Where the heart is

“Evicted” author Matthew Desmond (photo by Michael Kienitz)

‘Eviction,” derived from the Latin word evictus means being subjugated or conquered by judicial means. It’s a harsh word. Eviction from a home is not a happy event. Eviction is no neutral institution, not a simple misunderstanding in a contract between two parties. Especially in poor neighborhoods, eviction is a process that often binds poor and rich people together in mutual dependence and struggle, writes sociologist and field anthropologist Matthew Desmond in his 2016 book Evicted.  

Most of the poor people Desmond lived with in Milwaukee a decade ago spent 70 or 80 percent of their incomes on housing. Since it was impossible for them to live on what was left over after that, they had to have a side hustle, legal or not, to supplement their income, or they had to have the ability to borrow the money from somewhere. Or they had to fall behind in their rent and eventually get evicted. The last is what happens increasingly to the very poor in today’s America.

You might think that the landlord part of the contractual landlord-tenant relationship — the rich end — might be defensive talking to a stranger about their occupation. Not all landlords. When the young white researcher and college professor Desmond moved into a Milwaukee rooming house, his black roommate Woo told landlord Sherrena Tarver that Desmond was working on a book about landlords and tenants. After interviewing Tarver, Desmond made his pitch. He wanted to be kind of like her apprentice, he said. His goal was to walk in [her] shoes as closely as possible, he said to her.

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Sherrena, an entrepreneurial black woman, was all in. She told Desmond she was in love with her work and proud of it, too. She wanted people to know “what landlords had to go through,” to share her world with a wider public that rarely stopped to consider it. And she did share.

Desmond tagged along when Sherrena went to a meeting of an investment group the next month at the Best Western near the airport. The audience consisted almost entirely of white guys, predominantly landlords but also investors, lawyers and other folks. Guest speaker Ken Shields said he had owned and managed rooming houses but then had found self-storage, “the sweetest spot in the American economy.” Self-storage had good cash flow, but best of all “You don’t have the people! You just got their stuff!” Shields was a big hit with the crowd.

During the question period, there was a discussion about garnishing wages. Sherrena asked a question to which, Desmond writes, she already knew the answer: “How about intercepting their tax refund?” Answer: No, only the government can do that.

Her question wasn’t a question, Desmond explained. It was a message to the audience that Sherrena would do anything to get the rent. She wanted to convey to the white landlords and investors that there was money to be made in the poor, mostly black neighborhoods, and that for the right price she would be their broker to black Milwaukee. After the meeting, many of the landlords gave her their business cards.

This condensed saga from the book is unusual in that it involves the story of a landlord and not a tenant. Most of the narrative in Evicted is about the tenant end. They’re about the folks who suffer the pain and anguish of their poverty and experience the frustration of not ever being able to dig themselves out of the financial hole to which their limited incomes have consigned them. 

Two community organizations formed in the past year will be meeting in Kingston in April. The Kingston Tenants Union will meet at 122 Clinton Avenue on Tuesday, April 16 at 7 p.m. The main topic will be how to document repairs. And the Ulster County Real Estate Investors Group, formed last October, will meet at the Artbar Gallery at 674 Broadway on Thursday, April 25 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. 

According to the Kingston city governmental calendar, three meetings are scheduled as part of the continuing series of hearings on housing. On Monday, April 29 at 6:30 p.m. the developer community will be heard. On Wednesday, May 1 at 6:30 p.m. the meeting subject will be homelessness and housing insecurity. And on Wednesday, May 29 at the same time the focus will be on policy advocacy. 

Current research by the Kingston Tenants Union is compiled from lists of foreclosures by the Ulster County sheriff published by the Kingston Landlords Association. The data is available for every eviction completed in Ulster County for whatever reason since 2007. According to KTU organizer Alex Panagiotopolous, there are 6200 names on the lists. He said there was no way to get one’s name removed from them. KTU, which advocates for universal rent control in New York State, is concerned that having one’s name on a list of evictees can make it harder for people to get new employment or a new apartment. 

Started at Princeton by Desmond and colleagues, the Eviction Lab is in the very early stages of gathering eviction rates and others by community. It has some problems of methodology, but will evolve over time. The fragmentary 2016 results so far, including a limited number of mid-size and small cities in the Hudson Valley, show Poughkeepsie in the top position in the state with a 2.76 percent eviction rate, followed by Hudson at 1.09, Middletown with .95, Newburgh at .83, Beacon at .64, Port Jervis at .51, Peekskill at .33, Mount Vernon at .19 and White Plains at .11. Since departure settlements are more common in many communities than formal evictions are, these figures should be viewed with more than a single grain of salt. Data for Kingston was not yet available on the Eviction Lab website.

Though there are plenty of statistics in Evicted, most in the 72 pages of scholarly notes at the end, much of the text reads like a novel. It’s non-fiction, though. All quotations were digitally recorded, and only the names of the characters were changed to protect their privacy. Matt Desmond explains his research methods and the techniques he used to capture as much of real life as was realistically possible.

In Milwaukee, Desmond once lent a few dollars “for trash bags” to a young woman who bought drugs with the money instead. Woo called Desmond up angry. “They think because you not like us, because you not from around here, that they can just come at you like that,” Woo said. “I’m about to go down there and tell them to give you your fucking money back.” The young woman came back contrite and handed him the money.

Desmond felt terrible. He didn’t ask where she got the money.

“You’re too protective of me,” Desmond complained to Woo.

Woo, leaning over the sink washing dishes shirtless, took on the father-to-son voice he reserved for moments like this. “You suburbs, we ‘hood,” he began. “And you came down here, taking a chance on living in the ‘hood with me. And that was a real honor for me, and I felt responsible for you. I ain’t let nothing happen to you.”

Desmond’s a writer. He has a good eye for the accumulation of detail. He quotes noted ethnographic anthropologist Clifford Geerts as observing that folks in his trade have to be able to convince readers that they have “been there.” “Persuading us [readers] that this offstage miracle has occurred is where the writing comes in,” wrote Geerts. 

The richness, the depth of detail, and the psychological and social insight in Desmond’s writing convince us that he has been there. He’s a real craftsman.

Evicted won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction and the National Book Award in 2016, and its author received one of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grants.