The eviction infrastructure of neoliberal governance has expanded, in the absence of grassroots organization, mobilization, solidarity and resistance, to a full blown Eviction Industrial Complex.
“These days, there are sheriff squads whose full-time jobs is to carry out eviction and foreclosure orders. There are moving companies specializing in evictions, their crews working all day, every weekday. There are hundreds of data-mining companies that sell landlords tenant screening reports listing past evictions and court filings. These days, housing courts swell, forcing commissioners to settle cases in hallways or makeshift offices crammed with old desks and broken file cabinets—and most tenants don’t even show up. Low-income families have grown used to the rumble of moving trucks, the early-morning knocks at the door, the belongings lining the curb.”
Speaking from experience, organizers on ground constantly find themselves in the dark about how this Eviction Industrial Complex functions. Who are the real estate developers? Where are they buying their properties? What does their market research look like? Who are the researchers? Who are the appraisers? Who are the lawyers? What is the process by which neighborhood rent gaps are determined? We could fill up the next two pages with questions organizers have. We have a great deal of ethnographic and demographic information about renter despairs, but so little actionable intelligence on real estate actors. Researchers focus on telling stories of suffering. But from the side of resistance and solidarity, the need most felt is sharp knowledge of the topographies of our battlefields, the precise contours of the processes that are inimical to people’s survival.
There are informal evictions “that take place in the shadow of the law,” never making it to the light of statistics about evictions.
“…there are other ways, cheaper and quicker ways, for landlords to remove a family than through court order. Some landlords pay tenants a couple hundred dollars to leave by the end of the week. Some take off the front door.”
Desmond writes with minute details—the furniture of the house, the sight and smell of the people, the food people are eating, the emotions of the evictees, the attitudes of the landlords, the human drama of it all. It reads like a novel, a creative non-fiction, and I even begin to enjoy it at times, a really well crafted story. The book reads like HBO-produced reality TV. I question myself at such times. I feel afraid for myself. The line between empathy and entertainment, humanizing and commodification is so blurry in a society where we spectate—from streets to social media—the brutalization of fellow beings. Perhaps, I am too suspicious, and always most questioning towards myself. Am I consuming these stories?
There’s been an explosion of creative non-fictions, auto-ethnographies. Does the proliferation of such stories, at such minute level, serve a counter-purpose than the well-meaning intentions? Thrown into the worldwide circuit of texts and citations, fragmented reader communities, do these stories sublimate our potential rage against inequality through shock and sorrow so that readers can claim to empathize without investing resources and putting themselves in the risky position of resisting the forces that evict people? A meta-analysis of readership communities of such works may be overdue.
The pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty makes a distinction between liberal theorists and liberal journalists. He argues that using critical theories to truthfully highlight systems of oppression is irrelevant today, particularly because we do not share a notion of common humanity anymore. Instead, Rorty elevates the task of the liberal journalist to produce narratives of suffering that will move people to empathize with different sufferings.
For instance, he argues, “…pain is non-linguistic: It is what we human beings have that ties us to the nonlanguage-using beasts. So victims of cruelty, people who are suffering, do not have much in the way of a language. That is why there is no such things as the ‘voice of the oppressed’ or the ‘language of the victims.’ The language the victims once used is not working anymore, and they are suffering too much to put new words together. So the job of putting their situation into language is going to have to be done for them by somebody else. The liberal novelist, poet, or journalist is good at that. The liberal theorist usually is not…
“In particular, novels and ethnographies which sensitize one to the pain of those who do not speak our language must do the job which demonstrations of a common human nature were supposed to do.”
In one sense, Desmond functions as this liberal journalist, refusing to get into the political economy of evictions. He keeps the narrative hinged on the suffering on ground. The stories are about individual renter, not the renting class. The cruelties are carried out by individual landlords, not the class of private and corporate landlords.
At the end of the book, Desmond confesses that he avoids emphasizing structural forces because that puts the issue out of reach for thinking about solutions. Rather, he chooses to focus on articulating everyday suffering. One wonders how solutions graspably ungraspable through such articulations.
An important excerpt:
“In years past, renters opposed landlords and saw themselves as a ‘class’ with shared interests and a unified purpose. During the early twentieth century, tenants organized against evictions and unsanitary conditions. When landlords raised rents too often or too steeply, tenants went so far as to stage rent strikes. Strikers joined together to withhold rent and form picket lines, risking eviction, arrest, and beatings by hired thugs. They were not an especially radical bunch, these strikes. Most were ordinary mothers and fathers who believed landlords were entitled to modest rent increases and fair profits, but not ‘price gouging’. In New York City, the great rent wars of the Roaring Twenties forced a state legislature to impose rent controls that remain the country’s strongest to this day.
“Petitions, picket lines, civil disobedience—this kind of political mobilization required a certain shift in vision. “For a protest movement to arise out of [the] traumas of daily life,” sociologists Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward have observed, “the social arrangements that are ordinarily perceived as just and immutable must come to seem both unjust and mutable.” This usually happened during extraordinary times, when large-scale social transformations or economic disturbances—the postwar housing shortage, say—profoundly upset the status quo. But it was not enough simply to perceive injustice. Mass resistance was possible only when people believed they had the collective capacity to change things. For poor people, this required identifying with the oppressed, and counting yourself among them—which was something most trailer park residents were absolutely unwilling to do.
“During rent strikes, tenants believed they had a moral obligation to one another. If tenants resisted excessive rent hikes or unwarranted evictions, it was because they invested in their homes and neighborhoods. They felt they belonged there. In the trailer park, that sentiment was almost dead. For most residents, Scott among them, the goal was to leave, not to plant roots and change things. Some residents described themselves as “just passing through,” even if they had been passing through nearly all their life…”
People help each other with little things and “these exchanges helped people on the receiving end meet basic material needs; and they helped those on the delivering end feel more fully human.”
“When people begun to view their neighborhood as brimming with deprivation and vice, full of ‘all sorts of shipwrecked humanity,’ they lost confidence in its political capacity.”
Another important excerpt:
“But the ghetto had always been more a product of social design that desire. It was never a by-product of the modern city, a sad accident of industrialization and urbanization, something no one benefited from nor intended. The ghetto had always been a main feature of landed capital, a prime moneymaker for those who saw ripe opportunity in land scarcity, housing dilapidation, and racial segregation.
“Maybe it began in the late fifteenth century, the weaponry of war to blame. With the invention of the iron cannonball, cities could no longer rely on moats and modest ramparts to fend off attacks. Complicated systems of defense had to be constructed and cities had to grow vertically behind high walls. Old Geneva and Paris saw tenements climb six stories. Edinburgh boasted of tenements twice as high. While agrarian families were driven from the land to increasingly congested cities, the competition for space drove up land values and rents. Urban landlords quickly realized that piles of money could be made by creating slums: “maximum profits came, not from providing first-class accommodations for those who could well afford them… but from crowded slum accommodations, for those whose pennies were scarcer than the rich man’s pounds.” Beginning in the sixteenth century, slum housing would be reserved not only for outcasts, beggars, and thieves but for a large segment of the population.
“During its rapid period of urbanization, America imported this model. Colonial proprietors adopted the institutions and laws of England’s landed gentry, including the doctrine of absolute liability for rent, which held tenants unequivocally responsible for payments even in the event of fire or flood. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, America’s poor lived in cellars, attics, cattle sheds, and windowless rooms that held multiple families. Some slums were cut off from basic municipal services and local wells; so families begged for water in other parts of town. Rents continued to rise as living conditions deteriorated. Soon, many families could not afford their housing. When this happened, landlords could summon the “privilege of distress,” which entitled them to seize and sell tenants’ property to recover lost profit, a practice that persisted well into the twentieth century.
“Racial oppression enabled land exploitation on a massive scale. During slavery, black slaves pulled profits from the dirt but have no claim to the land. After the Civil War, freed slaves saw in land ownership the possibility of true liberation, but during Reconstruction wealthy whites maintained a virtual monopoly on the soil as lands seized from or abandoned by Confederates were restored to their original owners. Returning to plantations as sharecroppers, black families descended into a cycle of subsistence farming and debt, while white Planters continued to grow rich. The slave shacks stood, and so did the plantation mansions.
“In the early decades of the twentieth century, African-American families seeking freedom and good jobs participated in the Great Migration, moving en masse from the rural South to cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee. When they arrived in those cities, they were crowded into urban ghettos, and the vast majority depended on landlords for housing. Ghetto landlords had a segregated and captive tenant base and had nothing to gain by improving their run-down houses. They began dividing their properties into small “kitchenette” units, throwing up so many plywood walls their apartments resembled “rabbit warrens.” Many houses lacked heading and complete plumbing. So black families cooked and ate in winter coats and relieved themselves in outhouses are homemade toilets. They came to know well the sound of the tuberculosis cough. In 1930, the death rate for Milwaukee’s blacks was nearly 60 percent higher than the citywide rate, due in large part to poor housing conditions. For the first time in the history of America, New Deal policies made homeownership a real possibility for white families, but black families were denied these benefits when the federal government deemed their neighborhoods too risky for insured mortgages and officials loyal to Jim Crow blocked black veterans from using GI mortgages. Over three centuries of systematic dispossession from the land created a semipermanent black rental class and an artificially high demand for inner-city apartments.
“In the 1950s, white real estate brokers developed an advanced technique of exploitation, one that targeted black families shut out of the private housing market. After buying houses on the cheap from nervous white homeowners in transitioning neighborhoods, private investors would sell these houses “on contract” to black families for double or triple the assessed value. Black buyers had to come up with sizable down payments, often upwards of 25 percent of the property’s inflated value. Once they moved in, black families had all the responsibilities of home ownership without any of the rights. When families missed payments, which many did after monthly installments were increased or necessary housing upkeep set them back, they could be evicted as their homes were foreclosed and down payments pocketed. The profits were staggering. In 1966, a Chicago landlord told a court that on a single property he had made $42,500 in rent but paid only $2,400 in maintenance. When accused of making excessive profits, the landlord simply replied, “That’s why I bought the building.”
“The 1968 Civil Rights Act made housing discrimination illegal, but subtler forms prevailed… Other landlords and property management companies—like Affordable Rentals—tried to avoid discriminating by setting clear criteria and holding all applicants to the same standards. But equal treatment in an unequal society could still foster inequality. Because black men were disproportionately incarcerated and black women disproportionately evicted, uniformly to denying housing to applicants with recent criminal or eviction records still had an incommensurate impact on African Americans…
“Eviction itself often explained why some families lived on safe streets and others on dangerous ones, why some children attended good schools and others failing ones. The trauma of being forced from your home, the blemish of an eviction record, and the taxing rush to locate a new place to live pushed evicted renters into more depressed and dangerous areas of the city.”
In the book, moments of solidarity are left unexplored.
Desmond suggestions: “It is only after we begin to see a street as our street, a public park as our park, a school as our school, that we can become engage citizens, dedicating our time and resources for worthwhile causes: joining the Neighborhood Watch, volunteering to beautify a playground, or running for school board.”
I wonder: Trayvon Martin killed by neighborhood watch.
Desmond frames the issue of eviction as a matter of poverty. But what is the underlying cause of poverty in this country? That some accumulate at the cost of others suffers an omission.
Desmond writes, “Residential stability begets a kind of psychological stability, which allows people to invest in their home and social relationships… And it begets community stability, which encourages neighbors to form strong bonds and take care of their block.”
Not really. Solidarity is not something that has been obstructed, but it is something that requires production. Community stability, otherwise, degenerates into NIMBYism.
“The United States was founded on the noble idea that people have “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Each of these three unalienable rights—so essential to the American character that the founders saw them as God-given—requires a stable home.”
In other words, the project of America is the project of homeownership.
Desmond concludes: “Given what projects had become, blowing them up was not only the cheaper option; it was the most humane one, like bulldozing a house in which some unspeakable thing had once transpired.”
But these were also sites of resistance and solidarity…
Desmond’s solutions: offer legal aid to the poor. “Good lawyers would raise defenses tenants often don’t…”
Create more regulations so that landlords can’t exploit tenants by charging high rents.
But the landlords are homogenous in this case. We are avoiding the fact that there are corporate landlords and private landlords.
Another solution: universal voucher program.
But that’s a disempowering state solution. What would Marcuse say?
Role of government:
“It is the government that legitimizes and defends landlords’ right to charge as much as they want; that subsidizes the construction of high-end apartments, bidding up rents and leaving the poor with even fewer options; that pays landlords when a family cannot, through onetime or ongoing housing assistance; that forcibly removes a family at landlords’ request by dispatching armed law enforcement officers; and that records and publicizes evictions, as a service to landlords and debt collection agencies. Just as the police and the prison have worked to triage the ill effects of rising joblessness in the inner city (like social unrest or the growth of the underground economy), civil courts, sheriff deputies, and homeless shelters manage the fallout of rising housing costs among the urban poor and the privatization of the low-income housing market.”
Desmond writes, “…public housing risks repeating the failures of the past, by drawing the nation’s poorest citizens under the same roof and contributing to racial segregation and concentrated poverty.”
Not if we create programs that build solidarity and empower people. Public housing could be turned into community controlled land trusts.
Argument for housing: “affordable housing is a human-capital investment… that would strengthen and steady the American workforce.”
Aren’t you a shrewd capitalist?
Desmond confesses, “I wanted to try to write a book about poverty that didn’t focus exclusively on poor people or poor places. Poverty was a relationship, I thought, involving poor and rich people alike. To understand poverty, I needed to understand that relationship. This sent me searching for a process that bound poor and rich people together in mutual dependence and struggle. Eviction was such a process.”
But by focusing on the process, one avoids the substance of this relationship: which is acculumation by dispossession.
On method, Desmond writes, “To me, ethnography is what you do when you try to understand people by allowing their lives to mold your own as fully and genuinely as possible. You do this by building rapport with the people you want to know better and following them over a long stretch of time, observing and experiencing what they do, working and playing alongside them, and recording as much action and interaction as you can until you begin to move like they move, talk like they talk, think like they think, and feel something like they feel. In this line of work, living “in the field” helps quite a lot. It’s the only way to have an immersive experience; and practically speaking, you never know when important things are going to happen. Renting a trailer allowed me to meet dozens of people, pick up rumors, absorb tenants’ concerns and perspectives, and observe everyday life all hours of the day.”
“No one really knows why some people unfurl like this in front of a stranger with a notepad and pen, why they open the door and let you in.”
In a society that always watches us, we also learn to love to be seen and heard.
“My policy was to intervene as little as possible…”
Isn’t presence itself an intervention?
Desmond writes, “Everything about you—your race and gender, where and how you were raised, your temperament and disposition—can influence whom you meet, what is confided to you, what you are shown, and how you interpret what you see. My identity opened some doors and closed others. In the end, we can only do the best we can with who we are, paying close attention to the ways pieces of ourselves matter to the work while never losing sight of the most important questions.”