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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.“)