The Irish Potato Famine + Housing Justice

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

If my countryfellows (okay, not a word) know one thing about the Irish, it’s this holiday. If we know two, depending on age, it’s either how awesome The Luck of the Irish was (I’ve been told this is an unpopular opinion, but it spoke to me in some ethnic minority heritage way) or maybe Angela’s Ashes? If you know THREE things, then it’s gotta be the Potato Famine.

Now, when you first hear about the Potato Famine, it’s like, ahh that is sad, but must’ve been a natural disaster, right? Famines happen all over! (But maybe not in democracies?). Everybody starves sometimes! But if you are lucky enough to learn the first thing about the Colombian Exchange, that tale begins to unravel, just a bit. You see, potatoes are from the Americas. So how did a crop failure of them cripple Ireland? Why didn’t they just eat whatever they ate before you know, all that conquistadoring and guns, germs, and ste(a)ling?

Well, as the archconservative Mises Institue is quick to point out, they weren’t exactly dealing with a free market, or a free anything. The English ruled Ireland as they did India, or Western Africa, or, uh, 25% of the globe at their imperial height: as a colony with the primary purpose of enriching the Motherland. The English had occupied Ireland as a vassal state for centuries, viscously putting down rebellions every few generations. In 1798, they brutally suppressed another attempted revolution, this time inspired by those of the French and Americas. In retaliation, the English declared Ireland part of the British Union, taking away any parliamentary representation and increasing the level of army occupation.

But this was just the latest in a long history of English terrorizing of Ireland. In 1695, they struck back against the isle’s support for Catholic James II’s ascendency to the throne. The English outlawed Gaelic culture and language, prohibited Irish Catholics from attending school, serving as government officials or officers in the military, holding apprenticeships, voting, practicing law, buying land, or holding weapons. They also outlawed the Catholic Church and did their best to crush the Irish economy. You might not be surprised to find out that two centuries of this treatment had left Ireland a pretty sorry place, which the English were quick to attribute to a faulty national character.

In the English imagination, the Irish were a dirty, promiscuous, lazy, overly spiritual, drunken, teeming mass of Catholics (if you ever start to think racism makes sense, it’s good to consider all the prejudices people around the world have held at one time or another to see how abject and absurd they all are). So they forced them to become England’s breadbasket. “Great! An agricultural society,” you might think. ‘So little chance of famine then!” Well, let’s take a step back.

You say Potato, I say South American crop that never should have been able to lead to mass starvation

In South and Central America, the potato was a wonder food. The Incas developed over three thousand strains, each with a different nutritional makeup and suited for different growing conditions. A blight wouldn’t cause a famine in the Andes unless it mutated to include 3,000 strains, plus then took down all their other food sources. But as much as the European conquistadors learned from the Native Americans (the learning went far beyond that thing we’re told every year about Squanto helping the Pilgrims plant), they were resistant as hell against getting to the end of the “lessons,” as could be expected when the student considers the teacher a heathen and then enslaves and murders their people. And let it never be said that the Europeans followed indigenous farming advice, or even basic logic at all. No, the Spanish outlawed the cultivation of amaranth because the Aztecs would bake it into cookies and eat it ritually (okay, sometimes they had human blood in it, but the Spanish probably were just salty because they hadn’t though of being so practical about the charred remains of their Auto de Fe victims). The Spanish considered this a mockery of the communion, which, dude, these people have been doing their own thing for thousands of years without you or your god-cookies– this is not about you! So you can see how the potato learning might not have gone smoothly.

The Europeans got the message, “Hey! Plant some potatoes!” but not the part that said, “more than one variety” (because how can you hear when you’re too busy massacring the people who might have let you in on that One Weird Tip to Cut Down on Crippling Famines?) So off they went to Europe with their, uh, not that many potato types. The Irish, in particular, planted only one strain, the Lumper. And as potatoes spread through propagation, the potatoes in Ireland were technically an army of clones. Monocultures have little defense against disease or environmental change. Planting only one species, and especially only a single strain of a species means every one will have the same vulnerabilities. So all it would take was one little disease or extreme weather event and the genetically identical potatoes across the country would go down like dominoes.

The mass of Europeans, who were the historic opposites of the Gluten Free craze, at first thought this potato thing was a dumb novelty. But grain had a way of dying in the fields, from blight, climate, or pests, that the safely burrowed potato could resist. Further, the little tuber could grow great in the areas of Europe too chilly for the weaksauce known as the wheat stalk. Before the potato, southern Europe– the area warm enough for grain to grow with greater ease and reliability– held the power in the region. But with the introduction of the hearty, cold-bearing potato, the scales began to tip in the north’s favor (Game of Thrones joke about the north rising). Populations rose by so much and so quickly thanks to this reliable new food that people started to suspect it held aphrodisiac powers (cause and effect game weak, Europe). Hardy, long-lasting, highly caloric, and not half bad mashed with a bit of butter, the potato was the perfect food if you were food insecure, that is, poor. And the English had done their very best to make sure the people of Ireland were exactly that.

Land rights (or lack thereof)

Protestant Englishmen held the titles to most of the land in Ireland, inheriting it from conquerers since the 1370s. The plight of the Irish mirrored that of the serfs in Russia or soon-to-be sharecroppers in North and South America. They were without land, control over the means of production, or much by way of rights. A French sociologist said of his visit in 1835: “I have seen… the Negro in his chains, and thought… that I saw the very extreme of human wretchedness; but I did not then know the condition of unfortunate Ireland… In all countries, more or less, paupers may be discovered; but an entire nation of paupers is what was never seen until it was shown in Ireland.” (He added that, while the Native Americans were materially poor, at least they were free, whereas the Irish were not just poor but unequal, in both possessions and law, to the British.)

The English had put a stop, through law or neglect, any potential source of wealth in Ireland. They had outlawed Catholics from attending school or owning land, and kept Ireland flooded with cheap English goods so as to prevent any local industrialization. Only agriculture remained, and so rent prices skyrocketed. Equivalent land would cost 80-100 times more in Ireland than in England.

A British survey in 1835, ten years before the Famine’s outbreak, found that half of all rural Irish families lived, with up to a dozen people and their animals, in a single room mud shack without windows or chimney (how much you wanna bet they had respiratory problems?). Families would build these homes near each other to create communities called clachans, or all share a single, tiny plot. Often people lived on the same land their ancestors had owned, but in shacks rather than manors thanks to the English dispossession. The law disincentivized any fixer upper tendencies one might have, because any improvements on your dwelling became property of the landlord.

These bound laborers were in some way lucky, as they had an agreement, tenuous as it was, with the farmer and landlord to stay on the grounds. Other, roving laborers called cottiers had no such agreement with any landowners, but traveled the countryside looking for work. Farmers granted these migrant agricultural workers the right to build a small cabin and plant a small plot of potatoes in exchange for help with the harvest.

Landlords, for whom Ireland was a distasteful backwater they would sooner die than commute to, collected rent through local middlemen, who the Irish called land sharks. These agents kept subdividing plots of lands while raising prices, in a practice known either as a sick version of that math question about how many times you can fold a piece of paper in half, or rack-renting (depending on who you ask, I guess). Tenants would grow indebted though the rising rents and interest. Without leases, land sharks could evict on a whim, at which point the unlucky family would be forced to wander and beg. Many Irish slept under trees, in dug out mud pits, or in other makeshift approximations of shelter.

Little cash exchanged hands between farmhand and landlord. Landlords paid workers by granting them use of a small plot of land for their own subsistence farming, and charged their rent by deducting it from their wages. Peasants’ survivals thus depended on their ability to feed themselves from their small conacre lot, or land sublet with the express purpose of growing one crop for a single season.

The Irish peasantry quickly found in potatoes a near-perfect food for this system. Potatoes took quickly to Ireland’s climate, required less effort than grains, and were so calorically and nutritionally dense that even just an acre could feed a family of six and their animals for a year. Landlords approved, as the spud neither took up too much space from their own profitable crops, nor depleted the soil.

By the 19th century, three million of the eight million Irish were living virtually exclusively on potatoes, with the occasional cameo by milk, cabbage, fish, or salt. Men might consume as many as fourteen per day. The power of the potato was such that Irish peasants were actually healthier in some ways than English peasants, whose wheat-dependent diet lacked the nutrients of the spud. The potato didn’t eliminate Irish hunger, however. In the summer space between fall potato harvests, the Irish went hungry, begged, bought predatorily-priced British grains, or traveled to England looking for work. If they could last until fall, however, they were assured another few months of calories, nutrients, and satiety.

English reformers thought a spot of charity could be just what the Irish needed, so they set up workhouses for the truly destitute. Only complete families could enter, as to clear land entirely for the landlords of tenants unable to make rent. Upon turning oneself into a workhouse, the officials, usually ex-police or army, would interrogate you to make sure you had no other options. If you passed that test, your family would be separated into barracks for men, women, girls, and boys, and not permitted reunion except maybe Sundays at church. After separation, you were washed down, given uniforms, and held to strict rules, including silence at meals and never leaving the building. Oh, and for ten hours each day you would do purposefully pointless work, such as breaking rocks if male, or knitting, turning a wheel, picking apart old ropes for reuse, or cleaning if female. The work was there more “to set you free” than help the economy, as it was decried that the workhouses not pose any competition to business. At least you could leave, if you had anywhere to go. People did not rush to apply for spots, the same way Japanese Americans did not flood internment camps with applications, nor Europeans Jews concentration camps. Or at least they didn’t until the Famine made the workhouse the only option for those too poor to emigrate. Eventually, things got so bad (read: expensive for landlords) that financing people’s emigration became cheaper than keeping them in a workhouse. In the middle of the famine, the British government began exporting Irish to their colonies. The British sent emigration officers around the workhouses to sign up volunteers to leave. They sent about 4,000 orphaned girls to Australia, then over 15,000 to Canada when they said they’d appreciate getting a few more domestic servants. Men answered American help wanted ads in Irish newspaper, sailing to America to work long, poorly-paid days building infrastructure projects like the Erie Canal, sometimes forgoing pay in exchange for passage. Even as people poured out of the country and the workhouse, the system would continue until the semi-autonomy of the Irish Free State in 1920.

Just before the Famine, revolutionary fervor once again reached a peak, but the English crushed the movement with all the cold bloodedness you’ve come to expect from this country that in a bizarre twist would go on to become associated with dry, self-depreciating humor. Thus, even on the eve of the Famine, the Irish had all-too-recent memories and scars from what it meant to try to stand up to the English.


In 1845, a warm and damp winter created the perfectly tragic conditions for a newly imported American fungus to blacken, ferment with a sickening smell, and turn to black goo potato plants across the country. The fungus spread even faster than human disease normally does, as the genetic homogeneity between the potato clones put up no defense. The not too cold, not too hot weather that year was exactly the type the fungus needed. By the end of the year, a third of Ireland’s potatoes were lost.

Some English thought the blight was a blessing in disguise– finally, here was their opportunity for a scorched earth approach to remaking Ireland in their own industrialized, Protestant image! Others thought it was God’s divine will, a pox on the obstinate Catholics.

Fortunately, Prime Minister Peel took a more humane view, and sought to repeal the Corn Laws (corn meaning all grains). These laws imposed heavy tariffs on imported grains, thus minimizing foreign competition. Peel sought to repeal (ha) them in order to allow the UK to import much-needed emergency grain for Ireland. Unfortunately, however, the greed of England’s grain merchants and the barons who loved them won, as landowners loathe to give up their privileged place in the market struck down his effort.

Most English assumed the blight would be alleviated come next year’s harvest, and so provided only temporary measures for relief, in keeping with what they knew and did about past famines. But this was to be a different breed of disaster, wrested upon an already derelict country, and so its effects rippled out to crushing proportions. A series of unusually cold and wet winters followed the initial blight, keeping conditions just so to prevent any potatoes from successfully growing. The Famine thus continued to spread.

People lived off what they could forage: wild blackberries, twigs, cabbage leaves, or air. Food riots broke out, and the English retaliated with gunfire. Group after group combed over potato fields in the vain hopes that anything remained.

As The History Place describes, the English tried several, half-hearted, contested approaches to fighting the vast starvation. Prime Minister Peel shipped in corn from America, but it was difficult to find a way to process it in a land with little infrastructure for grinding grains, alien to the Irish, didn’t provide as many calories as potatoes had, aggravated already weakened digestive systems, and, most damningly, soon ran out. The government set up a relief office run by Charles Edward Trevelyan, an Englishman who felt his distance from the problem (he visited Ireland only once during the Famine) kept him more acute. Local relief committees were supposed to raise funds to take care of their own regions, but when uneducated farmers ran the meetings, wealthy landowners were turned off from participating.

Simultaneously, the English felt a conviction to maintain laissez faire policies, though only when it suited them. Thus the irony of protectionist tariffs for England while a timidity in stepping in to provide free or even subsidized food for the starving Irish, as that might upset grain prices and private profit.

Peel lost his position as Prime Minister thanks to backlash against his position on the Corn Laws. Trevelyan took the opportunity to go full austerity on the Irish. He promised to make “Irish property pay for Irish poverty.” He got his wish, in a way, as in the end, the English spent about seven million pounds (0.01% of their gross national product) on all of Ireland during the famine, whereas the Irish, through taxes and landlord borrowing, paid about 8.5 million. He vowed as well to not too give the Irish too many handouts for fear they become “habitually dependent” on the generosity of the English government. In other words, the English saw the Irish as lazy, promiscuous substance abusers who relied on government handouts– sound familiar? He closed the soup kitchens and sent back a ship filled with corn without allowing it to unload its cargo. The free market would work everything out.

Unsurprisingly, it did no such thing. For those who could find work, wages were low and went straight to rent. Infrastructure was lacking, so what food there was could hardly travel. Even those with money couldn’t find any food to buy. Private enterprise relied on taxes to fund public works projects, but no one was earning any money, so tax coffers lay fallow. The blight continued to spread. People continued to die. The British continued… to ship food from Ireland to England. Up to 75% of Irish land continued to produce crops for export throughout the famine, but this the British took from them, leaving the Irish to starve as they watched ships sail off with their country’s rightful bounty. When Irish people tried to seize these shipments for themselves, the British simply sent in more troops.

The British implemented pointless public works projects that neither paid enough for survival nor created anything of use (so as not to compete with private industry), just destination-less stone roads for people were too weak to travel. In most cases, the calories one could afford with the wages paid by these jobs were fewer than those you’d have to expend doing the hard labor to earn them. A clause in one of the Irish Poor Laws passed stipulated that the only people eligible for any public work were those with less than a quarter of an acre. Thus even more Irish lost their land, as they made the impossible choice between immediate food and work or a once and future home.

In 1847, the government had a change of heart and policy, and decided to “keep the people alive.” New soup kitchens gave out watery gruel that only added to the dysentery sweeping the country. Other diseases, in turn, ravaged their shares of the population.

1847 also brought an exceptionally cold winter to Europe, freezing to death thousands of the now-homeless population. Unlike in 1846, when people still tried at least to plant potatoes, no one had planted anything that year. People were too weak, families too scattered, knew landlords would simply confiscate anything that grew as back payment for rent (which they could sell at hyper-inflated prices), and had eaten even the blighted potatoes they might have used as seed. The English heaped scorn on the Irish for stupidly eating their only hope at food for the next year.

In 1848, as revolution swept across the rest of Europe, typhus swept across Ireland. Typhus attacks the blood. In its first stage, it turns its victims black, just as fungus did the potato. This stage is called Black Fever, After the first wave hits the body, it progresses to Relapsing Fever, turning the skin yellow. Appropriately, this stage is referred to as Yellow Fever. People also called it Roadside Fever, as infected people often lay down in roadside ditches, waiting to die. Scurvy, lice, and dysentery rounded out the starvation.

England knew from history that fever always followed famine, and they took precautions. Yet the Fever Laws were set to sunlight five months after passage, revoking the support before the fever had even reached its height. They were not renewed. The 28 functioning fever hospitals in all of Ireland were shrinking, as doctors died off from the infections caught from their patients. The hospitals hardly offered any help, anyway: patients slept on filthy hallway floors surrounded by other disease-riddle bodies. No accurate numbers exist from this time, but it is estimated that perhaps ten times the number of people succumed to fever than famine.

Housing + Tragedy

Much of the tragedy in Ireland was the result of predatory landowning and housing practices. Landowners and their farmers and rent-collection agents prioritized the profits of export agriculture over the survival of the tenant sharecroppers both before and during the Famine. Without any potatoes to either eat or sell, peasants could hardly afford rent. English landlords responded mercilessly, evicting anyone who could no longer pay.

Then in 1847, the English decided that for once and for all, this was Ireland’s problem, not theirs, and it was all the damn landlords’ faults. So Parliament passed the Irish Poor Law Extension Act, which placed responsibility for tenants onto whoever owned the land on which they lived. The law demanded that landlords, who had long stopped receiving reliable streams of rent, furbish 10 million pounds to aid the country’s poor. This was to be paid through a tax on each tenant whose annual rent was 4 pounds or less, with the assumption that this was a reasonable measure of how many impoverished people lived on one’s land. But this law only incentivized landlords to reconfigure the ever-shrinking plots they had rented out to try to rent them in larger, more expensive expanses, or stop hosting tenants entirely. Either way required landlords to clear their land of people. And besides, without paying tenants, paying any tax was an impossibility. Additionally, since British property law in Ireland was byzantine and eccentric, it was very difficult for most landlords to sell their properties even if they wanted to. So landlords, rather than taking this call to provide a tax of “charity “graciously, simply did their best to rid themselves of any remaining tenants.

Between 1846 and 1854, landlords evicted some 500,000 people. The famous song Skibberdeen, named after the first part of Ireland hit by the blight, highlights the role intentional, human cruelty played in the tragedy, focusing on rent and eviction rather than the wrath of God or Nature on some crops:

Oh, son, I loved my native land, with energy and pride

‘Til a blight came over on my prats, my sheep and cattle died,

The rent and taxes were so high, I could not them redeem,

And that’s the cruel reason why I left old Skibbereen.

Oh, it’s well I do remember, that bleak December day,

The landlord and the sheriff came, to drive us all away

They set my roof on fire, with their cursed English spleen

And that’s another reason why I left old Skibbereen.

Landlords would burn peasants’ shacks, as described in these lyrics, both to clear the land for new construction and to send a message about what happened to tenants who couldn’t pay. Homeless Irish roamed the countryside, burrowing into the ground; making shelter with what sticks, holes, grass, or other materials they could; dying from the elements, starvation, and disease; or trying, with desperation, to gain admittance to the now-overflowing workhouses. Some committed crimes just to get sent to the penal colonies in Australia. Whatever Australian prison was like, at least it came with a meal.

Landlords had a variety of methods to kick out families. The first was through the law. They could sue destitute tenants for back-rent, which would land the man in jail and his family on the streets. As news spread of the results of getting sued, Irish families would flee upon first sight of a summons to court. They could also simply use force to remove them from their lot. Sir William Butler, an Irishman who would go onto become a British officer in South Africa, described one eviction he witnessed as a boy in Tipperary:

“The sheriff, a strong force of police, and above all the crowbar brigade, a body composed of the lowest and most debauched ruffians, were present. At a signal from the sheriff the work began. The miserable inmates of the cabins were dragged out upon the road; the thatched roofs were torn down and the earthen walls battered in by crowbars (practice had made these scoundrels adepts in their trade); the screaming women, the half-naked children, the paralysed grandmother and the tottering grandfather were hauled out. It was a sight I have never forgotten. I was twelve years old at the time, but I think if a loaded gun had been put into my hands I would have fired into that crowd of villains as they plied their horrible trade. The winter of 1848-9 dwells in my memory as one long night of sorrow.”

A third method landlords used to clear their land was to pay to ship their tenants abroad. Knowing there would be no way for emigrants to come back and claim anything they were owed, landlords promised their tenants that they had contacts to meet them at the docks in America, Canada, or wherever, and give them a bit of money. There were no contacts or money, but thousands of Irish left just the same. What was left for them in Ireland? So they huddled, gaunt, dressed in rags, and diseased, into the tight quarters of the “coffin ships” that took them away (or not–  one ship drowned upon leaving the dock, while another suffocated all its passengers) from Ireland in droves.

Fleeing Ireland for new homes?

But wherever they went, the Irish were met with prejudice, segregation, and more predatory housing conditions. They were the first mass of poor immigrants Americans had seen. The Irish’s poverty frightened and angered the Protestant majority almost as much as their Catholicism did. They took affront to being treated as “Europe’s poorhouse.” Poor white Americans resented the Irish as competition for unskilled jobs, and freed African Americans and Irish often found themselves in fierce opposition as both groups jockeyed for the scraps left to the bottom rung of society.

Each city offered its own hardships. In New York, “runners” gouged newly arrived Irish for all their money and possessions by putting them up in unsanitary “hotels” that they changed the rate for after the fact. Landlords slapped up wooden tenements in alleys to stuff with Irish renters.

Boston landlords took old housing stock and divided it a hundredfold, turning single family homes into tiny rooms without windows, water, or ventilation to fit as many rent-payers as possible. Of course they charged the Irish a fortune for this. The Irish began building outward from these “apartments,” with shacks popping up in any spare space. The average Irish emigrant lived for only six years upon arrival in America.

The Irish tended to stick close together, staying in cities both because they lacked funds to travel much farther than where they landed, and to try to regain the tight knit communities they were used to. Yet the values and traditions of Irish culture withered in the harsh new world, and many fell victim to alcoholism, crime, and despair. With time and generations, the Irish would come to occupy an accepted and ethnically neutral place in American society. St. Patrick’s Day is now the one day a year any average American really considers who might be Irish American, and rather than try to swindle them into paying high rents or making sure they don’t apply for a job, they simply dye some beer green and take a swig.

The Quebecois originally hoped to conduct thorough health inspections of each would-be Irish immigrant. But the ships were coming in such thick droves that the doctors at the quarantine station of Grosse Île could hardly reach a fraction of them. By 1850, the harbor was filled with a line of forty Irish ships carrying 40,000 sickly Irish, all waiting to be let in for inspection. This protracted wait, however, gave the diseases more time to spread between sick and formerly healthy passengers through the tight corridors of the ships. Crews dumped corpses off deck as passenger after passenger succumbed to death so close before reaching relative safety in a new land. Some ships were emptied on a nearby island, where 5,000 died either trying to make the crawl to the hospital or in makeshift hospice shacks the Canadians set up to try and accommodate the dying hordes. A medical officer described the survivors of one coffin ship: “the few who were able to come on deck were ghastly, yellow-looking spectres, unshaven and hollow-cheeked…not more than 6 or 8 were really healthy and able to exert themselves.” Today, Grosse Île is a monument to the 5,000 Irish who lost their lives at sea and the 5,000 more who died on the isle, all in an attempt to enter Canada.

Perhaps one million Irish fled Ireland during the Famine, yet many died along the way. Those who made it and could afford to, sent money home for both domestic support and to finance others’ passage.

The End of the Famine, housing activism, and revolution

Back home, in Ireland, the Famine seemed to recess, but came back in full force with the blighted potato harvest of 1848. The English were agog that the Irish would try once more with that damn potato, but what choice did they have? The English had refused to supply any other seeds or money to purchase them. Conditions only worsened through 1849. People assassinated six landlords and ten land managers, and others greeted the news with celebratory bonfires. The British sent in even more troops.

Toward the British, the Irish attempted both (underfed, underarmed, undermanned) rebellion and supplication for help. This enraged the British, with The Times opining that “In no other country, have men talked treason until they are hoarse, and then gone about begging sympathy from their oppressors…and in none have they repeated more humble and piteous [requests for help] to those whom they have previously repaid with monstrous ingratitude.” The British seemed not to recognize that, if someone insists on standing on your head, one might alternate between biting your assailant’s ankle and begging them to switch out their cleats for slippers.

The Famine eventually came to an end in the early 1850s thanks to improved weather, but English cruelty did not. The English flooded the housing market with cheap, indebted Irish estates. The new landholders unceremoniously raised rents and evicted any Irish who somehow had managed to hold onto their homes, clearing the way for vast swathes of grazing land for cattle.

In retaliation, the Irish formed, effectively, a militant affordable housing organization: the Land League. With the League, people burned their leases (a century before Americans would burn Vietnam draft cards), physically obstructed evictions, and boycotted unfair landlords. This “Land War” grew powerful enough that England revised its policies. In 1881, the government first reduced rents, and one year later, the League negotiated the nullification of back-owed rent in exchange for a cease in Land War activities. In 1903, the Wyndham Act permitted the Catholic Irish to once again own land, and provided assistance to tenants to purchase their homes outright, albeit at prices that were overly fair to the landlords. Still, the English system of land ownership and denial, which for so many generations had deprived the Irish of the right to their homeland, had come to an end.

In 1841, before the Famine, the people of Ireland had numbered over 8 million. At the time of its close, in 1851, only 6.5 million remained. A million had emigrated, and the rest had died. Even today, the country is home to under 5 million. In comparison, the populations of England and Wales doubled from 1841 through 1901, from 16 million to 32.5 million. While countries across Europe felt the sting of the potato blight, none would be so devastated as Ireland was forced to suffer, as an occupied territory ruled by absentee, free market-obsessed imperialists. As John Mitchel, an Irish nationalist and advocate of independence wrote,”The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.”

The horror that Ireland endured from 1845 to 1851– the Great Hunger, or, in Gaelic, an Gorta Mór– weakened the nation; drained it of its citizenry; wiped much of its towns, people, and culture from its face; and traumatized the survivors. But the people would keep fighting, until a hundred years later, they would win their centuries-long battle against occupation and oppression. In 1949, the Irish were finally able to declare their own state, the Republic of Ireland.

I found The History Place’s essay on the Great Hunger an amazing resource. If this got you interested in the topic, I would recommend you read their longer, more detailed piece here!


From the people who gave you the War on Christmas… it’s the War on Cars.


Of COURSE Obama is behind this! @#%$!!!!

Okay, there is no war on cars (we might not have launched an actual Christmas offensive either). But if there were,  we won!!!!!!!!!!


Even if we’re not a real movement, we still deserve a sweet t-shirt, right?

…says this headline in New York magazine. This month, they published an excerpt of the book Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, by the former NYC transit commissioner under Bloomberg, Janette Sadik-Khan.

Sadik-Khan gives us a fascinating look at the inside of the wonkiness of transportation planning, and the surprising passion and virulence that goes into fighting change, even at the street level. It was personally illuminating for me to see the fearful, angry backlash against the bike lanes that I both used and took for granted as an excellent and advisable part of NYC when I lived there.

But Sadik-Khan describes the battle for a bike lane on Prospect Park West as the “biggest controversy of all.” This is a two-lane bike corridor that allows you to bike along Prospect Park without biking through it. I used it to get from my house, a few blocks away, to the protection of the Park’s car-free 3 mile loop. Many others use it to reach North Brooklyn or Manhattan from South Brooklyn in safety.


Public transit… or PUBLIC MENACE?!

When it was proposed and implemented in 2010, it was a site of contention, and the fight’s not over yet. The residents of the tony, park-adjacent street bitterly fought the proposed bike lanes, fearing congestion or traffic. Or perhaps their bogeyman was something left unsaid, since none of their stated nightmares came to pass and yet residents kept fighting for its removal until high opinion polls and traffic calming grew too clear and too convincing to oppose.

Five years later, Gothamist reported that last month the wealthy anti-bike lane group Seniors for Safety (membership: apparently three?) once again hauled Sadik-Khan, retired from government but not from Bloomberg, who she works for in the private sector, into court over the unwanted (by increasingly only them) bike route. And what’s more, as a nominally charitable organization (or at least as an organization with a really nice sounding name), they got represented for free– that’s right, they were a pro bono client.


Seniors for Every Last Inch of Road

As we know now,  New York would evolve from 2010 to today into a relatively bike-friendly place (pending lawsuits and the scariness of trying to bike in Manhattan besides the Hudson River Park Bikeway withholding.) Sadik-Kahn describe the change:

It became clear that we didn’t win the public debate by outwitting the opposition. The battle was won by the projects and by New Yorkers themselves. New Yorkers were way ahead of the press and the politicians. They took to changes on the street with an enthusiasm immune to the government that built them, to the advocates pushing for the changes, and to the opponents arrayed against them. They were just looking for new ways to get around and saw in the transformation of the streets the fulfillment of a long-dormant promise. Change is possible. They weren’t Lycra warriors or ideologues out for blood, and in fact there was less blood on the street than there was at the start of the process. And it wasn’t about bike lanes. It was about an idea about our streets and who they are for.

We succeeded in building as many bike lanes after the bikelash as before it. The number of riders doubled from 2007 to 2013, representing a fourfold increase measured over a decade. We launched Citi Bike in the final months of our time in office. The system is in the process of doubling in size and has surpassed 25 million rides in less than three years, part of a quadrupling in bike ridership citywide since 2000. New York now has more than 1,000 miles of bike lanes, and Bicycling magazine named us the nation’s best biking city for the first time ever.

In Seattle, the war grew so heated that The Stranger published a Das Kapital-inspired satirical manifesto declaring, that, as long as the Powers That Drive insisted that people who bike and want to stay alive until (at least) reaching their destination were starting a war, then they might as well put out some demands.

Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, a small bike advocacy organization, looked to the power of spinning more than wheels, fighting the catchy fire of ‘War on Cars” with other catchy word fire.

Here is their “say this, not that” cheatsheet for activists:

safe streets language

You can see a number of goals in this revamped vocabulary. For one, they want to make the conversation easy for people who don’t often talk about transportation to get involved and understand. To do this, they try to avoid jargon (“bioswales” are basically trees planted on the side of the road to help give rainwater a place to go besides the street but I only know this because I interned in local government) and acronyms.

They also are working to make the stakes clearer, by not referring to biking as the dismissive “alternative” transit mode, and by being more explicit about the grave consequences of car-bike interactions (“collisions” instead of “accidents”), and placing deliberate blame (“the person driving the car” instead of “the car”).

Lastly, what you see here is an effort to separate people’s identities from their current method of transportation. You can only have a war with multiple camps if you have multiple firm groups– but people are just people, who can travel by car, bike, foot, boat, airplane, subway, and any number of other transportation methods. “Bicyclist” is an identity, “biking,” a temporary action.

“When you start thinking of somebody as a ‘driver’ or somebody as a ‘cyclist’ or somebody as a ‘pedestrian’ – which is actually my least favorite – it’s easy to think of someone as part of a tribe,” Tom Fucoloro, publisher of Seattle Bike Blog, told Streetsblog. “Just because you’re riding a bike doesn’t mean you’re in epic opposition to everyone who’s driving a car.”

Somebody (okay, a transportation advocacy group) even made a film about Bikelash and what to do about it. You can maybe view it here, depending on whether it’s working. It wasn’t when I checked, but they have other videos about biking, so it’s not a useless click.

Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists, told CityLab that Bikelash, for lack of a better word, was good. After all, you’re nobody until somebody hates you, right? “It’s a high-class problem to have,” he said. “Because it means that we’re actually making a difference. It means we’re actually forcing difficult decisions in a good way, in a constructive way, on communities as they decide what they’re going to look like in the future.”

In 2016, we’re well on our way into that future. We’ve won the war, but we’re still losing soldiers people who bike to accidents collisions with cars people who drive. So if you are on Team Car someone who drives sometimes, please look out! We’re all on the same side here.



A Classic-ish Piece of Pop Culture About Affordable Housing


Apparently in the ’90s, you could get major studio backing for a musical comedy film about reclaiming empty city lots with community gardens, rent-controlled apartments marked for teardown to make room for prisons, and singing cockroaches.

Check out what Wikipedia has to say about this made-for-MTV movie:

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The Dave Chappelle link is purple because I clicked on it to make sure it was that Dave Chappelle. It is.

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Okay, what other films’ wikipedia pages include directions to “see landlord harassment”?!?!?!

Also, in case you missed it, a pair of brothers in this are named Vlad and Jesus.

Now, I have a lifelong complete terror of cockroaches, and I still endorse this movie even after watching part of it. I checked out a clip on YouTube to test it to see how things went for my stomach, its contents, my life, etc., and somehow I made it through.

So in case your curiosity is piqued and you’d like to dip your feelers into this mess, here’s a scene from the movie, a song called “Funky Towel.” In this representative clip, a group of cockroaches sing a funk song about a towel.

If you enjoy this, YouTube will be happy to suggest more scenes from this film, including a ballad about garbage, a do-si-do number featuring a cat rodeo, a Gospel song called “The Healer Touched My Feeler,” and the original short the film was based on.

Trivia Night for Affordable Housing!


I am planning a trivia competition to raise money for affordable housing organizations. I’m in the process of writing all new, all original questions, but I’d love to make things more interesting (and outside my knowledge areas) and get your suggestions for things I should ask.

I especially would love questions related to affordable housing! You can submit as many Q+A’s as you’d like– it can only give you an edge come trivia night.

Please fill out this form with a question and answer you think would be fun!


It’s Not Just Rich White Dudes Who Want Bike Lanes

When we think about bicyclists, we often picture this:

Lance Armstrong no longer contests doping chargesor this:


(No, seriously, Google assumed I meant this; check out its fourth suggestion:)

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But this image of bicyclists as well-off white men on joyrides is harmful not just for the obvious reason (that I inadvertently endangered an absurd number of Brooklyn men over the last few years by calling out “Mike!” when I mistook them all for my white, bearded, ’90s-apparel-clad biker friend).

It can also lead to some impressions that hurt public support for good biking infrastructure. For one, we might think that biking is a leisure activity, rather than crucial mode of transportation. Second, if the only people who do it have the means to make a choice about whether or not to do it depending on convenience, it seems pretty low priority. After all, if the road doesn’t have a bike lane, or is unridable in the snow, bikers can just take their cars. Why invest in and prioritize bikers if they’re a minority who just do it for fun?

The truth is, in a lot of ways, our picture of the city biker as a middle class white guy riding for fun is correct. In 1997, your average North American bike commuter was 39-year-old, male, and in a household making over $45,000. But in Northern Europe, there are no significant differences between gender or ethnicity among bikers. So what’s going on ‘States-wide?

Once you dig into the data, action, and attitudes both here and abroad, you see that it’s our rich, male, white biking culture is a case of infrastructure and social norms rather than a reflection of an actual outsized love of biking among these all these men. Let’s break down this stereotype by taking a look at what made it a reality, and what’s different in places where it isn’t.

Are all bicyclists…


Here in the US, wealthier families are more likely to own bikes, which makes it much easier to both learn how to ride one, and then go off and use it a bunch.

A 2008 government survey of almost 10,000 Americans found a direct correlation between rising incomes and increased likelihood of bike access. For those with household incomes under $15,000, 29% reported regular bike access. Being part of a household in the top income bracket– $75,000 or more– more than doubled your chances of bike access, with 65% reporting access. For households in the middle, with incomes between $30,000 – $49,000, 47% said they had access to a bike.

This sort of makes intuitive sense– with more money, you’re more likely to own more stuff– but it shows how many Americans classify bicycles as “leisure” instead of “transport.” After all, a bike is a much cheaper form of transport than a car or even a monthly bus pass, so it would make even more sense for poorer families to invest in one than for wealthy homes. And in fact, members of the poorest quartile of Americans use bikes for their commutes disproportionately more than people in each of the other three quartiles, as do new immigrants. But all this biking out of necessity rather than choice leads many people to ditch the two wheels for four as soon as they get the chance. Cars remain an aspirational status item, for reasons both practical (getting slushed less; easier commutes) and psychological (started from the bottom, now we’re getting here with a motor).

One study of attitudes toward biking and perceived barriers to it among ethnic minority residents of Portland, OR found that money in fact was a major obstacle to biking. 60% of those surveyed expressed concern over the high cost of purchasing a bicycle, and 25% cited followup maintenance fees as a further deterrent. People weren’t sure where they could go for maintenance or whether low-cost maintenance was even available. It’s not that these people all had cars– many reported not owning one– but they carpooled, and bicycles seemed an unwise and expensive investment that they weren’t confident they could fix, use, and protect from getting stolen.

Additionally, transit-adjacent or conveniently located housing often costs a premium, leaving poorer people with longer commutes on roads in bad conditions. Bikes get less useful the further you have to travel and the more potholed and dangerous the streets you have to go down.


Now, people in countries with majority non-white populations (aka most of the world) bike, so we know from right off the bat that this is going to be a US-specific thing, and likely to involve class and income.

study in Portland, OR of African American, Latin@/Hispanic, and African residents’ attitudes toward bicycling showed minority groups face a variety of biking obstacles that white cyclists might never have to worry about.

For example, every African American respondent expressed fear that drivers would be aggressive toward them if they biked. 43% of Latin@/Hispanic people said they were afraid of racial profiling by the police, and weren’t sure where to go to learn bike rules to make sure they didn’t accidentally break a law and get in trouble. People in every group said they weren’t confident that their bikes wouldn’t be stolen, since destinations like schools and even home porches didn’t seem to offer safe bike storage.

Many cultures have their own specific experiences with and associations with biking that white people would never think of. Some African American communities associate bikes with kids, 1990s drug dealers, and gentrification. Some Latin@/Hispanics told stories of friends who had been deported when police stopped them while on a bike. One Latino bicyclist reported that at a bike store, an employee responded to his question about helmets by telling him if police pulled him over they might ask for proof of legal residency. And bike outreach, such as biking events, which have been linked to increased biking among participants, doesn’t often happen in poor, minority neighborhoods, making biking inconvenient and the bike community appear uninterested in or hostile to these communities’ participation.

But changes in policy, infrastructure, and culture can change all of this. Members of ethnic minorities are the fastest growing group of bikers. The Portland study resulted in programming to give out bikes to children, teach biking skills and maintenance, organize biking groups, and work within communities to encourage biking skills, literacy, and comfort in culturally specific ways.


Here in North America, men make at least double the bike trips of women. But this isn’t because women don’t want to bike. They simply are subject to more cultural and safety hurdles than are men.

A survey of Canadian would-be bike commuters found that women stopped themselves from biking to work out of fear of their safety, difficulty carrying belongings, and the concern that they would have to fix their hair again once arriving at the office. This final deterrent shouldn’t be mistaken for frivolous vanity– there are very real differences between expectations in how women and men should dress for work and in general, and women’s clothing, shoes, and cosmetic norms make movement, and especially any that might make you break a sweat, much more difficult.

Men and women also use transportation for different purposes. For the most part, men move themselves, often to and from work, and women move others, or stuff for others.

Men travel more than women to work, at a rate of about 5 commuting trips for women’s 4. This ratio is inverted when it comes to errands. These make up 46% of all trips taken by women, compared to 38% for men. Women make 66% of driving trips with the purpose of transporting someone else, and make more trips in general: 21% more than an average man.

In Delhi, I often saw entire families commuting to work and school on the back of one motorcycle. But in the US, where car culture is dominant, and credit available enough that purchasing a car is more feasible, it makes sense that women, who make so many more trips, and lug around so many more people and items than men, would opt for cars rather than bikes, motor-powered or otherwise. Men, who take more trips alone, and for transportation of pretty much just their own bodies, have a much easier time packing everything necessary onto a single bike frame, especially since at the conclusion of their trip, they won’t even have to fix their hair. However, that coif might end up protecting you. A 2006 study by a British traffic psychologist found that while drivers tend to give bicyclists not wearing a helmet 3.3 more inches more room than those who do (perhaps from a more visceral fear of seeing brains hit pavement), they inched another 2.2 inches away from bicyclists whose helmet-free head had long hair growing out of it! Now, it seems more likely that this is about our perceptions of who needs how much protection, and less about drivers’ fear of getting blinded by locks so long they’d blow into their field of vision. It would be interesting to repeat this study with an intersectional focus on race, as studies have shown that white people tend to perceive Black people’s physical pain as less serious than the same injury in white people, or don’t even register their pain as pain at all.

But being female, even without the responsibility of children, is associated with lower biking levels. A study of transportation to school among children in Ontario showed that girls were less likely than boys to travel by walking or biking.

Safety is another major factor separating potential male and female cyclists. Some studies have shown that women judge the safety of a bike route more stringently than men, through a more risk-averse lens. What this means is that even as good bike infrastructure increases overall ridership, it has an even more dramatic effect on female riders. However, the feminist bicycling anthology Our Bodies, Our Bikes, questions the assumptions behind the idea that women are “more afraid” on bikes. The editors wrote:

Whenever a conversation turns to women’s cycling, the word ‘safety’ always comes up. But what does it mean? Not the same thing to everyone. Often, it’s about cars and the threat they pose to our vulnerable bodies on the roadway. Underlying this there’s a debate about whether or not there is a gender gap in fear… are women more risk averse, men more foolhardy? Or, as we’ve been told not-quite-in-jest, are women simply smarter? Or is it that because we are more likely to carry (or at least be the primary caretakers for) children, we are the ones with the most to lost? Or perhaps, as some studies as suggested, women are more willing to admit to fear, so we get all the credit for having it.

Whether or not women are more fearful, responsible, smart, or just honest, their actions back up the claim that they take into consideration safety before biking, as they are more likely to bike if they have access to streets with low traffic and bike lanes. But these can’t just be bike lanes going in circles on the periphery of cities: women need bike lanes that connect useful destinations, such as schools and shopping centers, so that they can actually use these routes to travel where they have to go.

Change the norms and safety around biking, and you change the gender breakdown. Over half of bicyclists in the Netherlands are women, and women make 49% of all bike trips taken in Germany. Even here, in America, the Twin Cities saw an increase in female bikers as they improved their bicycling infrastructure, and now have one of the most equal rates of biking across genders. Women want to bike. They just want to be safe and able to bring whomever and whatever they need with them.

Who Bike for Fun?

The image of the white, rich, male biker compounds the image of biking as merely a leisure activity, as this is the group most likely to use it as such. White and wealthy people are more likely to bike for fun or exercise, while poor and ethnic minority people are more likely to bike for transportation purposes, to work, school, or errands.

Where bike lanes are rare and biking in main thoroughfares is dangerous, it’s frightening to attempt to ride a bike for anything besides recreation or exercise, so only those who have no choice but to bike will do so for anything but leisure. But as infrastructure improves, the national share of bike trips taken for a purpose beyond fun rises as well. In 2001, utilitarian bike trips (those not made for sport, exercise, or fun, though they might have been all of those things as well), stood at 43%. By 2009, they reached 51%– making them over half of all bike trips taken.

Many bikers who ride for utility started out as recreational bikers. This makes sense– if you build up trust in your bike, your body, and the transportation landscape on low-stakes trips, you’re more likely to begin to view biking as a serious contender for trips when you really need to get somewhere. So if we want to increase the percentage of commuters using bikes over cars, we need to improve and increase opportunities for people to bike in fun, through parks, bike subsidies or bike-sharing programs, and a wider culture of safety and acceptance on the road.

Bikes serve an important role in transportation, reducing congestion, promoting exercise, clearing up air pollution, and enabling safe, independent travel. Ironically, the people bikes could help the most– women, children, seniors, the poor, transportation-poor, and ethnic minorities– are not seen as the face of biking, and thus aren’t fully taken into consideration when our cities and towns look for transportation and development priorities. But communities are rising up and demanding safe, convenient, and contextually appropriate biking infrastructure.

In Central Falls, RI, middle school students won a national grant for their plan to build protected bike lanes. The students wanted a way to pick up their younger siblings after school and take them to a soon-to-be-created playground in safety. Right now, they are working with planners to determine the best routes between schools and parks that they can create bike lanes in by putting up barriers between the edge of the lane and cars.

In the community of South Central, Los Angeles, Hispanic residents have fought back against been shut out of conversations about the future of their neighborhood’s urban plan. Some have taken to their council-member’s constituents office with megaphones and signs, demanding to be included in the decision-making over their environment. One major concern is a proposed overhaul of Central Avenue that doesn’t include bike lanes. Planners of the new street say it’s too narrow for bike lanes, proposing instead that bikers use alternate, side routes. Residents counter that the design for the new Central Avenue includes extra-long sidewalks, which could be cut into to make use for bicyclists, and that the city would never tell drivers to simply use another route. The larger sidewalks, coming at the expense of car lanes, are only a contingent plan that would come into effect if and when more money becomes available.

The suggestion that bicyclists simply take other roads fails to take into account the particular context of the neighborhood. Many of the small side streets in the area are gang territory, making them especially unsafe for individual bicyclists to travel through. Cyclists have been shot, robbed, and otherwise assaulted when they turn down these seemingly quiet streets. Further, people biking in South Central are riding old, rickety bikes. Putting more miles on their bikes than absolutely necessary because of out of the way routes means more frequent maintenance efforts and expenses. Many use the route to commute to work in downtown warehouses, or to make deliveries. In both cases, speed is of great importance, making detours especially harmful.

By not listening to the design constraints of the project and declining to provide bike lanes, planners aren’t changing behavior patterns so much as they are ensuring that the transportation conflicts– and dangers– continue. Bicyclists will continue to fight with pedestrians for space to bike on the sidewalks, ruining the plan’s intended pedestrian shopping oasis, or angle to gain space in the single-car lane, contributing further to congestion.





Let’s Pretend We Read Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Just Until We Get Around to Actually Reading It)

My mom recently emailed me to ask if I had heard about the book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.

“It’s the big book on a social issue for this year,” she wrote, so now at least you know I come by my social science nerdom honestly.

Now, I don’t believe white men with elite university ties should get to claim the feel bad book of the summer every damn year (shout out to Picketty). But this one by Harvard man/sociologist/ethnographer/data cruncher/Bill Nye the social science guy/MacArthur Genius grant winner/potential James Bond pick (I mean, maybe) Matthew Desmond looks well worth sacrificing your remaining optimism over, which is truly the highest praise I can give. The New York Times called it a “regal hybrid of ethnography and policy reporting,” which, just, wow. I hope all of us find someone to look at us the way the Book Review looks at this book.

As Signature Reads puts it: “Evicted is not an easy read. Desmond pulls no punches and admits in the final chapter to being depressed for years afterward.” What more could you ask for?! Library waitlist, here I come.

Now, I haven’t read this book because I am still making my way through the boatload of depressing books on the intersection of space and discrimination I ordered for myself as a late Christmas/early Trump-candidacy-induced fog of desperation present.

But I have read some articles about it. And those I will be happy to pass on to you, along with just enough salient quotes that you can sort of pass yourself off as having read this when it matters. That is, during the brief gaps in conversation between people tripping over each other to insult Trump the most damningly because of the superstitious hope that if you condemn evil enough times to people who agree with you, it will somehow go away.


From the Washington Post: How the Housing Market Exploits the Poor and Keeps Them in Poverty

“We have this conversation about inequality today, but it’s mostly about the middle class and the rich, and it’s as if the poor — their lives aren’t bound up with the rest of us. I think housing disabuses you of that. You have to understand the role the landlords are playing in shaping neighborhoods, how they potentially expand or reduce inequality, how their profits are a direct result of some tenant’s poverty. It’s hard to argue otherwise when you see it up close.”

From Signature Reads:  Eviction: An Insidious and Silent Cause of Poverty in America

One in five black women in Milwaukee has been evicted as an adult, compared with one in fifteen white women.”

Housing is not something we’ve decided as a country to universalize, to treat as a right. If families were turned away for food stamps, we’d see it as an outrage. That’s exactly what’s happening in our housing system today.” (Caveat: we, uh, are about to begin doing exactly that to families on food stamps.)

From The Atlantic: America’s Insidious Eviction Problem

“If you’re a single mom who is devoting 80 percent of your income to rent, you’re going to be behind. That allows this relationship between landlords and desperate tenants where tenants get a home, and landlords get the ability to skimp on maintenance requests, without threat of coming under scrutiny from the city. Tenants can report a situation, but it greatly increases their risk of eviction. We have to be mindful of the weakness of certain legal protections under these conditions.”

“People… in eviction court are three times more likely to get evicted if they live with kids, even after you control for how much they owed a landlord.”

“I went in with a question: Why would someone own and operate property in the inner city? And I left, after doing this data analysis, thinking: Why wouldn’t you do it? The profit margins can be quite rewarding. I think that means that if we want to fix poverty, we have to address the fact that poverty isn’t just a product of low income. It’s a product of extractive markets.”

“The book advocates for a universal voucher program, which would mean that everybody below a certain income level would receive a housing voucher. It would stabilize communities, it would allow people to plant roots, it would give people breathing room… [O]ne of the biggest things that people do after getting a voucher after years on the waiting list is they buy more food, because for the poor, the rent eats first. So a voucher program would be a massive anti-poverty initiative.”

From The New York Review of Books: Kicked Out in America!

“Evicted tells… disturbing stories in spellbinding detail in service of two main points. One is that growing numbers of low-income households pay crushing shares of their incomes for shelter—50 percent, 60 percent, 70 percent, and more—leaving inadequate sums for items as basic as medicine and food…  [the second is that] evictions aren’t just a consequence of poverty but also a cause. Evictions make kids change schools and cost adults their jobs. They undermine neighborhoods, force desperate families into worse housing, and leave lasting emotional scars. Yet they have been an afterthought, if that, in discussions of poverty.”

“It is odd that the shortage of low-income housing gets little attention, even among experts on the left. Decent affordable shelter is a primal human need, and its disappearance is one of the most troubling results of growing inequality. Housing patterns shape more visible issues like schools, jobs, and crime. What’s more, the affordability crisis, though worst at the bottom, is creeping well into the lower middle class. Perhaps the democratizing of shelter poverty will broaden public concern.”

“The struggle to pay the rent may sound like a problem the poor have always faced. It’s not. Into the 1970s, low-income housing, though often squalid, generally didn’t squeeze budgets. The wind whipped through the tar-paper shacks, but the shacks were abundant and cheap. Demolition and gentrification claimed the cheap units, and sputtering incomes swelled the number of needy renters. In 1970, the US had nearly a million more affordable units than poor households, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Two decades later, the situation had reversed: there were five million more poor households than affordable units. Housing was better but cost a lot more.

The severe recession that began in December 2007 delivered a double whammy. Foreclosures turned millions of homeowners into renters, which kept rents rising even as incomes fell. Between 2001 and 2014, real rents rose 7 percent, according to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, while renters’ incomes fell 9 percent. As a result, the number of households paying more than 30 percent of their income for shelter rose to a record 21.3 million—about one in six nationwide. And the number paying more than half their income rose even faster, to 11.4 million, from 7.5 million. Among them, 30 percent had a full-time worker.

For the poorest families, the chances of finding affordable shelter are virtually nil. But the squeeze is on higher up. Even among households earning between $30,000 and $45,000 a year—clerks, cooks, or low-level medical technicians, for example—nearly half pay more than the 30 percent the government says they can afford. Of them, 10 percent devote at least half their income to shelter. This may seem like a problem mostly confined to big cities. But places with cheaper housing generally pay lower wages, which offsets the benefits. High-cost New York City and low-cost McAllen, Texas, are two places the Harvard center identifies as especially hard to afford. To pay for what the federal government says a modest two-bedroom apartment should cost in a mid-priced state like Florida, a full-time worker has to earn $19.47 an hour. As the National Low Income Housing Coalition notes, that’s more than twice the minimum wage.

Belts can tighten only so far. A household with an income of $15,000 that pays 70 percent for shelter has about $12.50 a day left over for everything else—food, health care, clothing, furniture, transportation, and the like.”

Back to the New York Times‘ love letter: Review: In ‘Evicted,’ Home Is an Elusive Goal for America’s Poor

This cheerful vision in pixels forms an almost unbearable contrast to the filth of Ruby’s own apartment. The kitchen sink is stopped up, as is the bathtub and toilet. There are mattresses everywhere, their exposed innards revealing humming burrows of cockroaches — and the mattresses may be the least terrifying of their redoubts. They also fill the kitchen drawers and erupt from the nonworking drains.”

Well, this has all been just about the saddest thing ever. But as I like to remind myself, if people can live through this, you better not crumple at the mere thought of it. Alternatively, if you have the luxury of only getting secondhand sad about this, it’s even more your responsibility to not mourn, organize.

Here are three ways to do that:

  1. Want to give time? Desmond started Just Shelter to direct you to organizations in your community and on the federal level working on housing assistance, legal aid, tenant rights,  and education & advocacy.
  2. Want to make a fast-acting difference through a donation? If you’re really feeling the immediate itch to help, you are in luck because someone you know is raising money for affordable housing organizations across the country.
  3. Want to nerd out deeper before rolling up your sleeves? Desmond is on a book tour, so perhaps you can meet him. Or, you can just read the book. You can start with an excerpt online via the New Yorker. After all, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, author of Random Family (possibly familiar to you as the previous winner of the My Mom’s Top Pick for Serious Social Issue Book of the Year Award), called it “an extraordinary and crucial piece of work. Read it. Please, read it.”

(P.S. Note from my mother: “Should you care to throw in another award winner of mine, you could mention On The Run: Fugitive Life in An American City.“)