Academic journal article Michigan Law Review

An Invisible Crisis in Plain Sight: The Emergence of the "Eviction Economy," Its Causes, and the Possibilities for Reform in Legal Regulation and Education

Academic journal article Michigan Law Review

An Invisible Crisis in Plain Sight: The Emergence of the "Eviction Economy," Its Causes, and the Possibilities for Reform in Legal Regulation and Education

Article excerpt

AN INVISIBLE CRISIS IN PLAIN SIGHT: THE EMERGENCE OF THE "EVICTION ECONOMY," ITS CAUSES, AND THE POSSIBILITIES FOR REFORM IN LEGAL REGULATION AND EDUCATION Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. By Matthew Desmond. New York: Crown Publishers. 2016. Pp. xi, 341. $28.

INTRODUCTION

In Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond1 explores the lives of landlords who evict and tenants who are evicted in poor neighborhoods of Milwaukee. While the book could be understood as simply an ethnography of a handful of landlords and their low-income tenants in one mid-sized American city, it is much more. Evicted, read in conjunction with Desmond's prior scholarship, illustrates the emergence of what I call an "Eviction Economy" in our cities-an economy in which eviction of the poor is not exceptional, but rather the norm, part of landlords' business models and poor people's way of life. The greatest achievement of Evicted is that it makes this Eviction Economy, and the terrible human and societal toll it takes, visible to a broad audience. However, as much as it provides a compelling descriptive account of the Eviction Economy, Evicted is not fully persuasive in its explanation of the rise of the Eviction Economy. In particular, Desmond's argument that the Eviction Economy is caused by landlords' charging exploitative rents is conceptually and empirically problematic. As a response to the Eviction Economy, Desmond primarily calls for a robust universal voucher program, which would indeed address the lack of supply of affordable housing. But the political feasibility of such a program is questionable. Evicted does not address less sweeping reforms that could be both politically feasible and effective in limiting the scope and harmful effects of the Eviction Economy.

Part I of this Review summarizes Evicted and discusses what makes it such a remarkable achievement. Part II addresses the question of why the Eviction Economy has arisen and the problems in Desmond's causal explanation. Part III addresses Desmond's universal voucher reform proposal and outlines three reforms that Desmond does not explicitly advocate but that might be both politically feasible and effective in empowering low-income tenants.

I. MAKING THE EVICTION ECONOMY VISIBLE

Foreclosure-and not eviction-has been the housing crisis that has dominated public discourse in recent years. When the housing market and the accompanying securitization market collapsed beginning in 2007, everyone took note. The waves of foreclosures that resulted from the dramatic drop in home values drew the attention of national and local media, courts and lawyers, legal scholars and (to an extent) legislatures.2 At a minimum, the foreclosure crisis was visible to everyone.

And yet, as Evicted teaches us, there is another phenomenon in the housing market worthy of the label "crisis" that (to date) has attracted almost no attention from media, courts, lawyers, legal scholars, or legislatures. Unlike the foreclosure crisis, the crisis Desmond describes, using both survey research and an ethnographic account, involves low-income, urban individuals who lose possession of their rental premises, rather than losing possession of homes they owned in fee simple.3 These low-income tenants are disproportionately African American women with children (p. 98). And unlike the foreclosure crisis, the crisis Desmond describes does not seem to be a transitory or transitional phenomenon but rather a new, permanent part of the urban economy. While there was always reason to think the foreclosure crisis would abate as prices stabilized and lenders adopted stricter underwriting, nothing in Evicted suggests that the eviction crisis will necessarily diminish in due course.

The part of the housing economy Desmond describes, which I call the Eviction Economy (Desmond does not use that label), is a private market economy: the tenants in the Eviction Economy do not live in public housing and have not been able to access housing subsidies in the form of Section 8 vouchers, for which there are very long waiting lists in most areas (pp. …

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