On Tuesday night, a billionaire developer who inherited millions of dollars from his father will pitch his vision for America to a town defined by deep poverty that leaves huge numbers of people rootless and hopeless.
Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Gov. John Kasich will speak to crowds at Milwaukee’s Riverside Theater a few days before Wisconsinites go to the polls. The Riverside sits in one of the wealthier neighborhoods within America’s fifth-poorest city, where 29 percent of residents are below the poverty line – roughly twice the national rate.
Trump offers voters a list of the people who ruined America: Mexicans, Muslims, feminists, and inner-city protesters driven by decades of neglect. But if America is in ruins, it’s been caused by terrible housing policy and a steady shift of power and wealth from the working class to the ownership class.
Milwaukee itself epitomizes the collision between Trump’s rhetoric and the reality of America’s economic and social unraveling, as the new book Evicted illustrates. Written by Harvard social science professor Matthew Desmond, Evicted catalogs the grinding poverty, weak and low-wage job market, and stark racial segregation that define Milwaukee. Through painstaking research and reporting, Desmond exposes the plague of chronic evictions that constantly knocks Milwaukee’s poorest back to their knees – and in the process, tears up the social fabric of the city in ways that may be irreparable.
Trading Dignity For A Roof
Desmond’s harrowing data points about the material indignities of Milwaukee poverty derive in turn from hard, ugly facts about America as a whole. Well-paying jobs fled the city to be replaced with service sector work that paid less than half as much. Those who turn to the criminal economy in order to keep the roaches out of their kids’ cereal boxes, or just to avoid eviction from their current rat hole, end up having to check a box on every job application acknowledging their criminal record and dooming their chances of getting a call back.
One in four times that an impoverished Milwaukee family moved house from 2009 to 2011, it was involuntary. Most of those forced uprootings were formal evictions, though Desmond notes that landlords who don’t want to bother with housing court and sheriff’s eviction squads sometimes tear the front door off a delinquent tenant’s home or otherwise push them out informally.
While evictions are commonplace today, Desmond writes that American communities used to rally together against them with force and verve. A New York Times article from the Depression era once described a 1,000-person anti-eviction protest crowd as small.
When they’re not evicting people, Desmond writes, Milwaukee’s slumlords encourage them to “trade their dignity and children’s health for a roof over their head.”
One in five Milwaukee renters lives with broken windows, busted appliances, or days-long rat or roach problems. One in three have had their plumbing clogged up for more than a day. One in 10 have endured a day with no heat. Kicking up a fuss about any of these problems might mean a city inspector came out and cited the landlord, but it would probably also mean being evicted and starting from scratch.
Desmond’s reporting reveals a casual brutality grinded into every corner of the low-income rental market by decades of job flight, poverty, and neglect.
An inner-city landlord named Sherrena Tarver, while at times callous, is laboring away on her own hamster wheel of incentives and constraints. A woman named Arleen moves her boys into a shelter after Sherrena evicts them, and goes through 90 different landlords with open listings just to find a single one who will take her – and days later, they toss her back out on the street again.
There’s the trailer park manager who supervises a hard-assed Illinois man’s investment in white destitution, and a woman on disability for a middle school hip fracture that was never treated. There are housing court commissioners who crank out scores of evictions every day, often awarding landlords the right to collect debts later from any flat-broke tenant who manages to turn her life around.
The landscape corrupts all who deal in it. And beyond the immediate landscape, a complex and far-flung industry extracts profit from the evictions churn by selling related services to landlords and tenants alike.
It’s a sort of cottage industry designed to extract profit from a crisis that American cities create by failing to build and maintain enough housing that their residents can actually afford. Trump’s own early career involved some real estate dealings that contributed to that shortage, focusing his resources on building luxury housing where dense, rent-controlled units previously stood.
Milwaukee Reality vs. Trump’s America
The Milwaukee documented in Evicted helps explain why the most concerted and effective protests against Trump are springing out of major cities with large, long-suffering minority populations.
The man who’s vaulted to frontrunner status by playing on longstanding GOP strategies greets those protesters with hatred and scorn. Americans who disagree with him and his supporters “are not the people who made our country great” and are in fact “destroying our country,” he said in St. Louis.
But these well-organized blocs of anti-Trump protesters, who stand for a more inclusive idea of what America is, include many people who live daily among the cycles of instability, eviction, crime, and joblessness that Desmond’s book depicts.
Such movements and interests have often met with organized violence from white people, including in Milwaukee itself. If protests meet with ugly reactions during Trump’s visit to Wisconsin, it’ll be familiar for some longtime residents.
In 1967, some 200 residents of Milwaukee’s overwhelmingly black north side marched across the Sixteenth Street Viaduct to the overwhelmingly white south side. The march kicked off weeks of protests against housing discrimination.
But when the protesters hit the south side of the bridge for the first time, a much larger crowd of angry and armed white people greeted them. They pelted the marchers with rocks and bottles and racial slurs. One history of the events labels the episode the “Selma of the North.”
The activists couldn’t manage to push housing discrimination law through on their own, unfortunately. Congress only passed the Fair Housing Act in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Tragedy-laced though it is, the episode is instructive for processing a modern moment where a racist billionaire housing developer looks set to capture the Republican Party nomination, and could potentially become the leader of a country tearing itself apart eviction by eviction, block by block, city by city.