Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The National Building Museum brings Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book—and the American housing crisis itself—to life.
To write his Pulitzer Prize-winning book on evictions, Matthew Desmond did his homework: The Princeton sociologist spent two years living in two of Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods—one a largely white trailer park, one a mostly black rooming house—embedding with the families he chronicled and following their lives as they suffered the hazards of unsafe housing and the psychological distress that flows from eviction.
To build out its exhibit on Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., spent $586 on particleboard at Home Depot. The show, which opened over the weekend, features house-shaped frames on which curators have plastered photos, infographics, and quotes from Desmond’s book.
The figure is inadvertently revealing. What the Building Museum spent to give shape to Desmond’s book is roughly the same as what one of Evicted’s subjects makes in a month. Lamar, a Milwaukee father and double-amputee who can’t collect disability, earns $628 a month; he spends 88 percent of that on his rent, before he is evicted.
“Evicted,” which opened over the weekend, goes to lengths to show the broad strokes of the eviction crisis in America. It’s filled with statistics from the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities that reveal the plight of poor families. It distills the policy analysis of Desmond’s book to three critical points: Incomes are stagnant, rents are rising, and the government is not filling the gap.
In places, the exhibit, which was curated by Sarah Leavitt, makes elegant points with simple strokes. A wall of dangling keys illustrate the disproportionate effect of evictions on black women. Gold keys show how many Milwaukee women renting their homes have faced eviction by race, which works out to 1 in 15 white women, 1 in 12 Hispanic women, and 1 in 5 black women.
Empty light sockets and coat hooks in the exhibit flick at the problem of substandard housing. Another installation comprises the sidewalk detritus that flags an eviction: mattress, lamps, chairs, dressers. Better still are the photos from evictions in Milwaukee by Michael Kienitz (which also appear on the Evicted website). To truly evoke the crisis physically, though, the show would need to go so much further: Some of the most revolting details in Evicted involve the scores of cockroaches that thrive in the sinks, drains, cabinets, and beds of the family that lives next door to Lamar.
Both of those families were evicted by the same landlord, Sherrena, who lives large off the high rents she imposes on her extraordinarily cost-burdened tenants. The Building Museum’s show doesn’t quite capture the “profit” aspect of Desmond’s book (like Sherrena’s Camaro or trips to Jamaica). One bar chart shows how 90 percent of landlords have representation in eviction cases, compared with just 10 percent of tenants. The first bar rises above a viewer’s head, while the second bar hardly meets a viewer’s ankles.
Two maps showcase the national reach of the affordable housing crisis. One uses boxes of different sizes to illustrate the number of evictions in each state for 2015 (although it would be more telling to show the per capita rates). The callouts on this map are horrifying: In Arkansas, tenants can get criminal convictions for failing to pay rent, for example; Maryland eviction cases receive an average of just a few seconds’ worth of attention in court.
Maps like these serve as a teaser for Desmond’s latest project, Eviction Lab, the first nationwide database of evictions. As Desmond will be the first to explain, a national map of known evictions is far from complete: “Informal” evictions—when landlords pay tenants to leave, threaten them with deportations, or otherwise push them out of their homes—may in fact outnumber the formal ones.
This gap in our national understanding of the affordable housing crisis is a crisis itself. It isn’t the central lesson that emerges from the exhibit, which is studiously not slick but nevertheless rich in data and tidy graphics. But it ought to be a big takeaway, thanks in large part to Desmond’s work. What we know about evictions in America is terrifying, but what we don’t know is even worse.