By Maria Valdovinos
Among the many social issues that could have taken front and center stage in this incredibly perplexing election year, these are the first two thoughts that pop into my head: Walls and Emails. Granted, 2016 is not over, and this is not to say that social issues of critical importance have not been addressed on the political stage. They most certainly have.
How far these issues have penetrated into society’s consciousness, however, of this, I am less certain. (I thought to myself; if only societal issues such as eviction were peppered with the same type of conviction that walls and emails have been addressed in this election year’s rhetoric.)
One of my summer activities was to read Matthew Desmond’s work Evicted: Poverty and Profit in The American City. I set out to read his book not because of any particular interest in the topic of eviction, but rather because I read a number of reviews praising his writing style. When journalists praise the writing style of a sociologist, it must be something to check out!
At around the same time, I came across a Washington Post story by Terrence McCoy titled “As the nation’s capital booms, poor tenants face eviction over as little as $25.” This is a compelling title that stopped me in my tracks. In McCoy’s story we are introduced to Brittany Gray, a resident of Brookland Manor in the District, who was facing eviction for the fifth time since 2014. Each time, the eviction notice was the result of owing less than $50 on her rent.
For a lot of us, $50 dollars is the expense of a cheap night out on the town. But for the folks in McCoy’s Washington, DC and Desmond’s Milwaukee, being short on rent is inevitable and often a calculated decision between shelter and food in any particular month. Among the facts and figures reported by Desmond and McCoy are: (1) Rent comprises upwards of 70% of the monthly income of Milwaukee’s poor, making it almost impossible for them to fully pay rent and still have money left over for food and other basic necessities (Desmond 2016). (2) Each eviction leaves a record; much like a criminal record that makes it difficult to secure a job, an eviction record makes it increasingly harder for an individual to secure future housing (Desmond 2016). (3) Washington, DC’s annual census for the homeless in 2016 found that there were more than 4,600 children and parents and approximately 1,000 homeless single adults in the District (Dvorak 2016). (4) There is an exploitative market in private housing for the urban poor (Desmond 2016).
These facts are surprising because eviction and the mechanisms of the private housing market for America’s poor have been largely overlooked in the poverty literature. So has the link between eviction and homelessness, according to Desmond.
In one of his poignant discussions, Desmond ponders the question of generalizability. Researchers put a premium on studies that are generalizable, but in practice what does generalizability really signify? As Desmond notes, generalizability in this case potentially means that evictions related to poverty are happening everywhere and that we should probably pay attention to it.
Perhaps it was Desmond’s intimate way of delving into this problem, depicted in the relationships he describes in his book that drove the point home and was reinforced by Terrence McCoy’s report. I began to wonder, “Where is the societal outrage here?” And whatever happened to the “rent is too damn high” guy. Yes, that guy, Jimmy McMillan of the Rent is Too Damn High Party who ran for governor of New York in 2010. It turns out he retired from politics at the end of last year because he found voters to be ‘brainwashed’ (Howard 2015).
Transforming the Outrage
I find the political stage and media to be remiss in giving so much attention to walls and emails. Then there’s the question of whose responsibility it is to plug the loopholes that allow such types of structural violence against the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society to continue.
While Desmond wonders whether we must all pay attention to it, in his concluding remarks he does seem to make an appeal to future researchers and sociologists to develop “a robust sociology of housing that reaches beyond a narrow focus on policy and public housing. A new sociology of displacement that documents the prevalence, causes and consequences of eviction. And perhaps most important, a committed sociology of inequality that includes a serious study of exploitation and extractive markets” (p.333).
Robust. New. Committed. These are the words that stand out in our quest to make unique contributions to effect societal change against the many forms of structural violence affecting the most vulnerable among us. Perhaps, we should look critically inward as much as we tend to look critically outward. How do we transform that societal outrage into practical solutions that are robust, new and committed?
Desmond, Matthew. 2016. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. New York: Crown Publishers.
Dvorak, Petula. 2016. “An Invisible Crisis in the Nation’s Capital: 4,600 Homeless Children and Parents Who Need Help.” The Washington Post, May 12. Retrieved September 1, 2016 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/an-invisible-crisis-in-the-nations-capital-4600-homeless-kids-and-parents-who-need-help/2016/05/12/03d4cbc6-1859-11e6-924d-838753295f9a_story.html).
Howard, Adam. 2015. “‘Rent is Too Damn High’ Guy Retires: Jimmy McMillan Faults ‘Brainwashed’ Voters.” MSNBC, December 10. Retrieved September 1, 2016
McCoy, Terrance. 2016. “As the Nation’s Capital Booms, Poor Tenants Face Eviction Over as Little as $25.” The Washington Post, August 8. Retrieved August 9, 2016 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/local/wp/2016/08/08/2016/08/08/as-the-nations-capital-booms-poor-tenants-face-eviction-over-as-little-as-25/)