$17 billion: For nearly 18 months, a figure has swirled in my mind: during the height of the Chicago Contract Buying scam that exploited segregated black neighborhoods during mortgage (and mortgage insurance) redlining, one lawyer fighting the scam estimated that $1 million in wealth was extracted daily from black families on the expansive west and south sides. $1 million, daily, for more than a decade, necessitates quite an astonishing sum when one considers how the City of Chicago might enact reparations for these families and their descendants. The trouble with this figure is that it reduces the crippling reality of racism to a figure so astronomical that no one could possibly take it seriously: if the state of Illinois cannot solve its $100 billion pension crisis to ensure that workers can earn their contractually and constitutionally required retirements, black families that had their wealth extracted simply because they wanted a chance at homeownership stand little chance of redeeming their minimum $17 billion claim in reparations.
Even worse: as Beryl Satter perfectly captures in Family Properties: How the Struggle Over Race and Real Estate Transformed Chicago and Urban America, the profit motives render reparations even less likely. The dirty secret that grinds through our daily economy in plain sight is that there is a certain type of acceptable logic that acquits those white "businessmen" that secured (illegal) mortgages from lenders only to turnover the houses (but not the Titles) to blacks for inflated sums. They were basically speculating, in the 1960s, that black families would desire a chance at homeownership even though market financing tools were systematically, institutionally forbidden to those families. These criminals correctly surmised that black families would live in dreadful conditions in order to take their chance at calling a home their own (or, at the very least, they knew that families need somewhere to live, even if it's a rat infested fire trap).
If this ruse sounds similar it is, as mortgage lenders ran a more sophisticated update to this game during the subprime mortgage crisis in the early 21st century (here the punchline is even less easy to stomach, as more than 50% of minority subprime borrowers had credit scores that entitled them to market mortgage products). Similarly, behind this entirely well-publicized subprime crisis, landlords continued to slum, extracting gigantic sums of money from rental properties that produce pages-long violations reports from the City of Chicago. A mother looking for $600 rent on SSI will settle for an infested place owned by a landlord that can continuously play the banks for millions of dollars of equity, because that's exactly how the profit motive is designed to work. (If you disagree with me, ask yourself how it is that a landlord can continuously secure equity financing from a building that consistently racks up violations reports from the City: this is a scenario that replays itself across neighborhoods).
The contract buying scam worked because it preyed on scarcity (homes in institutionally segregated areas) without presenting risks to the criminals that orchestrated such deals (for, when black families missed mortgage payments, white Title holders could immediately evict them). Similarly, the subprime crisis worked because it preyed on a speculative bubble and that same basic desire for homeownership without presenting risks to the criminals that orchestrated such deals (for, the very institutions that were slicing and dicing mortgage loans into investment instruments were gambling in insurance markets that those instruments would fail).
So goes private property in the USA: scarcity and speculative ideals have blended perfectly with Americans' deeply-held racist beliefs (or, alternately, their inability to protest racist institutions for fear of losing what crumbs they too are grasping). Matthew Desmond picks at a new aspect of this relationship in his highly praised Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, adding brutal class tourism (at worst), passionate ethnography, and impeccable research methods (at best) to outline the complicated evictions market in Milwaukee, WI.
When I grew up in Milwaukee, the segregated inner city was routinely (dismissively) called The Core. The sound of locking car doors as soon as one crossed 60th & Center reverberates in my guilty conscience. Desmond explains the logic of segregation in this city in a manner that deeply resonated with my own experiences as a white west sider, as an elementary student bussed deeper into the city during the celebratory multicultural early-1990s MPS, as a son of a Heating & Air Conditioning salesman afforded weekend visits to offices with Dad on Teutonia & Locust, and later serving as a property manager off Marquette University's campus. Mostly, I lived as one whose brief adult experiences in the city (from ages 18-24) came mostly on foot or via Milwaukee County Transit (complete with Executive Walker's mindless austerity). This is my Milwaukee identity, and it is impossible to read Desmond's book without those vivid memories from school buses to the 31 Medical Center.
I will never forget the feeling of plastic grocery bags slicing into my hands as I attempted to walk from the Pick'N'Save off the 16th Street Viaduct back to The Abode East off 15th and Wells (absent an entirely untrustworthy bus on Walker's once-every-45-minute routes). The length of the 16th Street Viaduct is known mostly for its lore in Milwaukee's past battlegrounds for racial equality, and Desmond deeply describes "The Longest Bridge in the World" to capture the utterly hopeless segregation of my hometown. Given the timeframe of Desmond's survey, unbeknownst to me, I was probably carrying my groceries along that Viaduct while one of his featured renters slept below it.
In this setting, the evicted renters that Desmond captures are tenacious as they struggle with addiction, hustling, raising children, helping sick acquaintances or family members, domestic and external violence, and substandard living conditions. Desmond holds no punches as he emphasizes the almost complete lack of adequate employment and housing opportunities, and then doubles down with the circumstantial blows that knock these people out of any possible comfort when they do find a job or a decent place to live.
This aspect of Desmond's work is consistently what I fight with in my mind, for even his well-written prose and sound ethnographical methods do not hide the clear chance for readers to engage in class tourism throughout the book. While Desmond plainly provides policy arguments and methodological explanations at the end of the book, those sections are largely separated from the ethnography itself, which removes many of the most difficult aspects of each person's individual story from any potential for using it as evidence for the necessity of affordable housing reform. It will be easy for ill-minded pundits or even casual middle-class, working-class racists to use these stories to reenforce stereotypes about the poor -- and, in Milwaukee, especially stereotypes about poor black families.
However, I struggle with this because it may not have been Desmond's intent to present the material in this way; it could have been an editorial demand (outside of an academic press) to separate normative and methodological aspects from the beginning of the book. Instead of a brief prologue that dives right into the stories of these people, Desmond's dynamite methodological explanation (pages 315-336) and good-natured normative analysis (pages 293-313) should have opened the book.
If you're wondering whether this type of arrangement would stack the decks and immediately spoil the story (spoiler alert: poor people lose), you're right. The benefit of this type of alignment would be that Desmond could orchestrate his ethnographical findings with the well-proven fact that poverty is systematic, institutionally determined, and that racism is malicious and entirely intentional. This type of lens would completely predetermine the individual fates of the story, which would indeed take away from some of the bite of their heartbreaking failures and their inspiring fights against all odds.
Slumming is exceptionally profitable to landlords, and my critique about the organization of the ethnography, methodology, and policy suggestions should not be taken as a suggestion that Desmond does not acknowledge the systematic nature of poverty. In fact, by the chapter "The 'Hood is Good," Desmond outlines with actuarial accuracy the cashflow afforded to the main landlord that he features in the book. This particular landlord does not operate properties that cannot clear ~$500 in cash (monthly), ultimately resulting in a $10,000 monthly payday once all expenses are accounted for (and this doesn't even consider any mortgage credits or depreciation calculations that this landlord is almost certainly claiming). Desmond admirably maintains some level of neutrality by noting that he refused to call this landlord a "slumlord" when pressed by one of the renters, but the facts laid bare tell the story so Desmond doesn't need to: it is incredibly profitable for a landlord to ignore repairs (documented throughout the book), ignore plumbing and electrical maintenance (documented throughout the book), ignore maintenance requests, self-manage "pest control," and hire drug addicts for easily exploited labor (and fail to pay laborers after they agree to the work). On top of their own enterprises, this landlord also expands business to manage property for Suburban whites inconvenienced by daily maintenance in Milwaukee's inner city, while also operating transportation services to connect family members with loved ones imprisoned upstate.
This is one central aspect of Desmond's methodology that produces a strength of the book: explaining two common threads related to the study of poverty, Desmond wrote:
The ghetto was treated like "a city within a city." The poor were being left out of the inequality debate, as if we believed the livelihoods of the rich and the middle class were intertwined but those of the poor and everyone else were not. Where were the rich people who wielded enormous influence over the lives of low-income families and their communities--who were rich precisely because they did so? Why, I wondered, have we documented how the poor make ends meet without asking why their bills are so high or where their money is flowing? (317)
Desmond's question is not insignificant: he finds shortcomings with previous studies of poverty that focused on public housing, or urban neighborhoods. By inserting wealthy landlords into his ethnography, Desmond specifically investigates the profit motive instantiated in the people exploiting inner cities through slumming, and how poor renters are affected by this motive.
From this standpoint, Desmond's book is driven by several surveys, which the author completed as a full-time fieldworker while living in Milwaukee (326). By focusing specifically on the relationship between the poor and the wealthy in poor inner city neighborhoods, Desmond found an avenue to complete original research on the impact of evictions on renters and neighborhoods. The Milwaukee Area Renters Study (MARS), the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, and the Milwaukee Eviction Court Study were surveys developed by Desmond to specifically analyze the devastating and complicated impact of the profit motive on poor renters. Through these dynamic surveys, Desmond is able to convey the dangers of evictions to families, noting throughout the book that when families are evicted, they often end up in more dangerous housing moving deeper into more violent neighborhoods. The colloquial term "The Core" becomes a crucial weapon of racism, for it paints over miles upon miles of inner city neighborhoods without drawing distinctions; Desmond surgically slices into the terrain of racism with methods that allow him to show the complicated layers of poverty and poor neighborhoods.
One of the issues with the layout or sequencing of Desmond's book, then, is that the reader may not be inclined to read the methodology first; the reader may not ever know that the author designed groundbreaking surveys in order to complement his ethnography with specific data pertaining to the scope of renters and their neighborhoods in Milwaukee. This is problematic because Desmond presents Milwaukee in two different lights; in the prologue, "there is nothing special about Milwaukee when it comes to eviction" (5). Yet, Desmond argues in his methodology section that Milwaukee is especially well-suited for a survey of the impact of the profit motive in poor neighborhoods within the USA:
Wisconsin's largest city is not every city, but it is considerably less unique than the small clutch of iconic but exceptional places that have come to represent the American urban experience. Every city creates its own ecosystem, but in some cities this is much more pronounced. Milwaukee is a fairly typical midsize metropolitan area with a fairly typical socioeconomic profile and housing market and fairly typical renter protections. It is far better suited to represent the experiences of city dwellers living in Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Baltimore, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Gary, Raleigh, Utica, and other cities left out of the national conversation because they are not America's biggest successes (San Francisco, New York City) or biggest failures (Detroit, Newark). (333).
Like his policy proposals, Desmond follows this methodology with a call to other researchers to continue this project and actually see what these principles of research reveal in other cities. On the one hand, Desmond's work reminds me of the brutal grittiness and bleakness exemplified by other recent urban ethnography, like Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Poor (Sudhir Venkatesh), although Desmond's work arguably offers a stronger and more urgent normative push toward institutional reform. On the other hand, Desmond's template is an unorthodox kin to pioneering economic surveys of the built environment, like Charles Beard's Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, inosfar as Desmond welcomes others to replicate his results while also developing an account of systematic exploitation of the profit motive (or, the impact of the profit motive on actual economic life). It remains to be seen if Desmond's methodological development begins a new genre of study, much like Beard did for the study of situated economics and USA founding policy positions.
From the methodological vantage point, Desmond's contribution is innovative, which is precisely my concern with the production of this work for widespread audiences. In shorter arenas, such as New York Times, Desmond adroitly uses his fieldwork to make succinct and forceful policy points. Throughout Evicted, however, it takes quite a while to ramp up to the normative and methodological impact of the work. In the meantime, readers will need to persevere through teenage sex, misbehaving children, addiction casualties, domestic violence, homelessness, female-headed households, and generally crisis-filled lives to reach the major contributions. Desmond's neutrality ensures that there is not always a structural explanation for an individual event, which leads me to conclude that in many cases, people will use this book to bolster their preexisting opinions about poverty. I gather that my experience as someone who believes the poor are systematically screwed shaded my view of this book just as much someone who believes that the poor deserve their fate will view ethnography. However, one can hope that the press onslaught accompanying Evicted will change some minds and convert some Americans to consider ways to alleviate the affordable housing crisis.
Here in Chicago, there are at least 50,000 people waiting for Housing Choice Vouchers or other Chicago Housing Authority programs. In terms of privately developed affordability options, there is a waitlist at nearly every building or unit that one can find. And this picture only captures those that are actively looking for those lists and seeking those services. Otherwise, half of Chicago households are rent burdened, meaning that more than one-third of household income is allocated to rent (and rent alone). In the meantime, the CHA and City of Chicago are behind on completing contractually mandated affordable housing units, and as this crisis ensues, the Council and Mayor are taking other subsidized housing units off the market entirely. The City allows developers of new private housing to "buy out" affordable unit requirements, which ensures that new private units can enter the market with rents that obliterate median neighborhood ranges. This may be happening most visibly in Logan Square and Uptown, but one can be certain these developers will not stop until Chicago's median rents look more like those of San Francisco.
Ultimately, Desmond gives readers, scholars, and housing or social service professionals a template to tackle this crisis. The loud press associated with Evicted potentially raises the stakes for the affordable housing fight. And, as Desmond systematically shows, it will be a fight, for there is money to be made in slumming, evictions, and generally forcing poor people to live in crisis. Hopefully readers will follow the ethnography by reading Desmond's methodology, policy proposals, and even the notes. A volume of Desmond's sociological and social sciences articles associated with his surveys would also be extremely welcome. Here one hopes that Evicted continues to soar in the press, for it will be welcome to further apply Desmond's revolutionary approach to provide safe, secure, and affordable housing.
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