As a Marquette journalism student in 1985, I scored an internship at the Hot Rockin’, Flame Thrown’ Z95, a radio station located on East Capital Drive in Milwaukee.
To get to work, I walked from my college apartment at 1425 West Kilbourn, a route that, as my roommate Terri warned me, took me right through “the Core.”
I thought about that early morning walk as I read Matthew Desmond’s engrossing, Pulitzer Prize winning book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. One thing that struck me after reading the book was how lucrative those houses along my route, many of which looked uninhabitable, were to the landlords.
The other was how much lost opportunity — to a renter, his or her family, their community and society as a whole — evictions can cause.
Desmond embedded himself in some of Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods, including a trailer park for five months and an inner city rooming house for another 10 months, to do the bulk of his research. He profiled eight renters and two landlords, Tobin Charney, who made over $400,000 annually on the rent he charged for his 131 trailers, some of which had no heat or running water, and Sherrena Tarver, who proudly told Desmond, “You know, if you have money right now, you can profit from other people’s failures.”
Desmond came to Appleton last week as part of the Fox Cities Book Festival, and, in his remarks, spoke about one of the renters he profiled. Arlene, a young single mother of two boys, told him, “It’s like I have a curse on me and it won’t stop for nothing.”
When she can secure any semblance of housing for her little family, Arlene spends 80% of her income on rent. She spends about the same percentage of time seeking and maintaining housing as well. Once a renter has an eviction on his or her record, it is even more difficult to find a landlord willing to offer you a lease. After Arlene’s eviction (set in motion by a snowball her son threw at a passing car), she applied to 90 places before finding another place to live.
It’s easy to see the toll this type of transient life takes on a family, but Evicted also got me thinking about the toll it takes on us all. A person who spends 80% of her life trying to put a roof over her head has no time to teach, create, innovate, study, inspire. Imagine the cool contributions to art, education and the workplace that might have happened if the potential to make them had not been lost in the frantic search for housing.
According to the carefully compiled statistics found on the Desmond-run https://evictionlab.org/, one in four poor renting families spend 70% of their income on rent. Incomes in general have remained flat, while housing costs have spiked. In Milwaukee, there were 5,687 evictions in 2016.
In his remarks on Friday, Desmond offered some optimism.
“There’s a lot of good news here,” he said. “Slums don’t exist anymore. But, we have a long way to go.”
He favors an expanded voucher system, which would offer dual incentives, first to the renter, who would have to contribute financially but at a more reasonable rate, and to the landlord, who could rely on an income stream that might render evictions obsolete, except in extreme instances.
I don’t have any answers, but I do appreciate the insight and diligent research Desmond offered.
The first step to solving any problem is to understand that it exists.
I want to thank the Fox Cities Book Festival for an excellent choice for Fox Cities Reads 2019. And, if you have not done so, I encourage you to read Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.