; Credit: Penguin Random House
Los Angeles is one of the toughest cities in the country for renters, with tenants spending nearly half of their paychecks to cover their monthly rent – more than anywhere else in the nation.
When they fall behind, they get evicted.
But the story is more complicated than that.
Matthew Desmond tried to understand by heading to Milwaukee and spent months following renters who were hanging onto their homes by a string, if at all.
But he also shadowed the landlords who cut tenants a lot of breaks, until they finally had to cut those strings.
It’s all chronicled in his new book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.”
Out of all the people who could qualify for housing assistance or public housing, only one-fourth are accepted, notes Desmond.
The rest are left to fend for themselves in the private rental market.
One of those people Desmond featured was Arleen, a single mother living in Milwaukee.
She often falls behind on her rent, but even when landlords cut her a break she is sometimes evicted for more than just money.
“We see Arleen evicted because her 14-year-old hits a car with a snowball, and the man jumps out and kicks her door in. The landlord said, that’s property damage so you’re evicted,” Desmond tells Take Two. “We see her evicted because her kid gets into trouble at school and the police pay her a visit. The landlord evicts her after that.”
Those evictions cascade into greater social problems, he says.
Without a stable home, it is more difficult for her children to stay in one school and concentrate on studying. With every eviction, Arleen is pushed into living in more dangerous neighborhoods where landlords are more likely to look past her spotty rental history.
Desmond also follows the other side of the story with landlords like Shereena, who Arleen once rented from before being kicked out.
While Shereena would neglect some properties and not fix a kitchen sink here or a busted window there, she would also cut people breaks that would normally get them kicked out elsewhere.
“These tenants were always behind or in some ways in violation of the lease. They would take in boarders – which is against the lease – and Shereena would remind them of that when they asked her to repair things,” says Desmond. “There was kind of an agreement between tenant and landlord. The landlord let the tenants slip and the tenants let Shereena slip.”
Shereena also extended a hand to some hard-on-their-luck tenants, offering a bag of groceries once they moved in or a ride home after taking them to eviction court.
“We let ourselves off the hook when we say, ‘These landlords are just greedy,’” says Desmond. “There’s a lot of things that go into the decision to evict someone, and often it’s not just arithmetic and it’s not just that, ‘This person is behind and has to go.‘”
Hear more of Desmond’s take on America’s housing crisis by clicking the blue audio player.