First, the kitchen sink stopped up. And when that happened, Doreen’s family began washing dishes in the bathtub. Then food scraps clogged the tub, too, which meant that everyone had to bathe with water boiled in the kitchen that they flushed down the toilet. Then the toilet quit working, too.
Doreen, one of the impoverished Milwaukee tenants in sociologist Matthew Desmond’s new book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,”enters an unwinnable war over the plumbing. Sherrena, her landlord, won’t fix it. A couple months go by. Doreen calls a plumber herself and deducts the cost from her rent. Then Sherrena threatens to evict her, because now she’s behind on what she owes. The two strong-willed women lock in conflict, one trying to protect her family, the other her profit margin.
The deteriorating scene in Doreen’s cramped apartment — later the pots pile up, and the roaches come, and the cooking stops, and the kids’ grades fall and the depression sets in — builds up to the central insight of Desmond’s research: Eviction isn’t just a condition of poverty; it’s a cause of it. When stable housing is elusive, everything else falls apart. Tenants preoccupied by eviction lag at work and lose their jobs. Or they have to move farther from work and lose their jobs. Or they miss the welfare appointment reminder that was mailed to an address where they no longer live, and they lose their welfare, too.