As a city planner working with a rental licensing program I found Evicted by Matthew Desmond to be an eye opening and insightful book on the life of both renters and landlords. Desmond tells the story of the rental climate of Milwaukee in 2008 and 2009, just after the housing market collapsed and rents soared through the roof. While the situations Desmond wrote about in the book occurred almost ten years ago, they still proliferate throughout the U.S. today.
The book reads easy because it is a narrative format with facts and figures mixed into the stories of the landlords and tenants Desmond encountered. You have to wait until the last chapter of the book to find out that the author is retelling first hand accounts of situations that were occurring throughout the city. He lived in the trailer park and shadowed the prominent landlord and her tenants. As a result, he saw the difficult situations many renters, regardless of race or ethnicity, faced and the decisions they had to make.
It was hard to read some of the descriptions of how the renters were choosing to live. One household was washing dishes in the shower because the sink had clogged again and the tenants felt that calling the landlord to have it repaired was a hopeless venture. Desmond described how the condition of the apartments or trailers directly affected the tenants outlook on life and their desire to keep their place clean. Scott, struggling with drug addition, never had the motivation or incentive to try to change his situation. He felt stuck in a dilapidated old trailer and felt helpless to fix anything. As soon as he moved into a well maintained apartment with assistance from the Guest House his attitude changed and he made a five year plan to get his life back on track.
I often conduct rental inspections and find units with trash on the floors, stained toilets, and layers of dust. I was told by a coworker that we are not the lifestyle police and if they choose to live that way, that is their choice. Reading the first hand accounts of how the poor condition of the apartment led to their inability to care about whether they cleaned up has made me question if they consciously chose to live that way. Most of the units in these types of conditions are in older buildings that, while they meet the minimum property maintenance standards, are not attractive or desirable buildings.
The story of Arleen's life made me think hard about our ordinance on crime free housing. On the surface the program is good and is intended to rid crime from our city. No one should have to live in a building that has illegal activities that lower their quality of life and feeling of security. The unfortunate affect of the three strikes and your out rule of the crime free housing ordinance is that many tenants are evicted from their homes for reasons that are beyond their control.
Once evicted, it makes it very difficult to find quality housing because of another ordinance requirement, background checks. It is vital to run background checks on prospective tenants to ensure you are not renting to someone that could pose a threat to your other tenants. The draw back is that often times they will keep good tenants with one blemish on their record from finding good, reliable housing. One eviction can set them on the path to insecurity and frequent moves, leading to a host of other problems especially if children are involved.
This book changed the way I think about our rental licensing program. I am more sympathetic to tenants living in the units I inspect, but I also understand the difficult situations the landlords often face. Many times, the city planners are the only advocate for the tenants who have tried everything in their power to improve their situation. When I get calls asking for help with their landlords I try my best to come up with solutions to their problems because I know now how much a clean, safe apartment can change someones life.