Thoughts on Matthew Desmond’s ‘Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City’

Photo credit: Christopher Paquette, CC BY 2.0.

In March, The New Yorker ran an excerpt of Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, and after reading that excerpt I wrote about the mathematical inevitability of eviction, if rents are higher than wages can afford:

The Mathematical Inevitability of Eviction

I got to read Evicted in its entirety this weekend, and I was not surprised to read about high rents and low wages, but I was surprised to read that one of the other primary causes of eviction was, for lack of a better term, “telling on the landlord.”

That is: when tenants contact the city’s Department of Neighborhood Services to complain about unlivable or unsafe conditions, landlords will find ways to evict those tenants. Maybe that low-income tenant will conveniently be behind on the rent. Maybe the tenant will suddenly be a “nuisance.” Maybe something that the landlord previously okayed, such as allowing another adult to live on the property (and contribute to the rent), will now be a lease violation.

This puts tenants in a no-win situation in terms of housing. If they call landlords to do basic and necessary repairs, such as fixing unclogged sinks or broken windows and the landlords ignore those calls (as they often do), calling DNS to report the problem may result in an eviction. This means that landlords can also rent units with the promise of fixing existing problems and then never keep that promise, knowing the tenants have no legitimate recourse.

This applies to tenants who are current on their rent, too. Desmond rented a unit alongside the people he profiles in his book, and reports that “for most of the four months I lived in it, I did not have hot water.”

Landlords also evict tenants who call 911—after accidents, after overhearing domestic abuse, after any type of problem—because too many 911 calls means the building gets a nuisance property citation. If the landlord doesn’t appropriately address the citation, it could lead to “fines, license revocation, property forfeiture, or even incarceration.”

So, essentially, tenants move into these apartments knowing that asking for their rights could get them evicted. Desmond writes about a young woman who moves in to a low-income apartment without being aware of these unspoken rules, and how other tenants blame her for the problems and evictions that result after she calls 911 on a domestic abuse situation. (Yes, they blame her, not the abuser or the landlord.)

I’ve never lived in the kinds of apartments that Desmond profiles in Evicted, but I have lived in the kinds of apartments where your landlord asks you to wash your dishes in a bucket and dump the bucket water in the toilet. I’ve always been aware that it’s easier to live with problems than to ask landlords to fix them—in part because you want to save your “complaining points” for big issues, like the day you find water pouring through a crack in your bathroom wall.

The Cost of Having Water Pour Through a Crack In Your Bathroom Wall

I’m not the only Billfolder who does this, either:

Mike Dang has a success story of calling a landlord and getting a problem fixed right away:

The Small Joys of Renting

But a lot of us make calls, and wait, and if you’re me, tell the landlord you’re contacting your renters insurance provider—or, if you’re Josh Michtom, threaten litigation.

Not being evicted after you escalate the conversation is, in this case, a sign of privilege. It still won’t prevent a landlord from fixing a hole in the apartment wall by nailing a two-by-four over it, but at least you keep your home.

Did anyone else read Desmond’s book? I’d love to keep discussing it in the comments.

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