One day, nine cruel evictions. How supersized inequality looks in the US | Aditya Chakrabortty

No pity or sentiment in crisis–hit Milwaukee, where I saw a succession of poor, black families turfed on to the city’s freezing streets

If you want to learn something about what’s driving America’s elections, take my advice. Sit out the TV screamathons. Block your ears to all talk about the size of Donald Trump’s … fingers. Instead, try what I did last week and spend a day watching people being evicted from their homes.

I was in Milwaukee and it was freezing, but still the crew gathered at 7am, coffee and cigarettes in hand. They came fully padded: hoodies, black jackets emblazoned on the back with the motto “Service With A Grunt”. They worked for Eagle Moving, a removals firm that specialises in evicting tenants on behalf of landlords, and that morning they had nine evictions to do.

In Milwaukee an eviction looks like this: two sheriff’s deputies – gun in one holster, Taser in the other – rap on the front door. The tenant, usually behind on the rent, is served with an orange notice and granted a few minutes to get themselves ready. They also have to choose: will their belongings go into storage, or get tossed on to the kerb?

Picking the first means your goods are stowed by Eagle for a monthly fee, a fee that the now-homeless tenants often can’t afford. I was taken on a tour of the company’s HQ and shown three stories of cookers, pianos, even motorbikes – each household’s belongings stuck on a pallet and wrapped in clingfilm, forming a ghostly museum of prosaic American desires. Around half was from evictions; and half of that, it was estimated, would never be reclaimed.

Go for kerbside, on the other hand, and everything you own is stuffed into cardboard boxes and chucked on the pavement for the neighbours to see. You can come back and get it, provided passersby and the weather haven’t got to it first.

Sometimes a family has already gone, leaving a small mound of whatever they couldn’t carry. Sometimes, other things are left behind – crew members told me about turning up at an eviction two weeks before, only to find the tenant had killed himself.

During my day of evictions, each family chose to take their chances kerbside. With a cry of “Let’s get rocking!” the five men set to work. They decant the entire contents of a two-bed flat in just over an hour. First a television went past, then an apparently new mattress, a small collection of trainers, a glass-topped table, dismantled furniture, cans of beef ravioli, family-sized jars of grape jelly and peanut butter, clothes, school homework, a Scrabble board, a Christmas stocking and some Frozen film memorabilia: all this and more neatly lined up on the pavement.

The mother of the family being chucked out gathered what she could, while avoiding the eyes of everyone else. Then it was on to the next job, and the next, and the next. The routine didn’t allow time for sadness or sympathy.

From all this, let me draw just two observations that will shape how I see this year’s elections. The first is socio-economic: nearly a decade on from the start of the subprime meltdown, big swaths of America are still deep in housing crisis.

I came to Milwaukee to interview Matthew Desmond, the author of a new, groundbreaking study of evictions in the city and across America. The records show that 40 formal evictions of the kind I witnessed happen in Milwaukee every day. But landlords have other ways of turfing out tenants, from bunging them a couple of hundred dollars to scram, to cutting the electricity. Desmond calculates that one in eight of all renters in the city were forced out of their homes between 2009 and 2011 alone. This is shockingly high, but Desmond’s preliminary work on other big cities, such as Chicago and New York, suggests they match Milwaukee for residential turbulence.

One reason for this is the lack of affordable housing – also partly the legacy of the subprime crisis. In Milwaukee, they now talk about “zombie homes”: properties that are now worth so much less than the value of their mortgage that the owners and the lenders have abandoned them – to be stripped of their fixtures and fittings, their copper and their porcelain by others. They are thus uninhabitable.

Two presidential terms ago, Barack Obama swept to power on the hope that he would put right the deep failings exposed by the subprime crisis. He barely tried. Covering Obama’s re-election in 2012, I visited Stockton in California: here was a city that had gone from mortgage meltdown to municipal bankruptcy – and yet it, and other victims of the 2007-08 collapse, had been cut out of the political conversation. Mitt Romney and the Republicans were certainly not going to speak up for these newly dispossessed, and they were an inconvenience to Obama in his hurry to declare mission accomplished. The result is that places such as Kansas City, Milwaukee and Cleveland remain stuck in subprime’s shadow.

The second big thing that struck me on the eviction trail was a visual pattern. The two deputies were white. The moving company was owned by three brothers, also white. The landlords, coming along to change the locks, were invariably white. But the neighbourhoods we were stopping in were overwhelmingly black. The families being evicted were all black. And the crew tossing out their stuff were nearly all black or Latino.

Strip out the abstractions and academese and this is what inequality looks like in the raw. In a city like Milwaukee the divide is especially stark because it ties in with racial segregation. Milwaukee is regularly ranked among the most segregated cities in the US in terms of race and poverty, more than Atlanta, Chicago or Detroit. What that creates politically is what the local newspaper recently described as the “most polarised place in swing-state America”. The city is heavily black and Latino and often poor – and Democrat. Its suburbs and exurbs are thoroughly white and usually affluent – and Republican. The two areas don’t mix, they don’t talk, and they certainly don’t see eye to eye, viewing each other with suspicion.

The economic historian Marc Levine thinks there are a lot more areas almost as badly polarised: he reels off Buffalo, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh as examples. This, I think, is the trail that leads from evictions to the age of Donald Trump: supersized inequality that creates an unbridgeable social and political gulf.

Leave elections aside and what this combination of a housing crisis and deep inequality does is trash lives and hopes. The person I’ll remember from my eviction day is a young black man, who couldn’t have been more than 21. He watched the crew box up the books and clothes, listened to the landlord slag off his mother with the same air of polite incomprehension as if it were an algebra lesson. He did temp jobs, and hoped to be paid tomorrow so that he could hire a U-haul truck and collect what was left on the curb.

On hearing I was a journalist, he exclaimed: “Oh! You write poetry?” Well, I said, I don’t think my editor would call it that. But he was already off. “I write poems. People are always surprised when I tell them that.” He enthused for a minute about Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Look, he was telling me: I am more than this. As we drove away, I saw him and his mother walk away from their belongings, trying to work out where they were going to sleep that night.

On the morning I left Milwaukee, the snow was piled up on the sidewalks. It was the kind of gusting cold that chases you indoors after a few minutes. The men at Eagle had more evictions lined up for the day: two foreclosures, six rentals. Minus 8C outside, and eight households to be turfed on to the street.

• Aditya Chakrabortty’s interview with Matthew Desmond will be published in the Guardian’s Review section on Saturday


Aditya Chakrabortty

The GuardianTramp

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