Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Review: Evicted

"Evicted" (Matthew Desmond) is one of those books that I will be thinking about for a long time. The book documents the numerous evictions that eight families endured in the poorer sections of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The book describes the landlords who hold the fate of these families in their hands. The book details the toll of these evictions. The narrative was dizzying, sympathetic and exasperating but ultimately illuminating.  Matt's dispassionate third-person prose renders difficult scenes for what they are: someone's reality.

The book is liberally sprinkled with footnotes, some quite lengthy. Mr. Desmond reveals further details in these footnotes. These end pages document the meticulous research he conducted in order to cite terrible statistics. For example: 1 in 5 of all renting families in the country spends half of its income on housing. Also: Between 2009 and 2011, more than 1 in 8 Milwaukee renters experienced a forced move. The idea of a rational choices goes out the door when your rent only leaves you with $80 the rest of the month.

The book moved me by reminding me of something that I know I took for granted: a person can go far in life if their home is secure and stable. If the home is not secure or not stable, a tremendous amount of energy is wasted getting into a new home, or suffering without. Some of the people in the book find themselves moving every few months, because landlords have a low tolerance for missed rent or police activity at their properties. In between each move, renters have to find their next place, store their belongings, and maintain their jobs. Things can get desperate quickly.

Many will decry some of the renters' behavior: spending your monthly food stamp allowance on a single meal of lobster tails, falling off a hard-fought sobriety because of boredom, willfully neglecting repairs to "get back" at a landlord, stealing electricity, etc. But "humans act brutally under brutal conditions." And the conditions are brutal. "The first rule of evictions," says a sheriff charged with policing evictions: "Never open the fridge." One family managed a malfunctioning toilet by placing soiled tissues in a plastic bag to be tossed with the trash.

The book prescribes a way out: allow the housing voucher program to expand. "What we need most is a housing program for the unlucky majority-the millions of poor families struggling unassisted in the private market-that promotes the values most of us support; security, fairness, and equal opportunity." Expanding the voucher program seems straightforward, despite its cost. His case is very persuasive however, and the evidence seems to back him up.

Mr. Desmond doesn't reveal himself until the very end, in a short chapter describing his project. He describes his work as an ethnography. It's "what you do when you try to understand people by allowing their lives to mold your own as fully and genuinely as possible." His detachment allows us to see for ourselves what a sorry state the whole private housing market can get to. This is one of the great problems in the United States, and Mr. Desmond's book is a highly accessible study that will help all of us understand it better.

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