“The most effective way to assert, or reassert, ownership of land was to force people from it,” writes Matthew Desmond in his book Evicted. This line feels like it could be from a book written about the Trail of Tears, about any number of American atrocities toward indigenous populations of the Americas, or about European colonialization. But the line is about modern evictions from rental properties across the Untied States.
I don’t think the idea of connecting modern evictions with our nation’s history of forcing Native Americans from their land was intentional in Desmond’s book, but I think it is an interesting and insightful angle through which we can view evictions and the American housing crisis. People need reasonable and safe places to live. Research has demonstrated how important the places where you live and grow up can be for your life outcomes. Our troubling history of taking land from Native Americans shows that we have always known this and it reinforces the lessons that current research is presenting. Additionally, the abandonment of native populations and the economic challenges that tribes across the country face today show how long lasting dislocation from property and housing can be.
American public housing projects have often not gone well. Providing housing via market mechanisms is generally much preferred to government provided housing, but for those on the lowest end of the socioeconomic scale, this option often become exploitative, exclusionary, unhealthy, and dangerous. Poor people often have to live in slums that can do more to set them back than help them find a way to get ahead. And when they can’t get ahead, they face eviction, with the powerful landowners forcing them from the lousy housing they were at one point able to attain.
The power dynamics of renters and owners is important to acknowledge. Landlords can evict tenants, and low income tenants quickly realize that a landlord can make their life difficult if they speak out about the slum conditions they live in. The people living on the land have to deal with terrible conditions, and risk being forced from the land if they speak up. Just as Native Americans had to accept the terms of the powerful American Government, tenants have to accept the terms of land-owners, no matter how unreasonable they may be.
I recognize that land owners have rights. I also recognize how terrible renters can be and how terrible they may treat the property of the land owner (I currently live in a house that was once a rental and we are still dealing with the costs of careless renters and neglect). However, my efforts to connect Desmond’s writing with the way Native American’s were treated is a deliberate attempt to show that a power imbalance can be more harmful for renters than landlords. I don’t have a great solution, but I think it is important that we recognize the opportunities for exploitation that arise for our nation’s lowest SES members in a market system of providing low-income housing. It is also important that we recognize the great harms that exercising power and forcing people from land can have, as demonstrated through the darkest moments of our nation’s past. We should do all we can to avoid leaving another bitter legacy of power and eviction in our wake.