The blurb on the cover by Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks reads: ‘A masterpiece. Beautiful, harrowing and deeply human’. You may remember that Rebecca Skloot immersed herself in the story of how a poor black woman, daughter of tobacco farmer, contracted a virulent cancer that killed her, but her cells were taken without her or her family’s knowledge and literally spawned a billion-dollar industry while those left behind, her ancestors, remained in poverty. Rebecca Skloot is therefore qualified to speak about injustice, poverty and how poor black women’s lives, and that of their children, are routinely ripped apart in the US housing debacle, another billion dollar industry. Rebecca Skloot could not, however, step inside the life of Henrietta Lacks and narrate in the first person. Although certain situation are contrived as the author has reconstructed what happened, the prose are Sontag-like and the drama equal to Dominique Lapierre’s (1985) novel City of Joy. But fiction can never shock in the way that factual does. This is Milwaukee, a typical American city, and Matthew Desmond follows the lives of the poor black community trying to make rent and live another day between May 2008 and December 2009. But let’s not kid ourselves things have got better since then.
Two registers in which public discussion of housing poverty take place i) indifference ii) fear it will become contagious. This feeds into anger and the blame game orchestrated by conservative politicians. We see it this side of the Atlantic with every programme that shows how real people supposedly live and have in their title ‘Benefit’. Who benefits is never asked.
Rent payments typically take up 60%-70% of Belinda client’s income. Belinda also take a cut, $37 a month for her services, and she has 230 clients, as she helps manage the poorest of the poor’s money. The majority of the poor spend over 50% of their income on rent. Millions are evicted every year. In Milwaukee, with just over 100 000 rental units, landlords annually evict 16 000 adults and children. Many of Belinda’s clients have little left over for utilities and food. ‘Rent eats first,’ is the way Desmond phrases it and the way those on streets live it. In 2010 The New York Times reported 1 in 50 Americans lived in a household whose income consisted only of Food Stamps. Arleen is not on Belinda’s list. She can manage her own money, but she can’t manage rent. She has three children and her daughter has two children. Arleen is one of the lucky ones, because of her chronic depression she gets government help. $20.65 a day. $7536 a year. The welfare cheque is not enough to live own. The US government’s own statistics show that time and time again. Welfare payments, frozen since 1997. Rent and utilities soar. The problem doesn’t lie with the system, the problem lies with the person. That’s what they’re told. Arleen, her daughter and her grandchildren all choose to be poor, choose to live in poverty. They do stupid things, like buy face cream, instead of putting the money aside and saving for a new and better future. Arleen has given up hope of applying for housing assistance. Landlords, like Shareen, love housing assistance, because it can be paid directly to them, and her clients would only have to pay around 30% of their income to her. And not the 60% -70% that most pay. Or in Arleen’s case she has promised the whole of her next cheque. $675 in the hope that Shareen will not evict her. Shareen is astute. She takes the cheque for back rent and still evicts Arleen. There’s millions of reasons of evicting a family. Toss a coin. Heads, landlords like Shareen or Tobin, who runs a trailer park, win. Tails, tenants lose. That’s the way the system works. Seventy-five percent of families do not live in public housing and do not qualify for housing vouchers. In places like Washington DC the waiting list for public housing is closed and those on the list can expect to wait several decades to get a house.
There’s more money in misery that in affluence. Renters pay for the property. They act as caretakers and when a sink gets blocked or a bath blocked or report bugs running along the walls they can report it to their landlord, to be told it’s their fault and receive an eviction notice, or they can live with it. They might even, for example, get a plumber out and fix it, but that costs money and adds to the landlord’s assets. Even if they do nothing, property prices keep rising and they pay for the landlord’s future. For a price, Shareen, for example, offers to tutor her tenants in money matters and help them buy their rented units off her. The money she makes from the sale means she can afford two more units. It’s win-win for her. Even when she has to leave the casino where she’s gambling with $50 chips because one of her units is burning down, and one of her client’s children dies, the insurance payment allows her to buy more units. Make more money from another’s misery. Shareen and her partner Quentin are black, like their client pool. They know how the world works. When there is money in the house, their units, they are there with hand out, first in line to be paid. No second chances. That’s for mugs. Don’t let anyone screw you. Screw everyone for as much as you can get. That’s only fair. The comparison with drug dealers getting their money makes them smile. That’s the way the booming housing market works. Landlords lord it over everyone. There’s an eviction epidemic. A lucrative business more likely to be passed from father to son than most.
Children don’t protect mothers from eviction. They are far more likely to lead to eviction. And having children makes it far more difficult to rent. And if one of the unwritten rules of rent kingdom is you don’t call your landlord to complain about anything in your unit breaking down –such as a toilet- then the other is don’t call the police. Arleen was asked to leave a unit because her son had an asthma attack and she phoned for an ambulance, which came with the fire brigade. No police presence. That’s a big no-no. Police bring trouble to landlords. They can call in social services. They can and will call for units to be inspected for violations of the housing code.
In Joseph Heller’s novel, Catch 22, Yossarian tried to get himself grounded because only a crazy man would fly any more missions that would kill him, but only those sane enough to know that could not claim they were insane and had to continue flying sorties. Desmond cites a case of Catch 22, when poor black women living in rental units have the option of being murdered by their boyfriend or ex-boyfriend, or phoning the police and being evicted. Policing in Milwaukee also means policing landlords. Those that fail to comply with dealing with nuisance tenants that contact the police are likely to be fined or face criminal prosecution. Again and again Desmond shows the police bureaucracy default position is the tenant should be evicted. That is the only ‘approved’ option. So when the Milwaukee Chief of Police when trying to explain a spike in the number of young black females killed and says he can’t explain it as they’re only a phone call away, he’s playing the part of Doc Daneeka in Catch 22. Only this isn’t fiction. Real life kills you. No one cares. It’s only poor black people that are dying.
Evicted would be familiar to many living in London and the suburbs. To those living in Scotland, with one in four children living in poverty, poverty and profit, is something someone else worries about. Matthew Desmond complicates things too much when he’s looking for solutions. Simplify. Build more houses. Stop taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich. Take money from the rich and give it to the poor. But we all know how difficult that is. No mainstream political party dares. The American tragedy has a face and it’s that of Donald Trump. And on this side of the Atlantic we have a Trumptian clone, Boris Johnson, and the Prime Minister in waiting, George Osborne. Their solutions are our problems. We have hawked all our public assets and our future to shysters and there seem nothing we can do about it.