While I’ve never been an academic, I appreciate the connection scholarly research shares with my chosen profession of journalism. They are cousins in their ability to dispel myths and call basic assumptions into question.
Take sociology, where Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted” is a tutorial on the ability of comprehensive field research to recalibrate our understanding of the world. Journalists who haven’t read his book (and I suspect there aren’t many) would be well advised to do so as a refresher on the finer points of objective observation. Not that Desmond completely succeeds in that objectivity (more on that later), but his few failures also hold lessons for us.
Based on Desmond’s field research project in the largest city of my home state — Milwaukee, Wisconsin — “Evicted” investigates the transient nature of the private low-income housing market. Chapters chronicle the struggles of both black and white folks — the former lodged in the city’s near-north side neighborhoods and the latter in a south-side trailer park — to keep a household in this famously segregated city. Desmond introduces us to a renters’ roster of welfare recipients, single moms and drug addicts who shuffle eternally through the city’s low-income housing stock, along with the landlords who engage them in a tense but familiar dance of lease and eviction.
Along the way we encounter heartbreaking mixes of bad luck and deliberate choices that lead people into drug use, prostitution, petty crime and, ultimately, homelessness. How society views these “losers” in the game of life is important, because our perceptions inform the policies we devise as a response. And that’s where the misconceptions, and Desmond’s ability to counter them with his findings, come into play.
- Rents in the inner city — which features dilapidated housing in crime-ridden neighborhoods — rival those of middle-class areas of the city and suburbs. Yet for a number of reasons that range from a rental applicant’s checkered past to outright racism, those middle-class vacancies remain off limits to inner city residents, and landlords take full advantage of a captive market.
- Because of this, the inner city rental market can be highly profitable. It is not the low-margin business we might expect. Those who are willing to deal with the considerable headaches that come with low-income tenants can find it worth their while. As the book points out, “the ‘hood is good.”
- The housing is dilapidated because there’s a disincentive for landlords to make repairs for tenants who are behind on rent and halfway out the door, and there’s an equal disincentive for tenants to make their own improvements to a home from which they may soon be evicted. As a result, they live with backed-up sinks that attract vermin, and wear overcoats around the house to weather the winter months.
- With the imminent threat of eviction, there’s little incentive for tenants who are behind on payments to catch up. Call them deadbeats, but it makes sense. A $700 gambling windfall is better spent on a security deposit for your next place than any back rent to a landlord who’s going to throw you out anyway.
- Like many cities, the Milwaukee police’s nuisance-call policy discouraged residents from reporting crimes in their homes — particularly domestic abuse. Under the policy (since changed), multiple police visits to a residence would trigger nuisance-property fines for landlords, who would promptly initiate eviction proceedings. The lesson to tenants: Don’t call 911 for help in an emergency, or risk eviction.
- South-side trailer park residents are often enticed into leases that “give” them ownership of the trailer. They’re only responsible for renting the space in the park. But the tempting illusion of easy home ownership is just that — an illusion. Because the home is not his, the arrangement lets the landlord off the hook for any repairs. The tenant is responsible for maintenance and, in the event of an eviction, removal of the unit. Most can’t afford that and simply abandon the trailer, which falls back into the landlord’s possession.
- The predominantly white residents of the south side trailer park lived at poverty levels comparable with their black counterparts on the north side, yet they stubbornly clung to bigoted attitudes. Though conditions in the trailer park were undeniably foul, they viewed the impoverished north side with the disdain of suburbanites and lived in palpable fear of ever ending up there.
- Desmond boldly tested this divide by splitting his field work between the trailer park and the north side, where he found south-siders’ prevailing fear of racial animosity to be exaggerated. If anything, white people, while turning heads in the ‘hood, tended to enjoy a particular immunity from the daily violence that defined life there. Desmond’s black landlord fretted mightily over his safety and took great pains to right any wrongs committed against him.
A common thread weaving through these examples is a remarkably rational thought process going on in low-income circles. We typically don’t think of poor people that way. We associate their status with some sort of dysfunction, a failing of the mental faculties the rest of us have. But to a junkie going through heroin withdrawal, spending money on another hit rather than rent is a reasonable response. Buying your child snazzy new shoes you can’t afford, not only because he needs shoes but because you love him, makes perfect sense. Even the seemingly irrational racial divisions of a city like Milwaukee reflect a common understanding among its residents, poor or otherwise, of where societal norms permit you to live. Such realities are important in redefining the scope of low-income housing challenges, if not poverty itself. You can’t go about proposing solutions if you fundamentally misunderstand the problems, and in that regard, Desmond has done a great service. Once we engage the mechanics of low-income housing as essentially rational, it becomes easier for sociologists to propose solutions and policymakers to implement them.
In his final chapter, Desmond pulls back the curtain for an intriguing mea culpa on his project. The field work entailed what we’d expect — living among the residents, first in the trailer park and then on the north side. But in both cases he acknowledges blurring the line between observation and participation. He’d give one of his research subjects a ride to an apartment showing. He’d help another with packing and moving after an eviction. He’d lend someone a few bucks. He admits possibly crossing the line, but he makes a strong argument that living in a neighborhood with people, sharing a bathroom, meals, the streets — sharing their struggles and being a part of their lives — renders the notion of objectivity into an abstract and somewhat useless academic conceit. Fair point.
There are journalists who also test the limits of objectivity — for instance, the “gonzo” practitioners who insert themselves into the story they’re telling, or “solutions-based journalists” who write and report with the purpose of effecting social change. I’ve always believed that a journalist shouldn’t be part of the story, but these methods, while unorthodox, can be instrumental to achieving access, which is instrumental to painting an accurate picture. As a trained sociologist, Desmond seems to be comfortable with his overall conduct, and I can’t argue with the results. His interpersonal relations with sources were essentially about access, without which their stories could not have been told, and our misguided perceptions would have gone on unchecked. And that’s what turns a heady research project about poverty and housing into a book about people and homes.