old sister’s hand on the porch. Upstairs, the movers were trying not to step on the toddler’s toys, which when kicked would protest with beeping sounds and flashing lights.
A single eviction could destabilize multiple city blocks, not only the block from which a family was evicted but also the block to which it begrudgingly relocated. In this way, displacement contributed directly to what Jacobs called “perpetual slums,” churning environments with high rates of turnover and even higher rates of resentment and disinvestment. “The key link in a perpetual slum is that too many people move out of it too fast—and in the meantime dream of getting out.”4 With Doreen’s eviction, Thirty-Second Street lost a steadying presence—someone who loved and invested in the neighborhood, who contributed to making the block safer—but Wright Street didn’t gain one.
These days, there are sheriff squads whose full-time job is to carry out eviction and foreclosure orders. There are moving companies specializing in evictions, their crews working all day, every weekday. There are hundreds of data-mining companies that sell landlords tenant screening reports listing past evictions and court filings.2 These days, housing courts swell, forcing commissioners to settle cases in hallways or makeshift offices crammed with old desks and broken file cabinets—and most tenants don’t even show up. Low-income families have grown used to the rumble of moving trucks, the early-morning knocks at the door, the belongings lining the curb.
The small act of screening could have big consequences. From thousands of yes/no decisions emerged a geography of advantage and disadvantage that characterized the modern American city: good schools and failing ones, safe streets and dangerous ones.9 Landlords were major players in distributing the spoils. They decided who got to live where. And their screening practices (or lack thereof) revealed why crime and gang activity or an area’s civic engagement and its spirit of neighborliness could vary drastically from one block to the next. They also helped explain why on the same block in the same low-income neighborhood, one apartment complex but not another became familiar to the police.
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.
An Essential Read
It’s hard to express just how powerful Matthew Desmond’s look at the lives of a connected series of tenants and landlords in the poorest areas of Milwaukee is. While some have compassion, some have ugly contempt, and others have an intellectual understanding of the plight of America’s poorest citizens, Desmond exposes, through exhaustive reporting, just how close to the edge of disaster many people live. While I would have liked to read more about potential solutions, Desmond paints an indelible picture of the combination of greed, inadequate legal protection, and de facto segregation that prevents many Americans from feeling secure in their rented homes.