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Poverty and Profit in the American City

By Matthew Desmond
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Evicted by Matthew Desmond

Evicted (2016) tells the heartbreaking story of the individuals and families who struggle to get by in the United States’ poorest cities. Despite their best efforts, many of these people have fallen into a vicious cycle of poverty that has left them at the mercy of greedy property owners who don’t hesitate to evict families at the slightest provocation. To take a closer look at the details of their lives, we’ll focus on the inner city of Milwaukee and the tenants and landlords who populate this deeply segregated area.   

Key idea 1 of 7

Evictions have become an everyday occurrence in today’s low-income neighborhoods.

Here’s an all-too-common scene in cities and towns across the United States: clothes, toys and other personal belongings strewn across a front lawn or sidewalk – the scattered remnants of another family evicted by their landlord and forced from their home.  

This year, the number of people left without a home after running into difficulties paying rent could reach the millions.

You might think that a typical low-income family in the United States should be able to get by living in public housing or some form of housing assistance. But in reality, benefits like these are scarce; in fact, only one out of every four qualified recipients will receive any assistance at all.

But when it comes to evictions, it can be hard to calculate an exact number.

In Milwaukee, we know that over the course of three years, one-eighth of all the city’s tenants faced eviction. However, census data can overlook a lot of evictions, since a considerable number aren’t formally processed by the housing courts that handle disputes between property owners and tenants.

No matter how you count it, evictions are a national problem. In 2012, New York City courts handled almost 80 eviction cases every day.

That same year, one out of every nine individuals or households renting a property in Cleveland, Ohio, received an eviction summons to appear in housing court. And in Chicago, it was one in 14.

But the housing situation in the United States wasn’t always this dire.

Even though the struggle to come up with rent money is nothing new, it used to be rare for landlords to resort to evictions – even during the Great Depression. During the 1930s and 40s, records show that an eviction led to the kind of community resistance that would cause a scandal for the landlord.

This is what happened in February of 1932, when a landlord tried to evict three families in the Bronx. A thousand people took to the streets in protest, and the New York Times made a point of noting that it would have been a bigger crowd if it weren’t for the freezing cold temperatures.

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