by William H. Benson
May 5, 2016
In 1890, a young Danish immigrant named Jacob Riis published his book, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York. He began his introduction, “Long ago it was said that ‘One half of the world does not know how the other half lives.’ That was true then. It did not know because it did not care.” Riis went where few other investigative reporters would dare to go.
He visited the Italian ghettoes, Chinatown, the Jewish sweat shops, the Bohemian slums, and the black neighborhoods. In each, the tenements’ owners told their agents to “’Collect the rent in advance, or, failing, eject the occupants.” The landlords showed very little sympathy for their renters.
This year, Matthew Desmond, a Harvard sociologist, published his book, Eviction: Poverty and Profit in the American City, a similar study to Jacob Riis’s. In May of 2008, Desmond rented a mobile home in the College Mobile Home Park in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and there he witnessed the results that high rents exact upon its very low-income residents.
“Families have watched their incomes stagnate, or even fall, while their housing costs have soared,” he writes. “Today, the majority of poor renting families in America spend over half of their income on housing,” and some pay as much as 70%. Because of that high percentage paid towards rent, he says, “Fewer and fewer families can afford a roof over their head.”
If renters pay the rent, there is little left over to pay the other essentials: gas or electricity, groceries, shoes and shirts for their kids, or gas for a car, or needed repairs on their home. The Irish proverb says it best, “Rent for the landlord or food for the children.”
Desmond observes that this load often falls upon young working women with kids. “If a young woman does not have a boyfriend or husband to help pay the rent, gas, and electricity, then she will work two jobs.” For example, she might work a morning shift cleaning houses, and a night shift waiting tables, just to pay the landlord.
For them the threat of eviction lies just around the corner. Desmond writes, “Black women make up only 9% of Milwaukee’s population, but 30% of its evicted tenants.” Here Desmond makes his case. “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”
In 2008, the landlord Tobin Charney owned the mobile home park and most of its 131 trailers, and he charged an average of $550 per month. When he collected the rent, he would knock on the trailer’s door until it opened, and then he would stick out a hand and say, “Pay me the rent,” or “You got something for me?” Those tenants who fell behind, he worked with, but not for long.
Desmond writes, “Not everyone living in a distressed neighborhood is associated with gang members, parole officers, employers, social workers, or pastors. But nearly all have a landlord.”
A forced move humiliates its victim. Once, when an eviction crew arrived, a woman said, “All these strangers, these sweaty men, piling your things outside.” Desmond observed her reaction. “It was the face of a mother who climbs out of a cellar to find the tornado has leveled the house.” Without the rent money for another home that night, an evicted mother knows that she and her kids are now homeless.
If a renter receives an eviction notice, she or he will, more often than not, refuse to show up at a housing court to argue their case. “Ninety percent of landlords are represented by attorneys, but 90% of tenants are not.” Also, an eviction reduces a renter’s chances of finding another home, because landlords insist that all applicants reveal their felony convictions and evictions for the past two years.
An eviction leads to depression. The hopelessness overwhelms even the strongest, but for a single mother with children, the consequences destroy their will power, flatten their chances to escape deep poverty, and linger for decades. Often they turn to alcohol or drugs.
In his book’s final pages, Desmond offers a solution, a government voucher program to reduce a renter’s percentage of housing costs to no more than 30% of a renter’s income. Today, the high cost of housing in some cities, such as in Denver, have skyrocketed. College students now pay $1000 per month for a modest two-bedroom basement apartment. A voucher may help those who work, but how would it help the poor college student without income?
Matthew Desmond and Jacob Riis write of the age-old battle between landlords and their renters, the other half. Most people win at the battle. They pay their rent when it is due, but for others, they lose, because of poor choices or circumstances beyond their control. They fall behind and cannot catch up. Those who survive do so by their wits and ingenuity. Being poor is not for the faint of heart.
Sunday is Mother’s Day, a day when we remember our mother who fed us and paid the landlord.