OF THE HALF-DOZEN homes that Arleen and her two boys lived in during 2008 and 2009, her favorite was a four-bedroom house on Milwaukee’s North Side. Its exterior was only half painted, and the house was ultimately condemned as unfit for human habitation, forcing Arleen and her sons to move to a shabby apartment in a drug-infested neighborhood. Despite its flaws, as Arleen bounced from one apartment to another, applying nearly her entire monthly income to renting from landlords slow to make repairs but quick to evict, she would long remember that house for its space and relative quiet.
Arleen and her sons are one of the families profiled by Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond in his masterful, heartbreaking book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. For his research, Desmond first moved into a trailer park on Milwaukee’s predominately white South Side, and then into a shared apartment on the predominately black North Side. He observed and interviewed people such as Scott, a nurse whose drug habit led him to lose his license and end up sharing a low-rent trailer with a disabled veteran; Lamar, an amputee and father of teenage boys who lived in a dilapidated duplex until a fire destroyed it; and Vanetta, a mother of three who dreamed of an apartment with a bathtub for her kids and a good job, for whom a judgment lapse in a desperate time instead landed her a 15-month prison sentence.