July 01, 2016

Evictions and the Paradox of Poverty

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City offers readers an in-depth and close up look at the struggle people in poverty face to find and maintain housing. Based on ethnography, interviews, and surveys conducted in Milwaukee, Desmond provides the perspectives of both tenants and landlords to give us a very thorough picture of the housing markets open to low-income people. As Peter Kaufman recently blogged, the book provides us with a great lesson in what Kaufman called “compassionate sociology.”

The book also provides several good examples of some of the paradoxes of poverty: things that we may think are causes of poverty are also the effects of poverty, and vice versa.

Within Desmond’s study, some of the most compassionate acts came from people who could least afford them, and those who are down-and-out seldom contact better off family members, but instead those who are struggling too. On a few occasions people Desmond interviewed asked for help from their church but were denied. Why would those with so little help, and those who are doing better be asked for less?

Those who are struggling financially might see opportunity in letting a neighbor move in with them. Maybe this new roommate will share food; maybe they have furniture that the other doesn’t. Perhaps a family member will help with childcare if they move in, or pay a small amount towards the rent. By contrast, better off relatives might not get—or need— anything in return. In one case, a woman told Desmond she would only ask a particular relative for money if it were a true emergency--the relative was sort of like a trump card to hold onto for a bigger crisis. And some people felt ashamed of their circumstances and didn’t want more successful relatives to know.

As a consequence of this paradox, many struggling people who try to help others may be punished themselves. They might get evicted themselves if a landlord learns there is an unauthorized tenant living in the home.

The one of the most striking paradoxes Desmond reveals is that job loss can also be the result of eviction, not just the cause. It makes sense that if someone loses their job then they might be unable to afford the rent, fall behind on payments, and eventually their landlords evict them. But Desmond finds that the reverse can be true as well.

Eviction creates a crisis; if you are in the process of losing your home, the first priority is finding someplace to go. Finding a new apartment often means spending hours searching through neighborhoods—Desmond found that few the people he observed had reliable Internet access so few were able to do online searches. If you don’t have a car, which many low-income people do not, the process is going to take much longer, and might involve missing work. Desmond also explains that the crisis of eviction means that people might be distracted and make mistakes on the job, that tempers flare due to stress, which can also lead to job loss. A move might take people farther from work, making it harder to get there via public transportation and more likely that they arrive late if they have to take several busses to get there.

One of Evicted’s main points is another paradox: poverty can be profitable to others. On the surface, this might not make sense. If people who struggle to pay rent, often can’t, and are in turn evicted (which costs filing fees, time in court, and in some cases attorney fees), how can profit be part of the low-income housing market?

Desmond explains that the depressed cost of purchasing real estate in low-income areas means that people with money to invest can buy properties on the cheap—in one case, for just $2,000—and a landlord can expect to recoup their total investment relatively quickly. But average rents are just a few hundred dollars cheaper in these areas than in more stable middle-income communities, while the cost of purchasing properties there is more expensive.

And because many tenants in low-income areas have eviction records and less-than-stellar credit reports, housing is hard to come by. Because low-income people have few options, they often end up paying more than they can reasonably afford in rent. They are thus likely to fall behind if they have an illness or their hours are cut at work. This might seem to give license for a landlord to skimp on repairs and upkeep, even if they violate housing codes. Desmond notes several situations where tenants don’t even have hot water or heat. But reporting a violation might get a tenant evicted if they are behind in rent or have a relative living with them who is not on the lease. So building owners can save on the costs of upkeep by forgoing repairs or paying residents next to nothing to do the repairs themselves.

These are just a few of the paradoxes of poverty Evicted reveals; I recommend reading the book and learning more about these and other paradoxes of poverty.

To find out more about how to help people facing eviction, Desmond has co-founded a foundation, Just Shelter.


This is very important post that you share.After reading this article I get more information that you share.In this article I get more information.thanks for sharing this article....

Yes, I agree with your article.I think that your article has been something new ideas.You added more info that we need.Thanks for sharing this article.

When looking at the blog that Sternheimer wrote I realized that the main sociological interest of the article was an understanding of the very low Socioeconomic status that many people in America and the world are experiencing. From looking at the article I understood that one could easily determine that the working poor and the underclass can easily be seen as the ones that are being affected. This is perhaps an everyday lifestyle for these two classes and they are constantly experiencing these fears of eviction or are struggling financially. Everything of course can trace back to the inequality found between social classes in terms wealth, power, and job opportunity. It would all essentially come down to where you born, the color of skin, and where your parents stood on that scale as well. I myself chose this article because I relate to it very much.
I am a person of Hispanic descent and my mother was undocumented for a very long time. My mother, sister, and I found ourselves living in one room together at my godmother’s house with her family as well. Luckily we were living with family so there was no awkwardness between all of us. For 5 years we lived in that room and of course eventually we overstayed our welcome when my godmother’s sons
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and my sister would begin to fight and argue with each other. Although we weren’t being evicted the situation that began to form was that we needed to find a new home immediately because everyone now needed to live his or her lives separately from one another. As Sternheimer mentioned a crisis arose in my moms own lifestyle and now she began to prioritize finding a home so her work ethic was being affected. She eventually got a warning but that warning is what woke my mom up and she started to work even harder all the while trying to find a new home for my sister and I. I myself very easily understood and related to this article because in a sense I experienced this fear alongside my mom of not finding somewhere to live and having to experience the constant fights between my sister and my godmother’s sons.
In essence, I agree with Sternheimer’s explanations on the paradoxes that poverty can have on a person’s lifestyle. By seeing it first hand, I truly see that your mental and physical willpower are very much tested. This experience is nothing short of horrifying, stressful, and very annoying to have to experience and I didn’t even experience the full extent of what other people are going through. It truly is such a shame and inhumane as well that there are those that take advantage of the situation that some people are going through just to make some extra money for themselves. We as a people and as a nation should be helping each other to succeed and progress together but it seems as if the American Dream is now corrupted to such an extent and taken extremely to heart that we are turning our backs on one another just to progress in our own lifestyles. In terms of America I would like to
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think that at least at one point, even it was for a second, everyone was helping each other out to reach their American Dream and work hard together.

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