No one gets shot, killed or assaulted in Matthew Desmond’s penetrating new book about the effect of evictions on poor urban families in Milwaukee.

Yet “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” is a profoundly violent book, if one defines violence in a broader sense, as a violence that is embedded in the very structure and modes of behavior that animate relations between tenants and their landlords.

“Evicted” follows eight families — some black, some white, some with children — as they are swept up in the process of being evicted from their trailer parks and inner-city apartments. Beyond the humiliating physical expulsion, evictions trigger mental despair, destroy relationships and uproot entire communities.

Desmond, a Harvard sociologist and preacher’s son who writes with a moralistic fervor, makes a persuasive case that unprecedented instability in the rental housing market is at the root of poverty and inequality in America’s inner cities. In Milwaukee, a city of 105,000 renters, landlords evict 16,000 adults and children each year. Nationwide, one in eight poor families is unable to pay its rent.

“For decades, we’ve focused mainly on jobs, public assistance, parenting and mass incarceration,” Desmond writes. “We have failed to fully appreciate how deeply housing is implicated in the creation of poverty.”

By immersing himself in the everyday lives of poor renters, Desmond follows in the tradition of James Agee, whose monumental 1941 book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” pounded the reader with clear-eyed and brutal descriptions of rural poverty in the Deep South.

Like Agee did nearly a century ago, Desmond went to great lengths to record life as it is actually lived. He moved into a trailer park where residents faced mass eviction, allowing him to meet dozens of poor renters at all hours of the day and night. He sat behind tenants at eviction court, helped them move, watched their children and attended AA meetings and funerals with them.

Desmond resists the temptation to treat low-income families as if they live in a segregated bubble, quarantined from the rest of society. He gives us unflattering portraits of wealthy landlords as they deliver eviction notices, threaten tenants, garnish bank accounts and rely on crack addicts to clean cockroach-infested apartments.

With a relentless realism, Desmond returns to the speed and violence of the eviction process itself — a subject that elicits his most evocative writing. He captures the humiliation of it all — the movers piling a family’s possessions onto a rain-soaked curb, gum-chewing sheriffs and the neighbors who gather outside to watch like it’s a spectator sport.

Desmond largely avoids specific policy prescriptions but argues for creating a universal housing voucher program for every family below a certain income level.


Chris Serres is a Star Tribune reporter. Twitter: @ChrisSerres

By: Matthew Desmond.
Publisher: Crown, 418 pages, $28